Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 13:42 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 13:42 | SYDNEY

Infrastructure: The Beijing way?


Sam Roggeveen


3 August 2010 16:41

I sympathise with Mark Thirlwell's frustration. It's weird that an urgently needed debate about Australia's infrastructure woes has been diverted into a discussion about migration.

But Australians shouldn't be too hard on themselves. To illustrate why, here's an exchange on last weekend's ABC Radio National Saturday Extra program between Professor Niall Ferguson and host Geraldine Doogue:

Ferguson: I keep asking myself, what would (China) do if (Australia) was an autonomous region or a province, and I think the first thing they would do would be massive investment in infrastructure, which for some reason Australians seem incapable of doing for themselves.

Doogue: Like fast trains.

Ferguson: Yea.

Two things bother me about this. First, Ferguson cautioned earlier in the interview that he did not want to play the 'instant expert' on matters Australian, yet this confident claim that Australia is incapable of making big infrastructure investments is surely wrong. We can debate the merits of the National Broadband Network, but it's hard to argue that it qualifies as a 'massive investment in infrastructure'.

Second, the assumption that the Chinese have got it all worked out when it comes to infrastructure seems complacent and altogether too complimentary toward China's rulers. The Beijing model looks very attractive just now, but taking a longer view, what makes us think that Beijing's authoritarian approach to economic development is superior to ours? Aren't we entitled to slightly more self-confidence than that?

Lastly, on the specific issue of high-speed rail, I've just discovered this rather excellent blog about Australian urban planning. The pros and cons of HSR in the Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney corridor are laid out here, here and here. The case is far less watertight than rail enthusiasts (like me) might think, and it does make you wonder whether China debated the issue openly before making its huge leap into HSR.

Photo by Flickr user STATIC6, used under a Creative Commons license.