As usual, Monty Python got it right: always look on the bright side of life.

The global credit crisis has its upside, and it isn’t only the schadenfreude of being able to smile smugly at the economic rationalists over our lattes and chardonnays, and say to them: “We always told you so.”

Of course, overall the American-triggered melt-down is bad news for all of us, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. Most Australians will experience a drop in their standard of living (or at least a slowdown in the rate of improvement) and governments will not escape unscathed either: the feds are already predicting a $3 billion fall in revenue due to a decline in capital gains tax alone, and there will be plenty more (or less) where that came from.

But hard times mean hard remedies, and quite suddenly the Treasury gnomes have gone all Keynesian. The bonuses from the boom years, those not squandered on election bribes and pork barrelling during the Howard years, have previously been locked away in budget surpluses and other untouchable nest eggs like the futures fund. Now, to stimulate the economy and help maintain business and consumer confidence, they are to be released in a welter of public spending in the long-neglected area of infrastructure.

The Rudd government has always had big ambitions for infrastructure, but has felt itself constrained by economic rectitude and the need to fight inflation. Suddenly the rules have changed: public spending is good, and we shall all benefit as a result. There are problems, of course: big projects by definition need time to get moving, and we are starting more or less from scratch. True, when Rudd called the Premiers together in Perth last week to discuss possibilities he was knocked down in the rush; there is no shortage of ideas for spending a lazy billion or two. But there must be just the hint of a suspicion that not all the states’ ideas are good ones.

The opposition Treasury spokesperson Julie Bishop has already warned solemnly that the influx of funds must only be used for economically viable projects: it should not be diverted to solving political problems. Well yes, and she should know; Bishop was after all a member of the Howard government which among other things built the monumentally unprofitable Alice Springs to Darwin railway to win a few swinging seats and spent uncounted billions over the years in propping up its marginals.

But we can be sure Rudd is not talking about building race tracks for country towns or sports ovals in suburbia. His vision will be wider than that, and in one sense the times will suit him: the onset of climate change cries out for big ideas. It is time for massive solar arrays in the deserts, for wind farms and geo-thermal installations. It is time for massive works to save the Murray-Darling and investment in re-cycling to avert water crises in the cities.

And it is time, above all, to restore the rail networks and substantially reduce our dependence on gas-guzzling private transport, especially for freight. The truckies argue that they are the cheaper option, because they don’t depend on the massive capital investment of rail; they just use the existing roads, so require no public subsidy. But this is not true. It’s the trucks that make the existing roads so expensive. Heavy vehicles do some 96 per cent of the damage. If the roads were just for cars, the construction cost would be far less and the maintenance cost minimal.

The taxpayers subsidise the trucking industry to at least the same extent they would rail, and receive none of the benefits. The dominance of road transport has much more to do with the political clout of the trucking industry than with any kind of efficiency. What a country like Australia needs is something like the Canadian model: an integrated system where trains do all the long hauls and containers can be moved directly from bogies to prime movers for local delivery. If Rudd is serious about real infrastructure reform, there’s a beauty to start on.

The political and economic circumstances have suddenly emerged: the collapse of 2008 could be the start of the real public boom we have needed for so long. All it takes is will and imagination. Go Kevin.


Is the term “intellectual conservative” yet another Australian oxymoron? After reading the verdicts of our local experts on the American vice-presidential debate you’d have to wonder.

In ideological terms, of course, they are staunch Republicans, which is their democratic right. But to make the jump that simply because Sarah Palin is conservative, she is entirely suited to become heir-apparent to the most powerful job in the world needs some justification.

Our pundits, of course, agree that Palin did not lose last week’s debate. The excitable Janet Albrechtsen even maintains that she won. But their grounds for the judgment are entirely negative. Palin didn’t make any major screw-ups. She didn’t confuse Australia with Austria or, still worse, Alaska with Nebraska. She stuck to the script and did not fall off the stage. What a triumph.

But she did nothing at all to dispel the idea that she is utterly ignorant of science, history, geography, government, almost everything else outside Alaskan primary school level. She may be or may not be inherently bright; she certainly shows signs of political rat cunning. But she happily admits to knowing nothing much about anything and in some important matters — evolution and climate change – is determined to keep it that way. She openly despises knowledge and has very little of it.

Is this really the quality such luminaries as Albrechtsen, Gerard Henderson, Greg Sheridan and their admirers want in the President of the United States of America? Well, maybe; after all they have all backed George Bush. Conservatives they certainly are. Intellectuals? Well, d’oh.

Peter Fray

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