18 April 2010

Traffic snarl fuels fears over exploding population

The accident itself and its comical aftermath was merely the latest demonstration by the NSW government that it would be flat out organising a chook raffle, with the hated Roads and Traffic Authority playing the starring role. The political consequences are discussed by my colleague Imre Salusinszky on the facing page.

Late Monday morning and well out of peak hour, two trucks collided on the F3, the busy northern freeway which connects Sydney to the Central Coast. No one died, but one of the truck drivers had to be taken to hospital by helicopter, and there were concerns for public safety as one of the trucks was carrying fuel.

It took the RTA almost five hours to decide that the fuel needed to be siphoned from the truck. But when another tanker arrived at 4pm to decant the fuel it had the wrong pump. Almost two hours later another tanker arrived with the right pump.

At 8pm and with traffic banked up right along the Pacific Highway the RTA decided to put in place a “contraflow” system and divert cars to other roads.

By this stage this normally picturesque coastal byway looked like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s film The Road. People had abandoned their cars and started to walk home, others had fallen asleep behind the wheel, kiddies were vomiting through dehydration, although happily there was no cannibalism.

These are the kind of events that, quite rightly, send the public into a lather. And while the rage was directed towards the RTA and state government, with Premier Kristina Keneally and Roads Minister David Campbell setting some kind of record for saying how angry they were at the whole debacle, despite bearing ultimate responsibility, there was an interesting footnote to the public debate which went to a much bigger policy challenge.

On both commercial and ABC talkback radio and across the news websites, many people closed their remarks on the F3 fiasco by musing as to how bad things will get when Australia has a population of 36 million.

The organic inner-city take on Tuesday’s gridlock is that it shows our love affair with the motor car. This of course is nonsense: people don’t have a love affair with their car, they simply need their car, because if you have a job, a partner with a job, a kid at school, another one in childcare, and so on, there is absolutely no alternative at all, even with the world’s best public transport system, to having a car.

Our rate of car ownership is not going to decrease but our population is going to increase. In an often gridlocked city such as Sydney, and in other rapidly growing parts of the nation such as southeast Queensland and outer Melbourne, people are already spending several hours a day stuck on ring roads that don’t go anywhere, often paying for the privilege to do so. Even in a relatively sleepy town such as Adelaide motorists are now complaining that it often takes a full 20 minutes to get across the city’s square mile.

It is a massive quality-of-life issue that puts families under pressure, keeps parents from spending quality time with their kids, and leaves many people tetchy and miserable.

This week the Australian National University released one of the most substantial surveys to date on public sentiment on population. Asked the question “Do you believe Australia needs more people?” an emphatic 69 per cent of the 3124 respondents said no.

I would doubt very much that two-thirds of Australians answered the question thus because they have visions of Birmingham-style ghettos of unassimilated Islamic migrants popping up all over our land, or a quaint old Hansonesque belief that all those Asian smarties are going to head down here and pinch our jobs.

Rather, the question is: where the hell are we going to put this extra 14 million people? How many extra cars will that put on our roads? And what will the implications be for hospitals and schools at a time when state governments already seem flat out servicing our existing population?

As Bob Carr argued on the website Crikey last month, the population debate in Australia is not really about multiculturalism. It is about infrastructure, services and the environment.

“The debate is not about immigration and its benefits. We all believe in them; Australia is a migrant nation. The debate is not about multiculturalism and it’s not about the source of migrants.

“The debate is about whether immigration should be running at very high levels. It’s about whether we end up with a population of 36 million in 2050 in contrast to the previous expectation of 28.5 million.”

Kevin Rudd made a good choice in appointing Tony Burke as the nation’s first Population Minister. Aside from being a competent performer, Burke is also a long-standing resident of Sydney’s southern suburbs and would have spent much of his life stuck in traffic, be it a Comcar or otherwise, yearning to get home.

As someone who lives in Sydney’s south Burke has often done the drive home from Canberra on a Friday night, where it’s not uncommon for the final city-based peak-hour leg of the trip to take longer than the journey out of Canberra past Goulburn.

Broadsheet newspapers such as The Australian and veteran columnists such as Paul Kelly have argued at length and with force about the need for bipartisanship on immigration and the value of importing skilled people to bolster our job market.

But from here on in, with Australia now effectively committed to a 36 million target, it’s the coverage of events such as the F3 debacle in the popular press that should be seen not simply as stories about infrastructure failure, but serious subliminal attacks on the presumption that such a population target can be easily reached.


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