The jobs of yesterday: Abbott's roads rear-vision

As suburbs become more densely populated, more roads from the Infrastructure PM will not lead to greater jobs, resilience or suitability to a changing climate.

The weeks are few and far between when there isn’t news of job cuts, be it primarily manufacturing, services or research. A few hundred here, a couple thousand there, a revamp (with a subtle job loss undertone) for the rest.

And our brave Prime Minister stresses with his Canadian counterpart that job and economic growth are his primary focus. He wants to be the “Infrastructure PM” after all, and if we would all just chip in for his fuel tax, he would open the doors to a plethora of roles in road construction.

There is just one problem with this logic. Just because they’re fruit, it doesn’t mean an apple and an orange are the same. Just because he talks of jobs, it doesn’t mean an out-of-work postie, ex-Holden worker or researcher will be suitable fodder for his new roads projects.

I know firsthand that my high quality experience in laboratory work leaves me “over-qualified” for industry labs that would allow me to support my family to a similar fashion as I my current roles have. I know this because I’ve had many doors closed to me. When one door opens, often many others close. The fact that I’ve written critical political commentary has also slammed a few doors in my face.

Moreover, the jobs of the supposed Infrastructure PM are out of step not only with the movement with the rest of the world – which is heading towards a low carbon economy – but more damningly, against the needs of Australia over the coming century.

Sub-dividing the ‘Aussie Dream’

For a while now, I’ve mused over a potential project which aims to reinvent the 'Australian dream'. Some readers might feel a scoff building in the back of their throats, but before you let it fly, just think about this; is the Australian dream of the 20th century even obtainable today?

I live close enough to the sprawling landscape of eastern Melbourne. I often see the concrete façade applied liberally on the miserable attempt of this dream. Take the Princes Highway passed Pakenham to see a monotonous ocean of black-tiled rooves.

It’s worse than a failed dream, it’s depressing.

Taking one of these suburbs as my dataset for the pilot study I started to develop, I collected data on the City of Casey. I learned that this area is expecting a 60 per cent increase in population over the next two decades alone. Obviously the land will not grow, so we can only expect more people in the same space.

Are roads the solution? Will they become nothing more than the new Arterial “parkway” for our grandchildren on their way to and from work?

We need a radical rethink of the Australian urban landscape and the way forward cannot be simply new roads.

A climate of investment

Abbott is missing the boat through his aversion to climate change mitigation and adaption. The foundations he wants to construct will baffle future generations who will be forced to knock them down for what will become necessary.

If he wants a strong workforce, he needs to invest, not cut back, on the jobs needed tomorrow. By all means change the funding to the education system to suit the pennies in the public purse, but spend it where it’s needed; subsidise schooling to support the industries that will make future Australia more robust. This will include science (R&D, medical, agricultural, environmental, hydrology, etc) and engineering to name a couple.

If he wants an economy that is the envy of the world, he shouldn’t listen to Hockey who is wrong to bet on emulating Hong Kong where they have a phenomenon called the “working poor” (and despite Hockey’s claims to the contrary, Hong Kong is now resorting to financial support). Rather pick one like Germany which remains strong while other EU members struggle.

To achieve this, again we would need to invest in the same areas mentioned above. We also need to shift from flogging off our wealth of primary resources towards selling premium goods to the world – goods that suit an efficient, low-carbon future.

This is the kind of thing that would lower the cost of living on, say, energy, meaning that Aussies would have lower financial burdens.

A highway to nowhere

The fossil toting attitudes of both the Australian and Canadian PMs might make for excellent bosom-buddies, but both are elected heads of democratic countries. Ultimately, both are accountable to their public.

I, for one, don’t see roads as a hugely important investment. I can’t fault his logic, however; more roads, more cars, more fuel, more tax. The difference is that I take it a couple steps further; more carbon emissions, more climate change and more time wasted away from my friends and family stuck in gridlock.

No one is talking about it, but Australia is desperate for a vision; something to reflect the goals, struggles and shifting morals of the 21st century. What our current generation of leaders give us is a lot of nothing new. Perhaps that explains the general malaise from the average voter.

What the Infrastructure PM offers us is a fortified wall which he hopes will buffer us from the future he doesn’t understand. This wall is built from as much brick veneer as that which oozes over our sprawling landscape. It is just as cheap and will crumble just as quickly.

He will build us roads, but they will not lead us to greater jobs, resilience or suitability to Australia’s changing climate. The only place his roads will lead us to is to the next petrol station with ever rising petrol prices as a “thank you”.

Tim Lubcke blogs at New Anthropocene.

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