Election years are a wonderful time for Big Ideas. You may, or may not, recall the marvellously named Multifunction Polis.
It was January 1987, and the Hawke government was heading for an election against John Howard's opposition in July. Australia's industry minister, the much-loved John Button, had a meeting with Japan's trade minister in Canberra, and they needed to come up with something - anything - to announce.
A Big Idea was hatched. Why, the world was heading towards the 21st century. A vision with a suitably futuristic name was required.
The Multifunction Polis was born. Or, more correctly, stillborn. Searching for a definition, bureaucrats cobbled together the muddiest of explanations: a "cosmopolis to become a forum for international exchange in the region and a model for new industries and new lifestyles looking ahead to the 21st century".
No one quite knew what it meant. The Japanese had a bit of an idea, according to xenophobic fault-finders. It would be on the Queensland Gold Coast. All that sun, all that surf. There would be an initial population of 100,000 or so. A holiday village for Japanese nerds and their families, critics bitched.
Other states became enthused. Melbourne wanted the Multifunction Polis for Docklands. To the mirth of much of Australia, Adelaide won the bidding. The Multifunction Polis - its function still a mystery to many - would be built on what naysayers sneered was swampland in northern Adelaide.
The Japanese government tried to maintain an appearance of enthusiasm. A Japanese press release, these days immortalised on Wikipedia, declared the Multifunction Polis would be "a place of providing, gathering, and reproducing information of diverse aspects, strata, and form, as well as relaxation, comfort, surprise, joy, entertainment and intellectual stimulation".
Never happened. The whole plan, having cost Australia $150 million, was put out of its misery in the late 1990s.
It was a textbook example of how to botch an idea that might have been a worthwhile stage in Australia's evolution. Though of course, we will never know.
By then, anyway, Australia, having discovered the nascent internet, was on its way to becoming a multifunction nation.
Prime minister Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard ramped up plans for something called a national broadband network as the 2010 election approached. Here was a really Big Idea - the cyber superhighway; data hurtling everywhere at blinding speeds.
It remains to be seen whether it will happen, even though it is being rolled out. Politics has got in the way. Naturally.
Tony Abbott, the self-confessed "non-tech-head", has made it his business to demonise the cost, the timescale and the Rolls-Royce nature of fibre directly to most homes. He has left Malcolm Turnbull, who once made a fortune out of one of Australia's first email systems, and thus knows a bit about the benefits of high-speed internet connections, to rescue something out of his party's mess with a stock-standard Holden Commodore fibre-to-the-node proposal that will require householders who want to be connected to those blinding speeds to option up at their own expense. The internet speed from the "nodes" seems likely to be obsolete before the system is complete.
We have, in short, become not very good at seeing through Big Ideas.
The latest version of the Big Idea dressed up for an election year is the study released this week into a high-speed train from Melbourne to Brisbane. Almost everyone is enthusiastic, but even the government isn't prepared to declare it a policy. Too expensive, too far into the future. It will simply dangle there, a tantalising pre-election dream.
Three-year political cycles are part of the difficulty. An anxious government with an eye to the next election or, worse, on the way out, can't guarantee delivery of long-term visions and is often panicked into offering half-baked plans; an opposition hoping it's on the way in is regularly intent on dismantling the dreams or the achievements of the government of the day by fair means or foul.
Consider Labor's home insulation scheme, otherwise known as the "pink batts" project.
It was, without doubt, poorly administered and led to the deaths of several installers and a number of house fires.
But in its rush to excoriate the government, critics and the opposition exaggerated and plain falsified what had occurred. Pink batts themselves never killed anyone. In fact, pink batts are non-combustible and are capable of dramatically improving the thermal qualities of homes and reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
But the efforts of Tony Abbott and his colleagues to damn the entire scheme in order to inflict maximum damage on the government has meant the home insulation project and its benefits to the community have disappeared from the public agenda.
In January this year, Abbott - addressing the National Press Club - was at it again. The government's record, he declared, was five wasted years. His very first example of such wastage was "pink batts that caught fire in people's roofs". It was a distortion delivered without consideration for a worthwhile industry for the sole purpose of finally demolishing, in an election year, what wasn't his Big Idea.
Oppositions, of course, work hard at coming up with their own, often undeliverable, Big Ideas.
Witness the Abbott opposition's current thought bubble about shifting population and production to northern Australia. Even Robert Menzies, who had the great fortune to last more than 16 years in government and actually saw through extremely Big Ideas such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme, couldn't quite pull off such a transfer of gravity through the Ord River Scheme. It might yet happen, though more likely through something organic such as climate change than an opposition working paper.
Australia's federation isn't much help. When something as basic as the management of the nation's only great river system is the subject of disagreements without apparent end between the Commonwealth and the states through which the water flows, it's apparent the nation has a structural problem.
Big Ideas need not just money and considered planning, but time and a willingness among policymakers both current and future to see them through.
Regrettably, there is regularly a shortage of all these elements ... particularly in election years.
What's the Big Idea this time around?
Election years are a wonderful time for Big Ideas.
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