08/02/2005 - 21:00

Canal call poses quite a conundrum

08/02/2005 - 21:00


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Having bemoaned the lack of vision in our politicians, I can hardly complain about Colin Barnett springing the Kimberley canal project on us.

Having bemoaned the lack of vision in our politicians, I can hardly complain about Colin Barnett springing the Kimberley canal project on us.

With two and half weeks of electioneering to go, the jury is out on whether the public will be captivated by his imagination or if concerns about the project will sink the Liberals.

Whatever the case, after a week to dwell on Mr Barnett’s announcement I have come to the conclusion that, politically, it was a good decision that has wrestled back electoral momentum for the Liberals just as it was swinging the way of the Labor Government.

It will now be up to Labor to shoot Mr Barnett down on his past record on major developments – a tough proposition given they have had four years to achieve that and the mud does not appear to have stuck.

In addition, they themselves are testing the feasibility of the canal project, so they can hardly argue the numbers don’t stack up. Perhaps they should have done this earlier rather than leaving such a decision to languish – but that’s been a problem for four years, hasn’t it.

Politics aside, though, there is a very serious element to this.

Should we be committing ourselves to such a project and then can we afford it? The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

On the first issue, is it the right thing to do?

That very much depends on your personal view of Western Australia and its place in the world.

For some, WA is just fine how it is. Nice stable growth, a few issues regarding water that are manageable for the foreseeable future with a bit of restraint from the existing population and, in some ways, a natural cap on growth that could change WA from the quiet place it is, perfectly set up to raise a family.

For those who like the state as it is, a canal – affordable or not – threatens the future by not only making Perth’s growth more likely, but also reduces the escape options because so many other places from the south to the north would be able to spread and grow. Growth, for many, is a dirty word.

Perhaps Sydney is a good example. Many of those who enjoyed the nation’s defacto capital during the 1950s and 1960s have fled the harbour town they loved so much.

While they have been enriched by Sydney’s growth, the resulting population explosion has changed the city forever.

Those with a conservationist bent worry about how the redirection of so much water would affect the Kimberley, as well as the environments of the places it goes through, offering a source of growth for populations, industry and intensive agriculture.

This school of thought is concerned about the long-term impact of attempting to over-ride nature.

The flip side of those who crave stability are those to whom most of these things appeal. The opportunity associated with opening up untapped land is appealing to many – it’s like a potential new frontier with all the riches that come with that. The environmental risks, for those in this growth camp, are low compared with the opportunity to put this state on the map.

A lot of Western Australians get excited by what this State could do to maximise the benefits that come from the huge resources we already have.

Now to the important question of whether we can afford it.

Even the most bullish of supporters will want to know the answer to this. While I can’t answer this question, I do think that Mr Barnett’s proposal actually leaves the Government to provide more answers than the Opposition.

One is, can we afford not to do it? None of us believed for a minute that a desalination plant was a long-term option, and it was only ever a stop-gap measure for Perth rather than an opportunity to take the state forward. Over time it may well prove more costly than a canal, even if the initial outlay is much less.

Another question is, does it matter what it costs? What if it was $4 billion?

Everyone acknowledges we have a water problem we need to solve. If this works and it’s a real, long-term solution, the associated economic growth could potentially pay for the original capital works.

I hesitate there, because I don’t want my children drowning in a water-based debt legacy that we left them.

But it’s worth remembering that the Labor Government was prepared to spend more than $1 billion building a rail line that we won’t need for at least 20 years.


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