08/04/2009 - 22:00

Great leaps forward require grand plans

08/04/2009 - 22:00


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In the first of a four-part series Mark Pownall looks at the role of ‘big-project vision’ in our state’s development and introduces the first of four visionary proposals for WA.

Great leaps forward require grand plans

WESTERN Australia's modern history is built on vision.

The English Crown saw a strategic opportunity in claiming the western part of the continent, initially attracting free settlers to new lands.

The colony's engineer, CY O'Connor, famously designed and built the Goldfields pipeline to provide water to the burgeoning population of the interior where much of the region's new wealth was being generated. The scale of the pipeline vision should not be underestimated - the up-front cost was eight times the colony's annual income and the steel order was the biggest ever made at the time.

Explorer-turned-politician Sir John Forrest backed the work of Mr O'Connor and led WA into the federation, ensuring that a strong upper house was created to protect the long-term interests of the smaller states.

Not long after that, influential newspaper proprietor Sir Winthrop Hackett left a £425,000 legacy to the University of WA, which has underwritten the institution's success to this day.

In more recent times, there has been the development of the north-west as a mining precinct, helped by entrepreneurs such as Lang Hancock and Peter Wright, and later shaped by the political leadership of Sir Charles Court.

The Ord River Scheme required vision of a similar scale. Taking decades to bear fruit, the damming of the Ord River is now seen as an important development tool for the vast riches of the Kimberley and the rest of the northern half of the state.

In more recent times, the Burke Labor government, with particular input from Mal Bryce, established Technology Park in Bentley.

Other entrepreneurs have also contributed to WA: Len Buckeridge's desire to build affordable housing has resulted in the country's biggest housing construction empire; John Rothwell has established the biggest fast ferry manufacturer in the world; Andrew Forrest has sold his dream of becoming an iron ore major; and the list goes on.

Of course, not all vision works.

As opposition leader, Colin Barnett chose the 2005 state election campaign to announce his, ultimately doomed, plans for a canal from the Kimberley to Perth to supply water.

Even ousted premier Alan Carpenter attempted to paint himself as a man of vision with cultural projects, since put on the back burner by the new government.

Nevertheless, Western Australians seem to like big ideas and tend to back the visionaries behind them.

In this time of turmoil, when governments are caught between economic slowdown and the need to be seen to be taking charge, perhaps a good dose of vision is what is needed.

That is especially the case when billions are being spent in handouts rather than on potential state- or nation-building projects.

That is why WA Business News has chosen to highlight four visions for WA over the next four weeks.

The four concepts are vastly different in their goals, progress and acceptance. They are in unrelated fields of endeavour and are geographically diverse in their impact. There may be other worthy candidates, but these four had one special quality about them - by accident or design they had become associated with an individual driver.

The first of the four, published in the article on pages 14-15, is businessman Ken Perry's vision for a major metropolis in the north-west he dubs 'Pilbara City'.

While Mr Perry is a reluctant standard-bearer for this concept, and others have vaguely considered this idea in the past, he is the one to whom the business community pointed when asked by WA Business News for visionary leaders. In a simple four-page document, Mr Perry has articulated a vision that perhaps, among the four, is the hardest to achieve due to the enormity of the job.

Another proposal WA Business News will highlight is that of Lynda Dorrington. Many people have bemoaned Perth as 'Dullsville', but Ms Dorrington has devised a pathway and built a structure to take the city out of its cultural malaise. Suffering the effects of the economic slowdown, her vision is threatened, hopefully only by delay.

While many see her work as Perth-centric, Ms Dorrington has championed cultural causes throughout the state and achieved noteworthy successes. But there is so much more to do.

Lyle Palmer is possibly the most low-key of the people we have chosen to highlight.

Through good fortune and good management, and possibly its isolation, WA has developed a world-class medical research sector. Professor Palmer wants to add a new and exciting layer to that, a move that would benefit all Western Australians.

He wants to take the example of the world-class Busselton Health Study - initiated 43 years ago by Kevin Cullen to become one of the longest running epidemiological studies in the world - and apply it across the state.

Professor Palmer has already succeeded in establishing the basis for a major new trial, covering 80,000 people in Joondalup, a move he considers an important step in a bigger objective that would not only make WA an attractive place for health research, but also help keep WA healthcare at the cutting edge.

Our final visionary is also our most controversial. Peter Coyne is an engineer who believes he has solutions to two of our greatest problems - farmland salinity and fresh water for the populated south. Mr Coyne's proposal to create drains to lower the Wheatbelt's watertable and remove saline water to drive hydropower is breathtaking. It has also been attacked for being impossible, environmentally insensitive or simply too costly. If it worked, though, it would have monumental impact on the state.

In developing this scheme, Mr Coyne stumbled across another major idea - desalinating Wellington Dam - a proposal that he says would save the state nearly $1 billion and be a far more efficient outcome than trying to process the ocean into drinking water.

With Mr Coyne and the others, WA Business News is not judging or acting as a booster for their proposals. This series of articles is designed to stimulate discussion on ideas that have merit and, either individually or in combination, may be able to take WA to another level.



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