12/10/2011 - 10:57

Island escape leaves plenty to ponder

12/10/2011 - 10:57


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Idyll or ideal? Is Rottnest our past or the present?

IT is something of a tradition for my family to visit Rottnest Island for a holiday at this time of year, and the break always inspires fodder for my writing.

Often the state of the island itself or its services conspire to prompt a critique. The best holiday inspiration for writing was in 2008, a week when the markets collapsed extraordinarily and Commonwealth Bank bought Bankwest at a fire-sale price.

That week three years ago, I shared drinks on more than one Rotto villa balcony with some of Perth’s leading business players, none of whom chose to return to the office to view the chaos in the belief that there was little they could do to stop the global carnage.

This year my thoughts at the island – eight glorious days – turned in a different direction. Is Perth’s premier holiday destination an example of a world we have left behind or, more alarmingly, a metaphor for where we are heading?

Just in case I haven’t made myself clear, I am a big fan of Rottnest. I love the direct commune with nature, the simplicity of the accommodation, the egalitarian dress code, the lack of hustle and bustle, and the near absence of almost any pretence of modernity, especially cars.

These all make a holiday what it is meant to be – a safe and relaxing period to rest and rejuvenate.

Of course it’s easy to think we’d love to live our lives in holiday mode … so refreshing. But eight days is not a work year and, beyond restoring a bit of balance in our lives, holidays are generally not a productive state to be in.

And thank goodness, because the idyll of our fantasy island would quickly be ruined if we had to work amid the constraints that Rottnest Island creates.

Imagine working or running a business from the island with its ferry service, poor television and mobile reception, pricey goods and services, many staff who seem to be on holidays themselves, limited retail, and accommodation that’s pretty much the same apart from the view.  

Again, it is easy to think that this is just the way Rotto is. Partly left behind and, also in part, deliberately held back by the nostalgic among us as the mainland modernised. 

Don’t get me wrong. I recognise that things have improved – there are now microwaves and flywires – and I do understand that many of the services on the island simply can’t be improved unless there is more money to be made. Long-term resistance to having upmarket accommodation means the big spenders stay away, or simply have nothing to spend on, which means they can’t subsidise the rest of us.

Then again, think of each of those specific examples above and you can’t help wondering if they are not some form of metaphor for Australia today, one that has been constantly reinforced by poor decision making – or a lack of decisions.  

Limited but expensive transport options, a lack of communications infrastructure, expensive by global standards, inflexible industrial relations, monopoly service providers and a one-size-fits-all approach to most things. It would be easy to see that in national terms rather than just an island off Perth. 

Add idyllic holiday destination focused on nature, beaches, great weather with remote isolation from a 24-7 world ... and it might just sound like it does to an overseas visitor before they arrive and encounter the reality of Qantas strikes, a monopoly telco (soon to be monopoly broadband), a high Aussie dollar, nine-to-five workers and limited retail options.

Many of these issues are created by our nation’s lack of population, just as they are on Rottnest.

Our 20 million people struggle to sustain more than two airlines, two telcos and two major supermarkets. Visit a regional area and you are only likely to encounter one of each of these.

That is what Australians whinge about the most. Somehow we want the government to ensure competitive services where a simple lack of demand dictates otherwise. That just costs too much.

I can’t complain about the ferry service I got to Rotto.  What would be the point? The last guys went broke; at least this company is surviving.

But just as efforts to restrict even modest upmarket development on Rottnest have hurt the island’s ability to service everyone, so too do Australia’s policies constantly hold us back from achieving the best we can with what we’ve got.

Industrial relations practices that let baggage workers hold the whole country to ransom; telecommunications policy that is about to repeat the mistakes made 15 years ago when Telstra was privatised; industry awards that make it too difficult to employ staff when businesses actually need them; immigration policies that keep skilled people overseas in times of high demand … do I need to go on?

One way of looking at Rottnest in comparison with mainland Australia is the power bill the island pays. According to the Rottnest Island Authority’s annual report, it costs 47 cents per kilowatt hour for 5.6 million kilowatts (which I presume means the consumption of 5.6 million kilowatt hours during the year).

It compares this price to the retail mainland price of 22 cents/kWh, although I strongly suspect the island ought to be comparing with market rates paid by similar sized industrial power users.

Nevertheless, it goes on to say 28 per cent of the energy consumed is supplied by a 600kW wind turbine (which, due mainly to wind availability, averages about one third its operational capacity over the year), saving $539,000 that would have been spent on diesel if the power had been generated that way. If I have got my sums right, that means if the island was powered by diesel it would have cost 34 cents per kilowatt hour.

In reality, that means the cost of energy (without taking into account the additional 1,100 tonnes of greenhouse gas released if just diesel is used) is about $730,000 more to the island, or nearly 40 per cent more than the most viable but still expensive option available to it, being diesel. 

This is not an example of the island being behind the mainland, it has actually got ahead of the rest of Australia in terms of adopting renewable energy and paying the price for it. And that’s what worries me; it might be the future I am seeing at Rottnest, not the past. 

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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