30/06/2011 - 00:00

Strategic planning needed for Pilbara

30/06/2011 - 00:00


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Should the military be used to stimulate development in the north-west?

Strategic planning needed for Pilbara

TWO years ago we introduced the business sector to the concept of the ‘Pilbara City’, a grand idea for a major population centre of up to 1 million people, which would both assist and benefit the extraction of the nation’s wealth.

That concept – which had been floating about in a few business people’s heads – has become state government policy, albeit writ small as Pilbara Cities, notably the tarting up of existing towns, preparation for modest population growth and a bit of focus on diversification.

It is underwhelming as far as visions go, but safe policy nonetheless.

At the same time as outlining the grand vision of the Pilbara City, we raised the notion of the defence forces being used as part of the stimulus for that development.

Again, this idea was floating about in business circles before we latched onto it.

The big vision is to establish a significant military presence in the Pilbara, putting boots on the ground, a major naval presence and beefed-up airfields.

Demographer Bernard Salt is one who has articulated this concept in some detail and we have reported his strong views in this regard.

The twin benefit of this concept is both defensive and economic. Australia has a big investment in this part of the world and yet it has almost no military presence.

An army base, for instance, would signal that we take these assets seriously, but it would also be more than a statement. It would be an investment because defence personnel would swell the population, diversify the local economy and, most importantly, underwrite the vision for north-western Australia – that it has a future beyond mining.

This is, by the way, the opposite of what happened in WWII when Australia, threatened from the north by then-rampant Japan, actually drew a line from Brisbane to Adelaide and made that the fall-back position to defend.

There are several planets aligning to aid and assist this vision of significant military development in the Pilbara.

Currently, our chief ally the US is reviewing its ‘posture’ in the Asian region with the view that it may need to spread its presence away from two key bases – Okinawa and Guam.

Australia is well placed to host one or more smaller but still significant base or bases. The Pilbara, close to key shipping lanes, is a strategic location in many ways. This also lies in the Indian Ocean where much of the US’s current military focus is – from the Middle East to Somalia.

Australia is also conducting its own so-called force posture review examining our military options.

So, in the past week, we have seen action around the concept of protecting the north. Perth-based Defence Minister Stephen Smith suggested that more warships and aircraft could be based in northern Australia where many of our assets lie closest to potential threats.

Again, this policy response is underwhelming. It is hardly the nation-building vision that we’ve talked about in this paper. But, like Pilbara Cities versus the Pilbara City, at least it’s something.

And let’s not forget the challenges that come with attempting to use the military as an economic force.

Firstly, it is expensive and lumpy because an army base, for instance, requires a significant number of people to populate it from the start. That is because armies tend to congregate in certain unit sizes, such as brigades.

That probably means a few thousand troops stationed in a place like Port Hedland or Karratha, with their families in tow.

The army really struggles with this. It is already hamstrung with relatively low wages and tight cost restraints; locating people in the Pilbara won’t exactly fit the images in the brochure, especially for families who want all the mod cons of the civilisation they are protecting – like good schools, top hospitals and great cultural amenities.

As we know, the Pilbara lacks a lot of that infrastructure; that’s why mining company employees prefer fly-in, fly-out.

The army is finding it difficult to keep its personnel stationed in Darwin due to its isolation, and the Northern Territory capital is like a bustling metropolis compared to any place in the Pilbara.

Furthermore, the army isn’t stupid. Front-line troops are just a small part of any unit. In the background there are managers (commanders), logistics experts, caterers, mechanics and engineers – people who are expert at keeping a heavily mechanised, material-hungry operation running despite any manner of challenges and difficulties presented by the enemy or terrain.

Those skills sound like the list that most recruiters in town have been given by the Pilbara’s miners. As we all know, the resources companies are prepared to pay big bucks to get the staff they need. Imagine their delight if the army laid on a smorgasbord of that type of talent right on their doorstep.

That would make the army an economic victim, rather than an economic driver.

It seems to me that such an idea should be outlined now, but the implementation should not occur till the worst of the demand from the boom in construction is over and there is economic room to accommodate a real base in the region.

Rooftop waste

I RECENTLY talked up the Productivity Commission’s report on climate change policies as a reasonably refreshing bit of objective reporting compared to other advisers the federal government has employed.

Having written several times on the cost of rooftop solar I thought I had to quote the commission on this great waste of taxpayers’ money.

“A key finding from the analysis is that subsidising the installation of small-scale solar PV (photovoltaic) systems significantly increases the average implicit abatement subsidy and hence the resource costs of abatement,” the report stated.

“The implicit abatement subsidy for the programs that subsidise solar PV (the small-scale component of the Renewable Energy Target and the state and territory Feed-In Tariffs) was estimated to be in the range of $A431/tonne CO2–$A1043/t CO2.

“If these policies did not exist, it is likely that there would have been much less small-scale solar PV installed, and the electricity sector average implicit subsidy would have been around 25-30 per cent lower ($A31–73/t CO2 rather than $A44–99/t CO2). Furthermore, because the state and territory FITs overlapped completely with the RET in 2010, they did not lead to any additional abatement, and only added to the total financial costs of meeting the target.

“In fact, due to a peculiar effect of the RET scheme in 2010, the FITs could have actually led to higher emissions than if there had been no FIT schemes.”

Here’s the pointy end of feel-good policies chosen to win voters over rather than their ability to achieve an outcome.

How can anyone on any side of the debate back a scheme that could actually lead to higher emissions than what we would have had otherwise?

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au


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