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Monday, February 18, 2008

Of floods, potholes, and infrastructure

For the story that goes with the picture above, click here.
The Big Wet continues in North Queensland as the flooding moves north. Mackay is mopping up from its biggest wet. I have posted on the Don River and associated flooding in Bowen. Now Townsville is having its problems. Miss Eagle is a banana-bender. She lives in Victoria now - but cannot yet say that she is a Victorian. Most of her life has been spent in North Queensland. Before coming to Melbourne and Upper Gully, Miss E lived at Bluewater only 15 minutes away from where the flooding, pictured below, has occurred.

But there is one thing that bugs Miss Eagle - and that is the fact that there is not a flood-free four-lane highway in North Queensland from Sarina to Mossman. When I visit Brisbane I see all the money that is spent just to keep pace with congestion. In North Queensland, however, the necessary road spending is not a matter of congestion. It is a matter of being able to move around in The Wet. Of being able to keep industry going, of being able to transport people needing medical attention.

When Miss E was a whipper-snapper in North Queensland and went on the annual road-trip to the Brisbane rellies for Christmas, January was not quite the same if one was not stuck beside a flooded creek or river on the way home. That has been more or less in the past as high level bridges have been constructed. However, all that bridge-building has still left the north with flood-prone pot-holed "highways", some quite narrow and curvaceous and dangerous. This is not a wishlist. This is a demand for necessary infrastructure.

It is high time that governments of every hue and classification - local, state, territory, federal - woke up to themselves on infrastructure spending. We have talked a lot of garbage for over two decades now about how Australia believes in a level playing field and does not subsidise business and agriculture. However, just as a lack of investment in the family home means it goes to rack and ruin and loses its value in the market-place, so does lack of investment in our nation. Investment in infrastructure such as road and rail provides jobs for the community, necessary business inputs, lifelines to health, education, and economic access. In short, investment in infrastructure is an economic subsidy which benefits the whole community - not just vested interest.

If we are to remain a truly cohesive and equitable nation, then investment in infrastructure is necessary. We have apologised to Aboriginal people this week and talked about health and education and employment inputs. But one of the most vital things you can do for Aboriginal communities is to provide them with all-weather road access. Without good road access, Aboriginal communities cannot begin to build any form of local economy. Without good road access, it is difficult for them to access services the rest of us take for granted. Without good road access, it is difficult for Aboriginal people to access medical services or for medical services to access Aboriginal communities.

And, dear Reader, guess what the problem is? It is the out of sight, out of mind syndrome. In Queensland, Brisbane is at the very bottom of the state, far far away from Mackay, Bowen, Townsville, Cairns. And let's not mention Mount Isa and the Gulf country - the Gulf country which can remain immersed in and cut off by floods for three months of the year because the country is so close to sea level.

People are hearing horror stories of children in Aboriginal communities on Cape York. Now that is even further out of sight and out of mind from Brisbane. To the extent that political leadership has almost certainly never had anything to do with the Aboriginal communities of the Cape and their traditions. How different from the Northern Territory where representation of Aboriginal people in the Parliament of the NT almost exactly matches the proportion of Aboriginal people in the Territory population.

So it can be very difficult to make yourself heard in the Parliament of Queensland if you are from the North and it gets more difficult the more remote you are from the east coast.

This problem of the lack of decent road infrastructure has always been there. We are only now starting to understand the La Nina effect and old hands look back to the floods of the forties and fifties and say "Ahah - that's what is was all about, eh!" But now there is another addition to our knowledge - Climate Change. And, if governments don't bite the bullet and do something about all-weather highway access and all-weather access to remote communities, matters will only get worse.

As any North Queenslander knows, Brisbane loves the money that flows from the North from mining, grazing, sugar, horticulture, tourism. But getting money out of Brisbane for necessary infrastructure and services is, all too often, like getting blood out of a stone. Or if funds are given they are not given with the same largesse as the funding given within the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Gold Coast axis.

So, North Queensland, when the mopping up is over and you see all those local authority and bitumen people patching up the potholes to make some new bumps in your patchwork quilt of a road, get your act together and start kicking up a fuss. The squeaky wheel not only gets the most grease, it is frequently the only wheel to get any grease at all. Demand a fair share + catch up on road spending. And all you southern tourists who love to winter in the tropical sun, please get right behind them.

A photographic instance of the lack of a flood-free four-lane highway.

Please note: To the left is the high bridge over the Bohle River, just north of the twin cities of Townsville and Thuringowa. To the right is the low bridge. The high bridge carries two lanes of traffic. In dry times it is one-way traffic. In flood times, it is two-way traffic. Townsville is the industrial hub and de facto capital of North Queensland. It deserves better than this. Local Authority elections for an amalgamation of the two cities are coming up. Who is going to push this infrastructure barrow?