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A 'Big' Western Australia?

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 10 May 2010


The current debate about a “Big Australia” is strongly influenced by the sense that the country has a bright economic future. This economic future has been increasingly determined by the resource-rich states, Queensland and Western Australia, and although these states are leading growth there are major problems threatening this situation. This article looks at the case of WA.

Perth is now the country’s fastest growing city and a debate has begun in WA sparked by claims that the population would double by 2050. Perth itself was projected to grow to two million residents and sprawl over 12,000 sq km (which is almost 50 per cent more than New York with nearly 18 million people).

The Australian Bureau of Statistics report estimates that in response the urban road system must be doubled to 27,000km to accommodate the increased traffic, 1300 new schools must be built and water and energy consumption will double requiring new desalination and energy plants.

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The main thing driving this “Big WA”notion has been the resources boom which has made WA a major exporter and generated big money for workers, investors and governments. The general optimism arising from the boom, which has been assiduously boosted by local business, the media and politicians, has propelled the idea that the state is capable of anything.

The underlying realities are very different. The WA boom is in fact based in the unprecedented demand for resources caused by the equally unprecedented Chinese economic boom. China has bought WA steel at top prices and wants WA gas and perhaps WA uranium.

However, the Chinese boom is much more fragile than most people understand. The Chinese economy is unbalanced with an orientation towards exports, and this economic growth has been at the expense of social justice and the environment. The authority of the Communist Party is based on this economic success, and if this fails then political upheaval will likely follow.

Furthermore, the Chinese boom has been underpinned by conducive global conditions, and if these change markedly economic growth could collapse. The ongoing global economic crisis, the fragility of the US economy, the ebb of globalisation and a number of other developments threaten this accommodating world order.

As for the other major WA export earner, agriculture, changing rainfall patterns, salinity, soil acidity and erosion threaten the total amount of arable land, while increasing fuel, fertiliser and chemicals costs is driving farmers into ever greater debt. Last year the average loss for hard-pressed Wheatbelt farmers was half a million dollars.

The real inhibitor to WA growth is the unsustainability of current trends of consumption, based as they are in boom-time conditions. Indeed, WA is arguably the least sustainable community in the world, outside totally crazy places like Dubai. Essentially, there is not enough water, not enough infrastructure and not enough cheap energy to pursue the current high growth strategy for much longer.

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Western Australians are world class consumers and waste generators. Of the more than 1,800 gigalitres of water they use most goes to agriculture (40 per cent), then mining (24 per cent) then households. Most household usage is for gardens, with usage for luxury items like dish washers and swimming pools a growing factor.

The problem is that rainfall is declining, at least for the south west where the decrease has been around 25 per cent. Dams are emptying out and Perth has resorted to making fresh water though desalination, a highly energy intensive process. The WA Government is slowly introducing conservation measures for households, but overall the situation is approaching criticality even though consumption has stabilised.

WA is Australia’s greatest producer of waste. In 2002-3, WA per capita waste totalled 1.4 tonnes with around 7,300 tonnes disposed of in 300 landfills each day. The housing boom has been a factor here since most waste comes from building demolition and activity, followed by municipal waste collection and then commercial and industrial activity. Along with the quantity, growing levels of toxicity in the waste is a problem.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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