Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

At the intersection

By Richard Stanton - posted Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Abbott government and the 44th Parliament must act upon a number of intersecting social and political vectors.

Campaign promises such as the repeal of the carbon tax ought not become more than they are - sideshows, persuasive and influential election campaign issues - and they should not detract from the work of nation-building. There is a real need now to act, to create gigantically big-picture policies.

When Governor-General William McKell ignited the first charge of dynamite in the Snowy Mountains in October 1949 he set in play the largest single infrastructure project in Australian history. The hydro electricity and irrigation scheme watered farms, powered factories and created long-term employment. The conceptualisation of the hydro engineering idea - to divert water from one river flowing to the coast to others flowing inland - provided political and social challenges. New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian state governments along with the Chifley federal government had interests in its construction, some positive others less so.


The political will to construct a project that would take 25 years to complete existed and was strong. The Chifley government used defence powers to create the SnowyMountainsElectric Power Act 1949. (Between 1946 and 1949 it passed 299 Acts.) The social knock-on of this political will was substantial - more than 5000 workers were needed many of whom were persuaded to émigrate from Europe. Substantial towns were purpose-built at Cabramurra and Island Bend. Cabramurra remains a tourist venue centred on snow skiing. The long project build time provided security for immigrant workers willing to bring their families.

Some progressive scholars such as Humphrey McQueen have played up the negative political and social elements of the scheme including the idea that there was much opposition which lead to the rushed completion of the first stage in a show of what would now be called public relations image and brand-building. Social negatives included the idea that workers could not bring families until they had completed two-year contracts.

Governments have had neither the political will nor the social vision to enact anything similar in the intervening two generations. Talk of nation-building is limited to rhetorical tokens such as the Building Australia Fund which surfaced sheepishly from the Nation-Building Funds Act 2008. Another rhetorical token that is difficult to redeem - the National Infrastructure Construction Schedule - makes large claims about relatively small projects.

Four days ago the 44th parliament began with the Abbott government keen to attempt to keep some of its campaign promises - repeal the carbon tax; stop the boats; resolve Aboriginal disadvantage; reduce national debt. These are all laudable, high value political and social issues that require immediate action. I see nothing, however, that looks towards the horizon, towards the security of energy and water that have themselves become rhetorical tokens dispensed when required along political campaign trails. It is as if the political will that forged the Snowy Mountains scheme has evaporated in the face of the battle for political power for the sake of power.

Hawke government 'restructuring', it could be argued, was more important than post-war 'reconstruction'. At the time Treasurer Paul Keating's 'banana republic' comments had the desired impact; without restructuring of the economy Australia would be reduced to developing country status. Opposition leader Tony Abbott's 'carbon dioxide tax' enjoyed similar status as a campaign scare tactic. While Mr Keating is now touring as a shadowy elder statesman, boosting the centenary of the construction of the ANZAC legend in April 2015, Tony Abbott is in the seat.

Does Mr Abbott have the political will to drive deep into the heart of Australian society? Or, like Hawke and Keating, will he and Joe Hockey make an oil change and filter replacement look like a major service?


When Edward Wheewall Holden shifted his business away from saddlery and carriage-building and into the construction of motor vehicles in 1926 in Adelaide in partnership with America's General Motors, he did so to avoid going bust. And his business did well for two generations until 30 years ago when Mr Hawke let John Button loose on the automotive manufacturing sector. The object was a competitive, tariff-free sector. The result was what we have today - a government sponsored uncompetitive sector with no real export market (the author drives a Holden and has done so for many years).

Mr Abbott appears to have the visceral and political will to allow Mr Holden's long time private business to cease to exist. But can he provide the leadership needed to frame an alternative, deeper, more meaningful society? One that is not based on the reconstructed myths of the 19th and 20th centuries?

If a government can create a plan that results in the destruction of a society over a generation, can it also revisit the construction of a society, like the Chifley government standpoint between 1946 and 1949? After Chifley Menzies did very little. Whitlam failed. Fraser did nothing. Hawke and Keating were destructive. Howard talked a lot, including a brief discourse on nuclear energy, but did nothing. In the five years of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government a large number of policies were invented. Some became law. Others were set up to fail. I have covered the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd issues in detail in Scorched Earth: the deep rupturing of Australian society and its failure to meet the 21st century (

The Abbott government has yet to enunciate its standpoint. The Liberal National coalition gained control of the Treasury benches by enacting a tenacious campaign in which they revealed their understanding of the intersecting vectors that control sociopolitical Australian history. But an understanding of the existence of the vectors alone dooms the Abbott government to repeat the errors of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government. And all the others back to Ben Chifley.

The Abbott government could be the very first from the conservative side to shape Australia for a generation or two. Or it could talk a lot and do nothing. The first few days of the 44th parliament were encouraging.

The nation has once more, after a long interlude, the desire for a political leader to demonstrate the political will to reshape its society. Give it a hot go.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

9 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Richard Stanton is a political communication writer and media critic. His most recent book is Do What They Like: The Media In The Australian Election Campaign 2010.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Richard Stanton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 9 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy