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Sensible public projects? Tell 'em they're dreamin'

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Friday, 17 October 2014

I rarely watch what might be called contemporary dramas. Unless there is a zombie, vampire or superhero to hand I cannot summon interest in it. But one glorious exception to my general disdain for anything contemporary is the Australian satirical series Utopia.

About a fictional government body, the Nation Building Authority, Utopia was put together by Working Dog Productions, the same company that created the 1997 hit The Castle, and the superb 1990s series satirising current affairs shows, Frontline – a favourite of mine of the time.

The company has had other hits but I mention Frontline as it is in a similar mould to Utopia and, like Frontline, hits the spot.


The Nation Building Authority has been set up to oversee major infrastructure projects to build the nation, where those projects have been selected so that they make economic sense or least-cost social benefits – or so the authority head Tony (Rob Sitch, who is also the director) would hope.

Unfortunately, political considerations get in the way. The politicians want headline-grabbing, vote-catching projects they can announce now, and never mind the details, or the cost-benefit analysis.

One episode which I found very amusing, thanks to the script co-written by Sitch and long-term collaborators Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, but also because it struck a chord, was about the Very Fast Train project.

The politicians wanted something to announce, but the authority’s eminently sensible suggestion of an integrated freight network was brushed aside, as unlikely to catch headlines, and a VFT shoved onto the project list instead.

As someone who can recall “discussing” such projects with colleagues when there was a serious proposal for one back in the 1980s, I can attest that VFTs have considerable popular appeal which make even quite sensible people wave away the lack of a business case with absurd claims that such a project would energise our industry, or economy, by cutting transport costs. The hard reality is that VFT projects may make some sense in densely settled Japan or Europe – I am unclear on that point – but not in Australia.The bulk of the equipment would be imported and the train fare would be comparable to the price of a plane ticket on an already competitive air corridors.



Despite those inconvenient facts, VFT projects still pop up in the public debate. The former premier of NSW, Barry O’Farrell suggested a VFT between Sydney and Canberra last year as a means of turning Canberra’s airport into a distant second airport for Sydney, mainly to get out of having to make a decision about an actual second airport for Sydney. A far more serious effort to investigate such a project was a feasibility study, also released last year, which found that a VFT along a part of the east coast would cost $114 billion.

The fictional NBA turned over quite a few rocks in their efforts to justify a Very Fast Train, only to find slugs and then, in a desperate bid to divert political pressure to announce this unworkable project, authority head Tony suggests that a quite separate authority be created specifically to deal with the VFT. The NBA would have nothing to do with the new authority, but could give it some staff, although as Rod notes, he did not know how long they would stay (a subplot of that episode was about staff leaving the authority).

His final words are to the effect that no one will be fooled but, sure enough, the last scenes of the episode are of television news bulletins enthusiastically reporting on the project, and suburban dwellers being interviewed and saying what a good idea it was.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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