Surprise! Former science minister Barry Jones has some novel ideas for spending the federal government’s $15 billion infrastructure fund.
Barry Jones believes any serious infrastructure spending in Australia has to begin with changing the way we think. “Complexity repels,” he argues, pointing out that governments are always looking for short-term outcomes.
His ideas about securing Australia’s future, not surprisingly, are anything but short term.
Given $15 billion to spend, Jones would specifically invest in the ideas proposed by Professor Ross Garnaut, “Australia’s pre-eminent expert on the economics and social impact of climate change” to remake our export economy and lead the world. Garnaut’s work is featured in Jones’ latest book, What is to be Done: Political Engagement and Saving the Planet. His suggestions for productive spending can be found in a Cosmos Weekly story here.
Jones believes we also need to invest in different ways for human populations to live together in the future, specifically in our cities.
“One of the things we really ought to be thinking about, but we’re not, is why it is that Australia has this almost unique pattern of urban development,” he explains. “You have a huge area and very, very big cities. We’ve got two cities with 5 million people, two cities with 2 million people, and one city with one million people.”
It is a “completely different kind of pattern” to overseas.
“It’s astonishing, when you reflect. The whole of Great Britain, with 68 million people, could fit into Victoria. In Britain, how many cities have you got with a population of more than a million? And the answer is you’ve got London and then you’ve got Birmingham, and then you’ve got a couple of others.”
Jones believes government emphasis on transport, roads and freeways – under the guise of ‘innovation’ – fails to ask fundamental questions about vehicle usage, which will inevitably make our cities even bigger. “You increase dependence each time you expand the city. You expand the urban area, you expand the demand for roads, for parking, for vehicle use.”
Jones wants Australian urban populations to more closely resemble those in the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, where there are many more places with tens of thousands of people rather than millions. The British and the Dutch “are really very good at spatial management”, he says. He cites the ideas of Constantinos Doxiadis (1913–75), a renowned Greek architect and urban planner who worked on projects all over the world.
“He was a very interesting planner and a very interesting character,” says Jones. “At one stage he was exiled from Greece, came out to Australia and couldn’t get a job in one of the universities. He finished up growing tomatoes in Western Australia and then went back to Greece.”
Doxiadis advocated ‘linear development’ of cities – urban spaces growing in one direction towards their outskirts, instead of spreading all around from their inner-city centres. Jones would like some investment in ideas like this, which offer an alternative to the megacities in Australia, already heaving with pressures on resources and infrastructure.
“If you go to Rotterdam or if you go to Amsterdam you simply hop on the light rail – I mean it’s so easy,” he says “You’ve got 17 million people in an area less than the size of Tasmania. Although there’s a comparatively high population density compared to Australia, if you take a total area, they have a pretty good quality of life.
“Clearly they’re doing it in the Netherlands. It’s a very good example. You can see how there’s a limitation on the size of the cities.”
“You can undertake a kind of ribbon development”, Jones believes, “which could be along a railway line or along a single highway. And the result is that your hospitals, your universities, your schools, your sporting facilities and so on are spread along the railway line.”
Jones mentions places such as Gippsland in Victoria and areas south of Sydney as obvious locations for this kind of development. “And then we’re not competing for resources. We’re not competing for time use. We’re not compounding competition for resources. Competition for space. Competition for time.
“Of course, I’m not talking about somewhere like the Great Ocean Road. You’ve got an area there that’s extremely environmentally sensitive, and you’re not thinking about [development in] a hinterland like that.”
Building new institutions along the ribbon would also strengthen community, with population centres much smaller than Sydney and Melbourne, and connect more people to the landscape. As it is, Jones says, “you don’t see any landscape. It’s all hidden in hideous urban development.”
Jones reveals the disconnect in our cities between the environment, the economy and human beings and wants to pursue ideas and quantitative analysis that will link them.
“In colonial states like ours, we say ‘that’s where we will have a population and it all spreads’.
“In a way, it’s as if the cities really make no contribution to our export earnings at all. You’ve just got a lot of people who sit in offices and fiddle around with things, but they don’t really make a contribution. The result is that we can’t get our heads around the idea of high value-added exports.”
If you want to change things, Jones says, “You’ve got to change your thinking first.”
Jones believes the Australian attitude to science hasn’t fundamentally changed since the 1960s. Donald Horne’s observation in The Lucky Country – that Australians simply saw their country as a quarry or a farm – is still the predominant idea in government.
He cites the Harvard University Centre for International Development’s Atlas of Economic Complexity, which measures the amount and complexity of exports. “In 1955, we were ranked 55 in the world. In 2018, we were down to 87. I imagine we’ve dropped further now. We’ve gone absolutely in the wrong direction and that is actually by choice.”
Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels and refusal to seize the opportunities waiting in a post-carbon world is “a spectacular failure”, Jones says. Complexity and long-term investment – in ideas and spending – are not things that win elections.
Jones observes the lack of conviction about climate change and “the tragedy of our failure” in every area of government. “There’s no sense of engagement”, he says. “The last thing that governments want is a whole hoard of people coming in and being part of the process. They don’t want that.”
Jones was the first minister in Australia to talk about climate change, in 1984. As Science Minister in the Hawke Labor government from 1983 to 1990, he tried to convince his cabinet colleagues about the looming threat. Hawke was more interested in astronomy and learning about new discoveries on other planets. “That is an area where you can get people quite excited”, Jones says. “Even Hawke, who was really difficult in the science area, he strangely got quite excited by that.”
Embracing a post-carbon economy on our own planet is Jones’ highest priority, but “following the science” confounds federal governments. In December 2017, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull removed science from the recast Department of Jobs and Innovation portfolio. Although “a matter of profound regret”, Jones believes Turnbull might have been acting to protect it:
“He may well have taken the view that you could do less harm. The problem was, if you had a Minister for Science who was really determined to get into the agencies and destroy them, there could be some danger in having a minister for science. I’m inclined in some ways to give Malcolm the benefit of the doubt.”
Sally Warhaft is a Melbourne broadcaster, anthropologist and writer.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.