The New Engineer
This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.
A strong, cohesive and equitable society requires adequate, well-maintained perhaps even generous, physical infrastructure and social services. These things have to be paid for and because they provide community benefits they are generally paid for by taxes. However, politicians sometimes underestimate the willingness of the public to pay when the benefits are clearly explained to them.
Engineers too, sometimes underestimate the willingness of ratepayers to pay the extra money required for services that are environmentally sound and of a high standard. In fact there have been some recent examples where communities in Australia and in New Zealand, when given a clear choice and informed of the advantages and disadvantages of each option, have chosen more expensive options for sewerage treatment because of the perceived environmental advantages. Assumptions about the public's willingness to pay that may have been true in the past, these days need to be tested through genuine public participation processes.
An aversion to paying taxes and rates, or perhaps the perception of it, has dogged the history of Australian infrastructure forcing government authorities to adopt low cost, short term, less effective measures for dealing with public services. The reluctance of property owners to pay rates kept Sydney in a politically infantile state till 1842 when it was finally incorporated into a self-governing city. Following incorporation successive city councils were so loath to raise rates to a level necessary to pay for the city's infrastructure, for fear of not being reelected, that in 1853 the colonial government replaced the city council with three commissioners to ensure that essential city services such as sewerage and drainage were provided.
The end result of tax aversion is the phenomenon of private opulence amidst public squalor noted in the US by John Kenneth Galbraith in his book, The Affluent Society. In a much quoted passage he describes how the "family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered, and power-braked car out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground."
It is ironic that as we grow wealthier, governments seem to be less willing to spend money for collective purposes. Not only do public services suffer-for example Australian schools get less funding than schools in most other OECD nations-but the physical infrastructure of our cities has been allowed to run down and does not receive the funding that is necessary to keep up with maintenance requirements and the demands of growing populations.
Ten years ago Lex Blakey, Chief of CSIRO Division of Building Research, delivered a talk on the ABC's Ockham's Razor, warning of the "decay of the physical infrastructure, the drains, the water supply, the public hospitals, transport, communications, all the things that make our civilization possible." He warned of the inevitable serious breakdowns that would be the likely consequence. This year, again on Ockham's Razor, he was able to point to examples of the urban failures he prophesied including Auckland's electricity, Melbourne's gas and Sydney's water. Those responsible for these services would deny that reduced maintenance was the cause, he admitted, but "The question must be whether the margin against failure is enough, or whether it has been nibbled away by inadequate maintenance whilst costs are cut."
Blakey is not alone in his concerns. The IEAust communique arising from a summit held recently on Australia's National Infrastructure Strategy expressed "serious concerns" about the inadequacy of current levels of investment: "Creation of existing infrastructure in Australia has been possible only through a consistent national investment over many years at around twice the current rate of expenditure".
In some circles, privatisation or outsourcing of public infrastructure provision and operation is seen as a panacea for falling investment levels. Yet private investment is no guarantee that infrastructure will be adequately maintained as recent events have demonstrated. Nor does private investment relieve the community from paying the costs of adequately maintained infrastructure.
A politically mature nation is one that wisely invests in the collective provision of sound infrastructure and public services, and levies sufficient taxes to pay for this.