February 7, 2013
Last weekend the ABC’s Radio National put to air a Background Briefing programme on Highway One. “The black ribbon of death” they called it, and backed the broadcast with maps on the website showing all the accidents and fatalities along its length over the last two or three years. James Woodford drove from Ingham to Bega, interviewing residents, witnesses and crash survivors along the 3000 km route. It made for an interesting programme, and a powerful appeal for road improvement.
Yet something was wrong. All the tired old clichés were dragged out: a 3000-kilometre graveyard; a Third World road you would find in Bangladesh; truck drivers pushing the limits of fatigue. Among all the statistics of death and disability, it was a programme about blame.
It’s the road, stupid ... It’s the truckies, stupid ... It’s the government, stupid -- they were elements of the underlying mantra. It was never the motorist, the ordinary Australian Joe and Jill, the most ordinary drivers in the civilized world, displaying their incompetence or impatience.
Certainly Australia should be ashamed of the condition of most of the Bruce and Princes highways and much of the Pacific Highway too. But these accidents are more often than not the result of motorists not driving according to the road conditions as they exist, or trying to drive beyond their skills, or under the influence, or falling asleep, careless of the lives of themselves, their families and others.
Truck drivers were the Aunt Sally of the programme. The road was blamed for its inadequate rest areas, but trucks were targeted for abusing the speed limits in townships by driving through at 100, 120 kph at night, slowing down when a radar check was set up, resuming their speeding when it was removed.
The report screamed bias in dealing with last year’s Urunga crash, when a semi-trailer ploughed into two houses. It failed to acknowledge that it was caused by the driver of a utility, under the influence, who failed to take the bend at high speed, and crossed the centre line headlong into the path of the truck. The impact broke the truck’s axle, disabled its controls and stopped the engine, leaving the driver unable to steer. The reporter’s concern was with the road, and why houses were so close to it.
Indeed, the programme said nothing new; it was merely another tear-jerking appeal to emotion. And that in a microcosm is what Australia has come to. The reason Highway One is in such poor shape is that the money which should have been spent on such basic infrastructure has been siphoned off and frittered away on welfare programs for political purposes in response to self-interested lobbying. It is so much easier to cry for the little boy lost, commemorated by two teddy bears under a cross by the side of the road than to give up one cent of ‘entitlement.’
Many Australians now find their homes uninsurable against flood or bushfire. The moan has already gone up that insuring houses in flood plains like Bundaberg on the Burnett River will now cost $1800 a month. But where did the money go that should have been spent on dams and levees? And who was responsible for the campaigns that stopped them from being built? Years ago, Grafton built a levee which saved the town this year. That city is unique. Up and down the east coast, when the floods come the volunteer services are called upon to save lives, then help clean up. The cycle repeats, year after year.
Why? Because the country has entered an imagined phase of idyllic existence, in the false belief of sufficient wealth to indulge in proclaiming national parks that can’t be maintained; elevating the well-being of newts and dandelions above that of its citizens; squandering billions on education and health policies whose only effect is to inflate federal bureaucracies; genuflecting to the false idols of climate science; pandering to the clamours for special payments from every section of the community that claims itself disabled, disadvantaged or discriminated against.
We have come too far down this road. Someone has to spell out the limits to national luxury. The nation was not built on handouts, but on sacrifices for what was important, what was right. We need to strip out all the persiflage in national debate and be prepared to talk straight about what matters most and how to get it done. We do not need, for example, an Australian of the Year, to “raise awareness” of ageing, mental illness or other fad indulgencies – a bad habit we picked up from United Nations-type thinking.
If National Highway One is to be built to proper standards, some cherished projects and personal priorities will have to be sacrificed. Let’s recognise that, and admit it. Let’s do it!
Geoffrey Luck worked for the ABC for 26 years as a senior reporter and news editor
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray