One thing the pandemic has taught us is that worst-case scenarios do happen. And unless you have the infrastructure in place to manage such catastrophic events, society is left vulnerable. There is no shortage of nations that have suffered such consequences.
With infection rates on the rise in NSW and Victoria, hospitals will be put under enormous pressure. Readiness takes years of investment, not just in bricks and mortar but in the training of qualified staff. Ventilators are of little use if there are no nurses to look after patients. But our health system is not the only infrastructure being tested during this time. With so many people heading home to work, the demands on the national broadband network have been greater than ever. Contact tracing has required enormous amounts of manpower and technology.
With such a reliance on critical infrastructure, and government’s long-term role in providing it, the importance of the latest report released by Infrastructure Australia cannot be overplayed. While the pandemic has been a one-in-100-year challenge, there is no shortage of other ways our society will be tested in coming decades.
Climate change, bushfires, a growing and ageing population that’s on the move, cyber attacks, economic prosperity and social equity are all challenges that require huge amounts of physical and organisational infrastructure. They will require a response not just from governments, but from the business sector and the broader community. From overhauling the way we recycle our waste and how we pay for and use transport to narrowing the digital divide, the independent advisory agency says there must be a new approach to infrastructure to ensure our cities, regional centres and small country towns remain liveable.
For some, it will be a difficult time to talk of even more spending on infrastructure. Gross debt recently hit a record $836.5 billion and is tipped to climb beyond $1 trillion by the end of the decade due to the combination of increased spending to deal with the pandemic and reduced tax revenue.
But unless governments continue to establish the building blocks that will enable Australia to transition to net zero emissions, or adequately look after the elderly, or allow people to move around cities in good time, the costs of congestion, inadequate basic services or vulnerability to cyber attacks will be far higher than any outlays required in coming years.
US President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are attempting to push through Congress infrastructure bills worth several trillion dollars. It’s a staggering amount of money, but Mr Biden believes it’s the only way to pay for rebuilding America’s ageing roads and bridges, ensure the transition to a low carbon economy and give America a fighting chance of keeping up with global competitor China.
For Australia to consider its own huge boost would require a dramatic shift away from the politics of debt and deficit that has dominated Canberra for decades. Big spending and bad economic management have been potent weapons in many political campaigns.