Australia: The lucky country not so lucky anymore

For over 20 years, since before I left high school, I remember people saying how they wanted to move to Australia because there were more economic opportunities. They wanted to move because incomes were better, the pace of life faster – more night clubs, more things to do, more diversity. Some were going to move as soon as they had enough money and others were going to so when they finished University. Few entertained the idea of coming back however distant.

The media maintained this image of New Zealand being Australia’s poor cousin by focussing on the income gap between the two nations, something New Zealand was never really going to close. People would say when asked why they were moving to Australia and not coming back “because the grass is greener”. From a purely economic sense they were probably correct.

At the same time it has to be said that on one hand New Zealanders enjoy benefits that non-Australians do not including not needing a visa to work there. On the flip side there is no clear pathway for New Zealanders to become Australians whilst there is a clear path for Australians to become New Zealanders. This flip side has tempered the New Zealand experience for many in Australia because citizenship is required to access medical, educational and social welfare services.

Economically Australia has been one of the most consistently well performing western economies in the last 30 years and only with a decline in demand for raw minerals from China has it really slowed down. Australia is still a very wealthy country. It has huge mineral reserves that are untapped. It has huge sunlight hours which would enable virtually continuous solar power in the vast interior of the continent where temperatures often reach into the mid 40ºC range in summer.

Australia’s natural environment has been one of its great draw cards with people coming in their millions to see the Great Barrier Reef with its diverse array of coral reefs and fish. They come to see the continent and the amazing array of bird, reptile and mammalian life that inhabits it. It is this same natural environment that is paying a steep price for short term economic gain.

Unfortunately Australia is bleeding itself dry in a hydrological sense. Much of Australia’s natural drainage is confined to one huge river system in the southeast, which takes up 1,000,000 square kilometres or about 400,000 square miles, called the Murray-Darling. This comprises two large rivers, each exceeding 1,000 kilometres in length. The Murray Darling River system held great promise. Over the years it has been used for irrigation, electricity generation, tourism and as a fishery. As demand for its water grew, so did the environmental costs Despite the Murray Darling Basin Authority trying to implement a plan to protect the river as a living system the Murray Darling has steadily declined. Australia has run one of the great river systems in the world into the ground, with flows so low in some places now that the river is virtually stagnant. These conditions mean shallow parts of the river allow the river water to heat up to a point where fish simply cannot survive, where lethal cyanobacteria algae is growing in vast mats and is toxic to dogs, humans and fish alike.

It is not just the decline in water quality though that makes this a particularly sad tale. For years the steady reduction of the water flowing into the sea at its mouth west of Melbourne has enable creeping salinisation of the ground water to occur, so that instead of fresh clean drinking water, increasingly it is more consistent with sea water. For decades the river has also been slowly but systematically diverted for hydro power generation in the Snowy Mountains.

It is unfortunately not just environmental issues that afflict Australia. Its political system more resembles a virus riddled computer than a functional commonwealth. An increasingly fractious federal Government has been virtually crippled by infighting, a lack of accountability and self serving members. Scandals have ranged from Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce having an affair with a lady working in his office to the Murray Darling one mentioned above and giving $400 million of tax payer dollars to a tiny charity with no oversight.

From this side of the Tasman Sea it is sad to watch one of the wealthiest nations in the world that has had so much going for it sliding into a state of decline like this. New Zealanders are still moving to Australia each year in considerable numbers, but the number of New Zealanders returning because they have run up against the limitations that go with not having citizenship, has increased.

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