Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
A tragic tale of a nation that drowned in greed and neglect
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald.
THERE was a time, or so we’ll tell our great-grandchildren, as seawater laps the steps of the town hall, when being Australian was a point of pride. When Australianness stood for honesty, optimism and a fair go; for sand between the toes, a twinkle in the eye and one up authority. Two-up, even. For a lean, larrikin ingenuity in solving problems, and in getting going when the going got tough.
When things did get tough, in the early 21st century, there was a fleeting chance for us to signify, to show leadership, imagination and courage. There we sat, at the far, balmy end of the world, with vast resources, limitless space, a glorious climate and relatively few mouths to feed. We were educated, healthy and remarkably rich. All of this we could have used as a force for good. A force for survival.
Instead, we chose to get richer, fatter and smugger. We had resources to burn and, my, we burnt them. What a fire it was. We let our fauna drift into extinction and our indigenes into indigence. Instead of harvesting wind, wave, hot-rock or sun energy, which we had in sparkling abundance, we sold our forests for toilet tissue, our rivers for cotton-farming, our space for radioactive waste, our military for oil.
And yet, as the icecaps started to melt and the earth to drown, we sank ever deeper into denial. While old Europe poured her energies into sustaining big, dense populations on the few renewables she could muster, we, stuck in neutral, let the mining lobby draft our energy policy and the developers draft our urban plans. So, while the old world leapt forward we new worlders went on filling our air with fossil fuels and covering our remaining farmlands with fat, eaveless houses.
Hectare upon ugly hectare of gadget-swollen houses we aligned, cheek-by-jowl like children ogling the telly, along every one of the 12-lane highways we built to truck food back in from interstate.
What’s that? Didn’t anyone revolt? Didn’t some Joan of Arc or Martin Luther King stand up and say: “Stop! This is suicide. You all know it. Follow me”? Well, no. We would have followed such a hero. So I like to think. But no one did. Not really.
In fact, our politicians were more timid than anyone. Perhaps our weakness for the larrikin undid us, making us elect wide-boy premiers. But the government talked about “sustainability” while frantically building roads; chopped down more trees for sustainability press releases than were saved in their national parks. Only when they finally shuffled off did we notice they hadn’t done anything but line the pockets of the mates-in-industry.
That’s all core curriculum now, isn’t it? How mateship came to mean graft, and the RSL sued for corruption of language? Meanwhile the feds simply pretended climate change wasn’t real. Like children under the bed they rejected international agreements and put every freak climate event down to “intelligent design”. (It was, you recall, before humanity voted for excision of its god-gene.)
And yes, people noticed. Sure. Outsiders especially, who came expecting a land of hope and instead found the entire country out to a very long lunch. (As Clive Hamilton once groaned, even as they extracted his thumbnails: “The Howard Government still doesn’t get it.”)
There was a moment, though, during the long Labor Decades – that’s right, at the beginning of the dark ages. You’ve studied them? – when a decision could have been made. There was talk, but that meant nothing. For decades, train lines, green belts and conservation strategies had been rhythmically announced and cancelled. So expectations were pretty low. But there was, momentarily, more than talk.
BASIX was a Danish pop sextet, a “new generation livelihood promotion institution” in Hyderabad and a gay-and-lesbian nightclub in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was also the NSW Building Sustainability Index. BASIX; designed to reduce not the spread of McMansionism, but its impact – at no cost to government.
From the winter of 2004, BASIX required new homes to reduce energy use by 25 per cent and water use by 40 per cent. Nothing drastic. Nothing you couldn’t achieve with eaves, a little insulation and a rainwater tank or two.
BASIX was smart. It didn’t stipulate particular shower heads, eaves depths or insulation levels. Rather, it was an online points-based performance system that let you earn your certificate with a mix’n’match of design devices – native planting, Hills hoists or pale roofs. Like playing the SIMS, you remember?
It assessed you, allowing for postcode-dependent microclimate (cooling breezes in Brookvale but not in Bringelly, for example) then printed your certificate. All common sense, but when 80 per cent of houses had air-conditioning instead of eaves or insulation, it seemed to need spelling out.
And for two years it worked. Houses were built, the sun shone and Australia went on with its core business of getting richer.
Arguably, that was the problem. BASIX cost about $5000 on a $300,000 dwelling. Not a lot, but enough to disgruntle the developers. Then – maybe it was the election, or the developers or even friendly fire. Whatever the machinations, BASIX was suddenly called in for review and threatened with execution. Just like that. Stuff the environment.
Of course, it had its funny side. We were rich, sure, but within 50 years most of Sydney’s treasured waterfront, including the central business district, was sea bottom. The Property Council of Australia sued for negligence and, overnight, the state ceased to exist. So now we have just two tiers of government; federal and regional. And everyone wonders what took us so long.
PHOTO: Photo: Quentin Jones