2012 marks the centenary of a significant year in the creation of the Australian nation.
With the Federation still in its infancy and Australians still clinging to old colonial loyalties, the Labor government of Andrew Fisher, the former Scottish coalminer in his second term as prime minister, set about unifying the continent and its people.
With vision, courage and purpose, the Fisher Labor Government created an unparalleled legacy of national institutions without which Australia’s economic and social development would not have been so assured and so rapid.
On May 23, the Chicago-based architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion won the international competition to design and oversee construction of Australia’s new capital city, Canberra. After years of delay and interstate rivalry, Fisher was finally able to declare: “The wrangle about the home of the government of Australia is over. The city is to be built, and the Commonwealth will build it.”
This significant milestone was quickly followed with the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank and the opening of its first branch on July 15 in Melbourne. Opposed by the conservatives and predicted to fail, it quickly gained the confidence of its shareholders, the Australian people, and is today the nation’s second largest publicly listed company and one of the world’s ‘safest’ financial institutions.
But Andrew Fisher’s ‘nation-building’ drive didn’t stop there. He then turned his attention to one of his great passions, railways, and set his sights on closing the vast ‘tyranny of distance’ separating Western Australia from the eastern states.
“This great nation work,” as he called it, was “an urgent necessity for reasons of economy, transport and effective defence.”
So on 12 September, Fisher and his ministers gathered amidst the celebrations at Port Augusta to watch the Governor-General turn the first sod on the eastern section of what would become known as the Trans-Australia Railway. When completed five years later (1917) at a cost of more than £4 million, the line covered a distance of 1,711 kilometres from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie and boasts the world’s longest stretch of dead-straight track (478 kilometres).
For the first time, there was now an overland route connecting east with west, a transformative achievement which both literally and symbolically united the Australian continent.
While Fisher’s ultimate ambition for this massive engineering project were never fully realised – he believed, as had happened in the United States, his new railway would open up the interior, even claiming the so-called desert just needed water to become “…equal to the best of the other lands…” – the railway he built a century ago continues to serve our nation today.
In fact it currently carries about 80 per cent of the freight which moves between Australia’s east and west coasts.
Like the Snowy Mountain Scheme, the Trans-Australian Railway stands as a lasting legacy of its visionary proponent and a permanent reminder of our nation’s resourcefulness, ingenuity and ability to think big.
While the challenges confronting this Government differ from those faced by our Labor predecessors, the Party’s ‘nation building’ mission remains constant: to build a prosperous, inclusive and fair society for all.
And like 1912, 2012 is set to be a big one for rail in Australia.
As well as finalising arrangements for the introduction in 2013 of historic reforms which will the replace existing state-based regimes with a single national rail safety regulator and one set of nation-wide laws, we will continue the rollout our massive $12.2 billion capital works program.
Most notably, we expect major construction to get underway on:
- The nation’s biggest ever urban rail project – the $4.3 billion Regional Rail Link through Melbourne’s western suburbs;
- The long-awaited Moreton Bay Rail Link in Brisbane’s northern suburbs,
a $1.15 billion project first proposed back in 1895. Once completed in 2016, the new 12.6 kilometre line will connect the Redcliffe Peninsula to the existing urban rail network.
- The Northern Sydney Freight Corridor Upgrade, a $1.1 billion project which continues the modernisation of the Interstate Rail Network by upgrading the section through Sydney’s northern suburbs to Newcastle. Once completed in 2016, the new infrastructure will speed up the movement of trains through the City and take up to 200,000 trucks a year off its roads.
- Upgrade and duplication of the line from the Hunter Valley over the Liverpool Range, a $284 million project which will support the long term growth of the region’s mining industry.
At the other end of the construction cycle, we expect work to finish on the following projects:
- Port Botany Line Upgrade (Stage 1) – $21.1 million;
- Upgrades at Geelong Port and along the line between Melbourne and Adelaide – $50 million;
- Re-sleepering of the line between Broken Hill and Parkes – $253 million;
- Extension of seven passing loops on the line between Melbourne and Adelaide – $76 million;
- Re-railing of the line between Whyalla and Broken Hill as well as the line from Cootamundra to Parkes – $312 million;
- Re-railing of the line from Albury to Geelong via Melbourne – $110 million;
- Restoration and upgrade of Western Australia’s Grain Rail Network – $292.2 million;
- Extension of Adelaide’s urban rail network from Noarlunga to Seaford – $291.2 million.
As we begin a new year, our ambition for rail remains unchanged: to restore it to its rightful place at the heart of the nation’s transport system. Like Andrew Fisher, this Labor Government understands the economic, social and environmental dividends which come from investing in rail.
That to us is what ‘nation building’ is all about: putting the resources of government to work building the physical infrastructure and collective institutions which will both spur economic development and share its benefits across the entire community.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.