Our greatest blunders

Jun 14, 2023
A sunset wide view of federal parliament house at Canberra in the act, Australia

Ten years ago Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published their book – The Blunders of Our Governments.

They ranged over the Millennium Dome; the 20 billion pounds wasted on a failed scheme to upgrade London’s Underground; punishing tens of thousands of single mothers into poverty; massive IT disaster’s such as the Blair Governments NHS scheme; and an Assets Recovery scheme to claw back proceeds from organised crime which cost more to run than it raised.

Since then, of course, we have had Brexit and the privatised water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers and sea 825 times a day with a 2553% increase in discharges over the past five years. Macquarie-owned Thames Water in 2016-17 missed the regulators leakage targets by 47 million litres a day through underinvestment while paying 239 million pounds in dividends to shareholders.

On top of that there is the rorting of the schemes to acquire COVID protective equipment which enriched Tory donors and botched rail plans such as the long-delayed HS2 railway which enriched consultants but failed to deliver any trains.

But what if someone analysed the cost and extent of blunders by Australian Governments? Would we fare any better?

Crewe and King took blunders to be a gross mistake – an error due to stupidity or carelessness. In Australia’s case there have been plenty of such policy blunders but our speciality was probably wilful politically driven stupidity.

The top three blunders in this category were the killing off of the resource rent tax; the waste of billions in the first roll out of a substandard NBN; and, the rejection of the carbon price.

All three had many contributors to the disaster – from Murdoch media outlets to the right wing think tanks and the mining lobby. But the common element with all three was Tony Abbott who cheerfully devoted his political talents to destroying any rational approach to big problems.

In terms of the Crewe-King definition of blunders in Australia we had, on the COVID front, delays in obtaining vaccines while Scott Morrison was thinking about suitable slogans. Fortunately, the heavy lifting of COVID was done by State Governments rather than Canberra although the Andrews Government performance with hotel quarantine and lockdowns of public housing blocks were both massive blunders.

Our governments enthusiasm for wars resulted in the consecutive blunders of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnam is recovering from the impacts of our blunder on that war but Australian veterans are not.

In Vietnam Harold Wilson was wise enough to stay out but Australia virtually pleaded to get involved. With Iraq our enthusiasm was unbounded and John Howard was delighted to be a deputy sheriff to George W. Bush. Whatever else is remembered in years to come of Mark Latham the one positive in his career will be his public dissent about the war and his attack on Howard and Bush.

It is interesting that Iraq was also a source of a variety of SAS legends in which vaguely described SAS actions allegedly played decisive roles in Saddam Hussein’s defeat. Naturally the activities were too secret to be described but lots of nudges and winks were deployed.

The delays and ineffective responses to climate change and its impact on the Great Barrier Reef will be seen one day as one of our worst blunders as the world loses a unique World Heritage site and Australia loses a vital tourist attraction.

The Reef is a special kind of blunder because we knew there was a problem but devoted immense resources and time to trying to convince the rest of the world there was no problem. Indeed, we spent more time lobbying to evade its listing as endangered than we did on developing policies to halt the damage.

A similar blunder was Murray Darling policy – if what we have done with that could be deemed as policy. The Murray Darling problem was a classic wicked one with different stakeholders from State Governments to farmers, to First Nations Australians, to irrigators and others. It is perhaps best summed up by the question – why on earth are we growing rice and cotton in irrigated areas of the Murry Darling Catchment?

The answer sometimes given is that these crops are better able to cope with climate change than others while ignoring that water is our scarcest national resource. We have also quickly forgotten the Humpty Doo fiasco and the plans to develop a rice export industry based on Lake Argyle and the Orde River irrigation scheme.

Defence procurement is a major blunder area all of its own. Has any Australian defence procurement since the manufacture of 303 rifles gone well? The F111 is just one case but unreliable helicopters and dozens of procurement projects behind schedule and over budget are others. Aukus is sure to join the list.

Foreign policy is another blunder-prone area. On East Timor Foreign Affairs initially pandered to the Indonesians. Then we reluctantly supported the new Timor Leste state and even managed one of our few successful interventions only to undo that good by defrauding the Timorese of much of the benefits of the Timor Strait oil and gas.

…..and perhaps Australia’s biggest and most stupid blunder is still unfolding. How did we come to regard our biggest trading partner, and the source of much our prosperity, as our Number 1 enemy and start planning to go to war with them?

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