COLUMN | Eight states of exasperation [The Education of an Innocent Australian]

Wool barge on Murray River Photo: State Library of South Australia
Wool barge on Murray River Photo: State Library of South Australia
Photo: State Library of South Australia – Wool barge on Murray River
Photo: State Library of South Australia – Wool barge on Murray River

Who could believe that 150 years ago, on the mighty Murray River, 2,000 bales of wool were carried on wooden barges with a steam engine driving paddle power equivalent to 25 horsepower?

These days, 2,000 bales of wool would require 20 semi trailers, each with a 300kW engine, spewing exhaust gases. Add $14,000 per kilometre per annum for the sealed road maintenance and we have an unsurpassed level of global environmental vandalism for any maritime nation.

The Murray of course has 970km of navigable waterways and like most of our inland rivers provided lifeline services in the early days of establishing townships along the rivers.

Looking down on the Murray from a plane, you will see that the river meanders only in a general direction, but with plenty of oxbows and turns that impedes the average directional speed.

"River transport around the nation was forgotten"

The river is permanently navigable from the Barrages to the top of the Mildura Weir pool, at a height of 36 metres above sea level. Eleven weirs with locks raise the water level by an average of 3.1 metres. The river upstream of the Mildura weir is only navigable during flood periods.

Interestingly, during flood events the shallow flat bottom paddle steamers, would just cut across the floodplains in the desired direction instead of trying to stick to the low level river zigzag course.

The first lock and weir on the Murray was completed in 1922, and the last in 1937. Murray river transportation and the repeat losses of vessels and lives on the Murray mouth caused the loss of traffic to the emerging road and rail. River transport around the nation was forgotten. Old wharves are now the domain of the cappuccino set.

In the Carpentaria Gulf country, Normanton on the Norman river, also used shallow draft wooden barges, along the 74km route from the river entrance at Karumba, and during flood events would use the direct route of 34 kms.

Now with national focus on debt reduction, regional development, environmental solutions and innovation on the national agenda, we should seriously focus on the advantages of waterborne transport again.

Compelling environmental stuff

Take Normanton for instance, it has the cattle taken by road to Karumba (72 kilometres) to access small cattle carriers like Finola or else to Darwin (2,100 kilometres) or Townsville (850 kilometres), the latter two being expensive.

Road freighting a million tonnes of any cargo Normanton to Karumba at 10cents/tonne/km, is $7.2million. Add to this the current road maintenance of $14,000/km/annum you end up with around $9.2 million, or $9.20/tonne. Now using the river at 1.8 cents per tonne/kilometre reduces the cost to $1.33 million, but straightening the river to reduce the navigational distance to 34 kilometres, reduces the cost to $612,000 or $0.61 cents/tonne. Wow! The Finola should indeed be berthing at Normanton.

Environmentally, road transport, using 1.2 megajoules/tonne-kilometre, equates to 86.4 million megajoules for one million tonnes on this route, compared with a straightened river transport of 2.4 million megajoules, with a CO2 emissions reduction of a staggering 96 per cent. Compelling environmental stuff!

The cost of straightening this section of river given the low lying uninhabited salt pans around the place, assuming the ground is soft will only cost around $9 million according to dredge consultants Neumann and Baggerman. Stretching the Albert River past Burketown in a similar way to the southwest or even running a slurry pipeline will allow the billion tonne reserve of phosphate to get to the global market. This reserve lies captive to our existing high land logistics cost, and we can easily rectify the situation, with a solid commitment to northern infrastructure

This is "compelling stuff" for a nation whose economy is spiralling into debt, and that desperately is searching for bold leadership.

"Obstructed by vexatious Green litigation actions"

Alas there is a huge obstruction that has erupted over the last 25 years comprising of state governments' EPA, coastal protection, vegetation laws and heavy doses of green propaganda, that allow mediocre bureaucrats to effectively block "compelling stuff".

Many of these people work on agency theory, ie. what's better for me, and the dual combo of job protection and personal anti-development green views, ends up frustrating and exasperating sensible proposals, even if they are good for the nation. Proponents are sent through never-ending loops of "process" and 3rd tier "what if" scenarios and obstructed by vexatious Green litigation actions that are all designed to send them broke or make them abandon the projects. Adani's coal project can testify to this.

The green groups still fail to connect the dots between obstructing projects and the spiralling high youth unemployment, youth suicides, home invasions, domestic violence and a bleak future for our kids and grandkids.

In 1996 a century of Brisbane river dredging was halted by Green groups leading gullibles Premier Beattie and Mayor Soorley. Not only did this deprive Brisbane of the nation's cheapest aggregate source, it endangered the city by the river shallowing which contributed to the major flood disaster in 2011, and the deaths of 35 people. It also ended coal barges from the Bremer River down to the port. Since then Brisbane is seriously paying through the nose in road transport costs. Myopic transport advisors may be tempted to hide behind green tape before putting waterborne transport on the table again.

So how do we fix this mess we are in?


We just close down the eight state and territory governments, as we can no longer afford this third level of rules, regulations, regulators and fees

As to leadership, I personally like the straight talking Cory Bernardi, the Katter Boys and Pauline Hanson. At the same time of closing down state and territory governments, our sensibly sized remaining government should sell 51 per cent of the ABC.

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World