Speech – Prime Minister Wyatt Roy. January 26 2038.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 11.07.33 amSpeech – Prime Minister Wyatt Roy.

January 26 2038.

[check against delivery]

My fellow Australians.

On this 250th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet on this continent, I want to make a few comments about our society and economy.

Arrival Day, as we’ve known it for several decades now, has become a day to look back on things we’ve done wrong. Dedicating a day to critical self-reflection is one of our nation’s finest achievements. We can’t undo our mistakes. But we can learn from them and use that to set the future on the right path.

That’s why it’s very important we think about house prices. How did we get to this point? When I travel across this country, I see three disappointed generations – one owning homes that have slumped in value; one owing giant debts on low-value homes, and one perhaps able to buy a home, if they were not wounded by the economic shrapnel that came from the explosion.

We were like butterflies. We thought our brief glimpse of the world told us everything we needed to know. House price crashes had never happened in our lifetimes, so while rates were low, we treated the banks like an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

Interest rates were low for so long that we began to think they’d never go back up either.

When the RBA raised rate in 2025, after so many years of inactivity, perhaps the house price upswing might have stopped. That was our chance.

But fate intervened.

We now know that China’s overstretched financial system was, at that exact moment, about to burst. The failure kept interest rates low, even as Chinese funds flowed out of China and found their way to Australia.

RBA Governor Stevens repeated his now infamous signature move and cut rates. The price of housing in Australia continued to rise. Median prices in all major capitals topped $1 million. Sydney’s average price rose over $2 million.

A first home loan of six figures was de rigeur. And why not? With rates at 1 per cent, young people around Australia could afford that sort of debt to obtain their own home.

Their parents, in most cases, had done likewise. Who would talk them out of it? I saw my own children – Morgan and Orbison – make the exact choices I had, and although I felt a tremor of unease, I didn’t want to dictate their lives to them. Personal freedom is one of the strands of philosophy that enlivens the Libor Party I lead, and I try to live it out in my own life too.

At home I bit my tongue. To my shame, I did the same from the opposition benches in Parliament.

Treasurer Bandt seemed to have a firm grip on the economy. House price appreciation was as Australian as a Golden Gaytime on a 45-degree day. Who was I to argue with a trend that had run my entire life?

Environment Minister Irwin read me a quote the other day that I knew I must use in this speech.

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history,” she said. That’s from a science fiction writer from last century. He saw something of the future, Bindi told me, but only by paying careful attention to the past.

That’s our job, from hereon. To make sure we pay attention to the full sweep of history. We must not only be obsessed with what’s right under our noses. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The lessons of 5 years ago may glow more brightly than the lessons of 105 years ago, but they are not always more pertinent.

We should make sure our memory of the excesses of the mid 20th century inform our debates on government over-reach. Make sure our memories of the 18th and 19th centuries inform our debates on unchecked poverty. Make sure our memories of the rise and fall of civilisations long past informs our thinking about our permanence.

On this day, above all others, I commend the study of history to all of us.

Marvellous! An economic history lesson from Flinders St Station

I am completely entranced by this old photo of Melbourne’s most iconic intersection.

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Source: Flickr

The shot tells a story of changes in technology and economics. For starters, there are four horse-drawn carts in the photo.

While a busy Friday night in 2014 might still see a horse and carriage at this intersection, in 2014 they’d be pulling regretful tourists, not valuable cargo. The decline of the horse and rise of the car coincides with the industrialisation of the fuel-making process. In 1927, oil company Mobil was just 16 years old.

Here’s a Google Maps image of the intersection today.

The tram stops also tell a story of change, not so much in technology as values. The tram stops of the jazz age – located in the middle of the street, amid a stream of traffic – amount to little more than a bit of paint on the ground. That has changed. Tram stops now are highly protected from traffic, probably because the value society places on human life has risen along with wealth and productivity.

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One familiar thing in the shot is traffic. We see cars stacked three across and two deep, getting ready to hook turn from Flinders St onto Princes Bridge in the foreground of the shot. (For non-Melbourne readers, the hook turn is a unique form of torture inflicted by this city on unwitting drivers, for the purposes of mirth.)

The street at the top of the photograph – Swanston Street – is now closed to car traffic. The externalities associated with car traffic are very clear in this intersection, as early as 1927. (I am referring not to pollution, but the way the presence of one car on the road slows down all the others.) The proliferation of cars in the last 90 years means these externalities would have developed to city-threatening proportions had the use of cars not been limited.

The crowds suggest patterns of work is much the same. But it doesn’t show the city at night, which would reveal far more differences in society, in dress codes, and the purchasing power of young people especially. Zooming in would also reveal big differences in ethnic composition, thanks to the ease of global travel.

There are no bicycles in the shot, which is a surprise to me. Standing at this intersection now, you’d struggle to frame a shot without a bike in it.

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Apparently cycling was extremely popular in the 1890s. That enthusiasm has seemingly waned by the time film was exposed for this shot. Will Melbourne’s current love affair with bikes also prove transitory, or is this shot just unrepresentative?

There have been a lot of technology changes since the 1920s. One of the most dramatic is in construction. Despite being a shot of the city, this photo, repeated today, would not show any sky scrapers. This area has heritage protection. Perhaps there were height controls even then – the shadows reveal bigger buildings lurk just outside the frame.

Most of the technology changes since the 1920s are at a smaller, human scale. The contents of the pockets of the people in the shot is probably where the most dramatic changes would be evident. The one clue we have in this shot to that sort of technological change is the fact it is shot in sepia. Image

There are a lot of lessons in this old shot, a lot of differences. But the biggest single point is probably the similarity.

The crowds swarming across Flinders St look exactly as they do today. That suggests the patterns of life – catch a train into the city, go to work, go home – have not changed too much. And three of those four corners – the railway station, the pub and the cathedral remain the same. Only the old Princes Bridge Railway Station in the bottom right is gone, replaced with Federation Square.

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Swanston Street 2014

The trams in the shot are cable trams – they are not powered by electric wires but pulled along by a cable that ran beneath the street. [edit: apparently cable trams were replaced by electric trams the year before this shot was taken.]

Despite the advent of electricity and computers, trams still follow these same routes.

This shows the way infrastructure and patterns of human life endure. Technology is often first used to do the same old tasks a bit differently. We don’t quickly end up in a Jetson’s future, but a sort of inverted Flintstones, where the objects are much the same and the technology behind them is different.

(Cable tram video you will find terrific if you like history, Melbourne or public transport.)

What else do you notice about this photo? Please leave a comment!