As a federal election draws closer, and the major parties square off with their respective policy platforms, Labor's spokeswoman for infrastructure, transport and regional development, Catherine King, has vowed to create a High Speed Rail Authority to "make the business case" for a bullet train, like those found in Japan and across Europe, to connect our east coast cities.
The proposal states that a 350km/h bullet train will connect Brisbane to Melbourne, with stops in Sydney, Canberra and key regional centers including the Gold Coast, Newcastle, Wagga Wagga and Shepperton.
If this is sounding familiar, it's almost certainly because this isn't the first time that Anthony Albanese has raised this project. High-speed rail has been a particular passion for the Leader of the Opposition, and one that he has been talking about since he was sworn in as minister for transport and infrastructure in the first Rudd government in 2008. While holding the portfolio in government, Albanese led a three-year study into the establishment of an east coast high-speed rail system and an independent authority to manage it, and has since spent years in opposition calling on the government to deliver on the project.
It's therefore unsurprising that an Albanese-led Labor Party will be taking this project to an election. However, while the opposition is careful to couch the proposal in the language of markets, calling for a feasibility study and assuring commentators that they will "finish making the business case" for the proposal, the real value of the project has nothing to do with the market.
For generations, our political imagination has been hamstrung by a fallacious belief that the only benefit of government spending consists of the value it returns to shareholders, whether they are public or private. However, as the now world-famous economist Mariana Mazzucato has repeatedly shown, if this kind of thinking had always been applied in the past, the world would be incalculably worse off.
For example, in September of 1962, when then-president of the United States John F. Kennedy declared that the US government under his leadership would attempt "the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked", landing someone on the moon within a decade, he didn't cite the tax revenue or make the business case. Indeed, he did the exact opposite.
His famous justification for the then-record investment of $US28 billion ($US283 billion in today's dollars) in often experimental space-age technologies - that the United States would "choose to go to the moon and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard" - was inspiring, but often overshadows the important point he made directly afterwards. He said that "the goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."
The benefits of what Mazzucato terms this mission-oriented approach to industry policy led to some of the most critical advancements in technology in modern history, advancements that the world is still benefiting from. From laptop computers and the technology that allows our smartphones to have cameras, through to the aerospace propulsion systems that led to our modern planes, through to everyday conveniences like scratch-resistant lenses, water purification systems, ear thermometers and home insulation, the Kennedy government's commitment to the space race for its own sake has improved the lives of millions around the world.
However, while the space race might seem like a strange comparator for a train line that connects a few regional centres in Australia to the capital cities, the political opportunity is nearly identical. An investment in creating new industries, regardless of the business case, presents countries the world over with opportunities to produce value, both economic and social.
If the cosmic example feels too removed from our contemporary experience, there are many terrestrial examples that show the benefits of this way of thinking.
Take South Korea, for example - now one of the world's leading producers of a range of specialised goods, from electronics to textiles.
South Korea's growth as one of the most innovative and productive economies on the planet wasn't the result of a natural comparative advantage, or a prescient application of cost-benefit analyses. Inestead, it was driven by a government that understood the value of modern industry policy.
While there are a number of industries that grew from the government's Heavy and Chemical Industrialisation (HCI) program, perhaps the most notable example comes from the country's shipbuilding industry. Following the proxy war that decimated the Korean peninsula in the 1950s, the country's main exports were base products like tungsten ore, seaweed and simple textiles, with little to no heavy industry to speak of.
When the government proposed an investment in shipbuilding, the powerful Korean business community, led by the Hyundai group, was resistant, leaving the state to shoulder the risk and go it alone. The government set up publicly owned companies across the supply chain to kickstart the industry, starting with its first shipyard in 1973.
When the yard was built, Korea had no presence in the global shipbuilding market. By 1980, its market share was 4 per cent, and six years later that share had grown to nearly one-quarter of the market.
Today, South Korea is the world's largest shipbuilding nation, with 63 per cent of the market choosing South Korean ships. But the country isn't stopping there - the government is supporting the shipbuilding industry to decarbonise, and has set a target to capture 75 per cent of the green sea transport market.
- Phil Potterton, Anthony Ockwell: Fast rail and high speed rail solve different issues for Australia's regions
- Letters to the Editor: Albanese is a good man, but Labor needs more of a fighter
- 2019: Labor promises $1 billion for land to secure high-speed rail corridor between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne
So while many have been quick to criticise the business case for high speed rail, history is littered with evidence that suggests that when governments invest in industry, they have a chance to reap the benefits for generations. While many point to the comparative distances an Australian high-speed rail network would have to cover - as opposed to the relatively short trips between cities in Japan or France - it's important to remember that new challenges present opportunities for innovative solutions.
What advancements could come from this bold new frontier of rail technology? What spill-off technologies might come from putting our best and brightest engineers on the case, and allowing our world-class train-building workforce to solve the problem?
Moreover, what other problems might be alleviated by building this network? How might our emissions profile change if we have a fast and efficient rail network? Australia's domestic aviation industry contributes about 22 million tonnes of carbon emissions, and this is growing at an average rate of 3.3 per cent a year. If even 10 per cent of air travel is replaced by a train powered by renewable energy, this could significantly improve our ability to reach net zero carbon emissions.
The possibilities are credible and within reach. While high-speed rail is an earthbound technology, smart industry policy agenda like those adopted in the past by the United States and South Korea show that the sky is the limit when it comes to investing in big ideas and new industries.
If Mr Albanese is committed to bringing high-speed rail to Australia, he should follow in a brave man's footsteps and do it not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
- Shirley Jackson is senior fellow of industry policy at think tank Per Capita.