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Wednesday, 10 April 2024
Ridges Resort, Hunter Valley
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC KC

I acknowledge the Wonnarua People, Traditional Owners of these lands and waterways, and pay my respect to their Elders past, present, and future. I extend that respect to the Elders of all parts of our State, and the ACT, from which you have travelled.

Thank you, Aunty Cynthia[1] for your warm Welcome to Country.

Parliamentarians[2]; Building Commissioner[3]; Board Directors, Executives, and members of the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (NSW/ACT)[4]; distinguished guests all,

It was an honour to grant Vice-Regal Patronage to your esteemed Institute recently and so, it is a particular privilege to open the 2024 State Conference and to play a part in your history. 

When we speak about history, one’s mind doesn’t immediately go to engineers, but, as the great American engineer and educator James Kip Finch wrote from Columbia University, in the introduction to his 1960 book The Story of Engineering:

“The role of engineering in providing for [humanity’s] …. material needs is as old as civilisation.”[5]

He concluded with the oft-quoted line, whose ubiquitous appearance on the internet means it must be fact; “The engineer has been, and is, a maker of history.”[6] Indeed, as Finch pointed out in the preface to another of his well-known books, Engineering and Western History, the remarkable evolution of engineering over some 50 centuries or more makes your profession one of the oldest of the practical arts.[7] Not, I note, did he say trades.

Knowing your history is to know your identity: who and what you are, why you exist and why that is important. I presume, therefore, that you have asked yourself why you are called engineers. Perhaps counterintuitively, the word does not come from the word ‘engine’, which derives from the Latin ingenium, originally meaning a ‘trick’ or ‘clever device’[8]. Rather, it comes from the word ingeniare, referring to the talent required to design or invent something (hence, for instance ‘ingenuity’). By the time of Old French and Middle English, the words engigneor and enginour had appeared, and the original meaning of ingeniare had extended to refer to the profession of those applying their talents to designing and building bridges and machines, and then, by the late 18th century, the steam engine, the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, to say nothing of the telegram,  that drove the industrial revolution[9] and, thus, modern society as we have, at least until recently, known it.

My reference to society as we have known it is not a signal to your potential redundancy as a profession.  Rather, for you, as professionals involved in public works, your challenge will be in understanding and implementing the interaction of traditional engineering principles and skills with the tools of the technological revolution we are in the midst of, whose algorithms are changing even as I speak.   

But let me stay with history for a moment. When Professor Finch spoke of some 50 centuries of engineering, he did so in the context of the superiority of western civilisation. Our own local history, of course, is more ancient. Its inventiveness and ingenuity are unparalleled. I need only refer to Baiame’s Ngunnhu[10] - the Brewarrina Fish Traps - and the Budj Bim Cultural landscape in Victoria, cited as one the most extensive and oldest aquaculture systems in the world.[11]

These ancient innovations were born out of necessity – a great driver of invention in any society – in the case of the fish traps and aquaculture system, the social need for food. They also undoubtedly grew out of ‘groupthink’; what in modern terminology we would call teamwork, with the idea perhaps originating, again, to use modern terminology, a hackathon!  

In terms of our colonial history, urban infrastructure can be seen as beginning in New South Wales with Lieutenant William Dawes, who arrived with the First Fleet. Although brought to New South Wales as an astronomer, within a year of his arrival he was also employed as an engineer and surveyor. Dawes helped build Sydney’s first observatory and the batteries on the points at the entrance to Sydney Cove, and he laid out the government farm and the first streets and allotments in Sydney and Parramatta.[12] Dawes Point, the southern point of Australia’s first iconic feat of engineering, the Sydney Harbour Bridge[13], is named in Dawes’s honour.

Some 20 years into our colonial history, with the arrival of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, 5th Governor of NSW, in 1810, what we would today recognise as a major public works program began in earnest.

Impelled by a belief that public order and morality required fine buildings and an ordered street layout – he initiated a decade-long and far-sighted construction program that gave the colony, by the time of his departure in 1821, 265 new buildings as well as a network of roads and bridges,[14] although his layout of what we now know as Sydney CBD streets may not have been his finest achievement. In fact, until I became a devotee of Australian legal history, I assumed Bent Street, Sydney was so-called because of the bend as the road curves toward Pitt Street, rather than after Judge Advocate Ellis Bent[15] (although one wonders whether Macquarie may have been engaging in a little double entendre when naming the street).

Macquarie also takes credit for Australia’s first toll road. On his arrival in the colony, the land route between Sydney Cove and Parramatta was little more than a rutted cart-track that turned into a quagmire after rain. His solution – no longer available to public work engineers – was to press chain-gangs into action to pave its entire 35km length. But in something that does remain familiar, the works were paid for by the citizens, with tollgates being established at either end of the road and leased to private contractors.[16]

Probably unfairly, Macquarie copped a complete shellacking from Commissioner Bigge, who was sent out from England to investigate, amongst other things, Macquarie’s expenditure in turning what was supposed to be a penal colony into an increasingly vibrant, free colony with infrastructure to match.

The mention of toll roads takes me back to the American engineer James Kip Finch, to whom I referred earlier. When referring to the Tunnel linking New Jersey and New York, built in 1929, Finch observed – or was it a quip? – “Presumably when interest and maintenance have been paid by the tolls the tunnel will become free.”  

Hope, as they say, springs eternal.

Until responsible government in 1856, public works in NSW remained the responsibility of the Colonial Administration.[17]

With the passing of the Municipalities Act of 1858[18], many of the infrastructure responsibilities of those offices, particularly at a local level – such as the provision and maintenance of roads, bridges, wharves, water supply, and sewerage – fell to municipal councils.[19] In the regions, they became the responsibility of the Government’s newly formed Department of Lands and Public Works, the predecessor of today’s NSW Public Works.[20]

But therein lay not one, but two problems: first there were different delivery models as between the metropolitan areas and the regions; the second problem was that the statutory regime didn’t provide for a unified system of financing local public works, something which was not effectively resolved for another 50 years with the passage of the Local Government (Shires) Act 1905.[21]

I mention this Act not only because it marked the origin of many of the councils that you work for, or with, but also because it included stipulations that each Council employ, at least one qualified Shire Engineer and a clerk to assist.[22] In a sense, this was the beginning of accreditation in your profession, as well as the origins of your Institute as, in 1909, these now statutorily entrenched  Shire Engineers founded the Institute of Local Government Engineers of Australasia[23], the first Australian body dedicated to the advocacy and advancement of issues specific to the profession of public works engineering.[24]

I will not attempt to unwind all the changing acronyms and the amalgamations that connect that first Institute to the IPWEA; it is enough to say that your legacy reaches back more than a century. Your 4th annual conference, in 1913, was opened by the 23rd Governor of NSW, Sir Gerald Strickland, which was the occasion of his first public address as Governor.[25]  I should add that, although a barrister by profession – a background I share with him – Strickland spoke with some authority as he had, as Chief Secretary of the Colonial Administration of Malta, overseen the delivery of significant public works as part of his tenure.[26]

I won’t repeat Strickland’s jokes, but I will repeat this of what he said on that occasion, as true today as then:

“The work you have to do is absolutely the most important that comes within the scope of public officials.”[27]

Much has changed in the years since, but much remains constant, even down to the papers given at that 4th conference, which included the impacts of new technologies and best practice. Three focussed on the possible changes to road construction given the increasing requirement to accommodate the use of motor cars and trucks, whether steam-driven or petrol, as well as papers on the benefits of motorised haulage, drilling, and rock-breaking equipment.[28]

At this, your 2024 conference, new technology will also be in focus, as you consider the undoubted benefits, but also potential pitfalls, of using AI, including what must be every engineer’s worst dream, namely the potentiality for AI to ‘hallucinate’ design elements or solutions using precedents it has imagined, but which do not exist.

You will also be reflecting on best practice and looking towards the future of engineering, with dedicated streams to women in engineering, as well as to the importance of mentoring the next generation.

There is also a presentation on legal issues, which brought to mind a case decided by the NSW Court of Appeal in 2008. 

The case involved the building of the third runway at Sydney airport and in particular the use of reinforced earth technology, explained in the judgment in these terms: 

“[19]…at prescribed heights on the internal face of the panels metal strips were affixed to the panels, and laid over with compacted earth. A further layer of earth was placed and compacted over these strips. Thus, by a process, tension and friction, the strength of the compacted earth as a mass gravity retaining structure was increased by this reinforcement. [20] The compaction of the reinforced earth was an important aspect of the integrity of the structure.”

I am sure, as engineers, you’ve understood what I’ve just read! 

Reducing the Court’s findings to the bare minimum: the difficulty arose when a newly graduated engineer thought both the cost of construction and the time needed for it could be reduced by, in effect, reducing the extent of compaction by about half.

The reduction in time and cost was too seductive for the company to resist. The wall was completed with a significant reduction in time, jumbo jets rumbled across it for a couple of years, and the wall failed as it was bound to do. The rectification costs outstripped even the legal costs of the strenuously resisted insurance claims that followed.

I mention this case not to diminish the efforts of engineers, but, rather, to point out that implicit in our celebration of public works engineering is an acknowledgement not only of its vital importance when done well, but also the dangers when not done well.

When I speak to lawyers, I always remind them that from the most mundane of cases to the most fiercely contested, they are part of the administration of justice and should conduct themselves and their cases accordingly. In a similar vein, let me finish my remarks to you, members of the engineering profession, with the words of William Barclay Parsons, another of the great engineers coming out of Columbia University in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

“…it is not the technical excellence of […] engineering design which alone determines its merits but rather the completeness with which it meets the economic and social needs of its day”.[29]

Thank you again the work you do and the professionalism with which you do it. 

It gives me great pleasure to now open the 2024 Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia NSW/ACT State Conference.


[1] Aunty Cynthia Morris.

[2] The Hon. Natalie Ward MLC, Shadow Minister for Transport and Roads, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, and Shadow Minister for the Illawarra and South Coast, NSW Parliament; Mr Clayton Barr MP, Member for Cessnock, Temporary Speaker, Parliament of New South Wales; Mr David Layzell MP, Shadow Minister for Regional Transport and Roads, Member for Upper Hunter, NSW Parliament

[3] Mr David Chandler OAM, NSW Building Commissioner

[4] Including Mr Grant Baker, President, IPWEA NSW/ACT and General Manager, Bland Shire Council and the Hon David Elliott, CEO, IPWEA NSW/ACT.

[5] James Kip Finch, The Story of Engineering, Doubleday, 1960, pp. xxi.

[6] ibid., p. xxvii.

[7] James Kip Finch, Engineering and Western Civilisation, McGraw-Hill, 1951, p.iii.



[10] a nearly half-a-kilometre-long complex of dry-stone walls and holding ponds in the Barwon River built and maintained by the Ngemba and surrounding peoples for thousands of years” ‘Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps/Baiame’s Ngunnhu’ entry on the NSW State Heritage Inventory online, available here

[11] Budj Bim is a system of channels, weirs and dams developed by the Gunditjmara people more than 6,000 years ago to trap, store, and harvest eels: ‘Budj Bim Cultural Landscape’ entry on the UNESCO World Heritage website, available here

[12] Phyllis Mander-Jones, ‘William Dawes’, Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, available here

[13] The engineer John Bradfield is well known for overseeing the design and construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but not so well known for overseeing Sydney’s underground railway system, in his position as Chief Engineer of both the Bridge and Metropolitan Railway construction in the NSW Public Works Department: Peter Spearritt, ‘John Job Crew Bradfield’, Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, available here

[14] State Library online learning resources, available here

[15] Kesh Anand, ‘What’s in a Name? The Origins of Sydney’s Street Names’, 7 April 2019, Medium online, available here.

[16] ‘Parramatta Road: a Brief History’, City of Parramatta History and Heritage website, available here. The tollgates were, at the city end, at Broadway; and, at the Parramatta end, near A’Beckett’s Creek, in what is now Granville. The road was opened in April 1811.

[17] For instance, the Colonial Architect (beginning with Macquarie’s appointment of Francis Greenway in 1816), the Colonial Engineer (beginning in 1835 with Captain George Barney, who had served in the Royal Engineers for 26 years), and the Inspector of Public Works, filled for a time (but perhaps not very well) by John Macarthur: ‘George Barney (1792–1862)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, available here;; Margaret Steven, ‘John Macarthur (1767-1834)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, available here

[18] An Act for Establishing Municipal Institutions. [27th October, 1858], available: here

[19] Museum of History NSW Research Guide online guide, available here

[20] NSW Public Works website, available here.

[21] Local Government (Shires) Act, 1905, available here. It instituted a Statewide, compulsory system of incorporated local government, which divided the State’s rural regions into 134 Shires, joining the 190 previously incorporated municipalities: Museum of History NSW Local Government Research Guide online guide, available here. Many of the stipulations of that Act were extended to all Municipalities under the Local Governments Act, 1906, available here

[22] L. O. Bucknell, ‘The Shire Engineer of New South Wales’, a paper read before the Sydney University Engineering Society, October 1914, available here. See also Local Government (Shires) Act 1905, available here and Local Government Act 1906, available here

[23] J. D. Gormly, Shire Engineer, Wyaldra, ‘Some Aims and Objects of the Institute”, Building: the Magazine for the Architect, Builder, Property Owner and Merchant, vol.3. no.32, 12 April 1910, p.76, available here

[24] Although the first engineering society in Australia began in 1870 with The Engineering Association of New South Wales, the prospective membership of that organisation was assumed to embrace both civil and mechanical engineering fields. It objects were also restricted “to advance the technical and scientific, but not the professional, aspects of engineering”: ‘Historical account of the formation of the Institution of Engineers, Australia’, Transactions of the Institution of Engineers, vol.1, January 1920, p.28.

[25] Sir Gerald Strickland could speak some authority on the subject, having assisted in the delivery of significant public works as part of his tenure as Chief Secretary of the Colonial Administration of Malta in the first decade of the twentieth century: Michael Hogan, ‘Sir Gerald Strickland’, in Governors of NSW, p. 430.

[26] Michael Hogan, ‘Sir Gerald Strickland’, in Governors of NSW, p. 430.

[27] Sir Gerald Strickland, quoted in ‘The Local Government Engineers: Review of the Conference’, Building: the Magazine for the Architect, Builder, Property Owner and Merchant, vol.6, no.8, April 1913, pp.83-84, available: here

[28] H. M. Baldock, ‘The Advantages and Requirements of Motor Traffic on Our Roads,’ ibid; Murray, ‘Main Roads in NSW’, ibid., pp.101-103; T. W. Seaver, ‘Roads and Their Critics’, ibid., pp.104-112. Also, for instance, a paper on new techniques to eradicate and control noxious weed: G. H. Rowney, ‘Destruction of Noxious Weeds’, ibid., pp.97-81. Also a paper on best means of building relations between council administrators and local government engineers: Alan Price, ‘The Local Government Engineer: His Proper Attitude to the Council, the president, and the Clerk’, in Building: the Magazine for the Architect, Builder, Property Owner and Merchant, vol.6, no.69, May 1913, pp.92-94, available: here

[29] William Barclay Parsons, quoted in: Finch, Engineering and Western Civilization, op. cit., p.15.

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