Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Anthony Albanese fears Australia will be left behind in the urban policy stakes if the Abbott government doesn’t lift its game.
Melbourne’s Federation Square has been voted one of the world’s best public squares.
The Landscape Architects Network says Federation Square is right up there with St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Times Square in New York and London’s Trafalgar Square.
Melbourne has also been regularly named as being among the world’s most livable cities.
So has Sydney.
So have Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart.
If you type the term “most-liveable cities” into an Internet search engine, you’ll find the residents of dozens of cities around the world claiming they live in the world’s most-liveable city.
Good natured inter-city rivalry aside, these debates carry a serious message for legislators: People are very interested in their local community.
People want their cities to be more than just buildings and footpaths and shops.
They want their cities to have soul – in the way they look and in the range of facilities and opportunities they provide for interaction with others. People want their cities to feel like home; to be vibrant communities where people can gather and where they are encouraged to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.
That’s why there is always such lively debate whenever anyone mentions liveability. People like to debate the relative merits of their cities.
Governments need to do more to tap into this sense of community and to encourage its further development by thinking harder about our urban spaces.
After all, about 80 percent of Australians live in urban areas.
To ignore urban policy is to ignore an issue of great interest to four out of five Australians.
The Commonwealth Government must be engaged in our cities. It must work with states and councils to provide policy leadership and, where appropriate, provide financial resources to help states and local councils work together on the great urban challenges of our time.
That was the approach of former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the first Australian leader with a comprehensive urban policy. Prior to taking office, Whitlam noted that many Australian cities were not properly sewered. Where the conservative leaders who preceded Whitlam argued that sewerage was none of their business and was a local government matter, Whitlam acted, bringing to bear the financial resources of the Commonwealth to address a problem too big for other levels of government to handle alone.
In doing so he made a real improvement to the daily lives of many Australians.
The Rudd and Gillard governments followed Whitlam’s lead. We created a Major Cities Unit within the Department of Infrastructure to drive urban policy by working with states and councils on the issues affecting urban development. The unit traversed all relevant policy areas – transport, sustainability, town planning, accessibility, amenity, and building design to name just a few. It worked with other levels of government to deliver development plans for our major cities.
Things have changed for the worse under Tony Abbott. In one of his first acts as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott abolished the Major Cities Unit with the Department of Infrastructure and Transport. Next on the hit list was the Urban Policy Forum – a group of industry and other experts providing advice on productivity, sustainability and liveability of our cities.
In his first Budget, Mr Abbott dumped literally billions of dollars that had been set aside for urban public transport projects like the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross-River Rail project, Adelaide’s Tonsley Park project and a rail link between the Perth CBD and the city’s airport.
Instead, Mr Abbott will build roads only, insisting he has no business concerning himself with either urban rail or urban policy more broadly.
Mr Abbott does not even have a minister who is responsible for cities – they just aren’t part of his policy agenda.
That’s a great shame.
Our society is changing and, as a result, our governments need to consider the impact of change on cities. Sydney and Melbourne are expected to have populations approaching eight million residents each by 2050.
Cities can’t simply keep expanding outwards, so we need to start thinking now about where all these people are going to live. Then we need to think about how these people are going to get to work. They can’t all drive. So we need more public transport.
These are just a couple of very basic questions that governments need to consider when it comes to cities.
Regrettably though, the current government will not even contemplate these issues.
Mr Abbott is happy to warn about the need to avoid leaving future generations mountains of government debt. But right now his inaction on cities risks leaving today’s children infrastructure deficits that will cost billions of dollars to address retrospectively.
Thankfully, not everybody has their head in the sand.
Just last week, Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott gave an impressive speech in Sydney where she declared that the time had come to put the future of our cities “to the top of our social, economic and political discourse.” Ms Westacott argued that technological shifts were driving profound and unstoppable changes that would change the shape of our cities in coming decades, requiring serous policy thinking on the part of governments.
To give just one of Ms Westacott’s examples, she contemplated the future of shopping malls given that more and more people do their shopping online. If shopping malls decline in importance, what effect will this have on human interaction in public places?
Will such changes increase the potential for social isolation?
What can or should governments do about this?
Such questions demand serious consideration.
Or, as Ms Westacott said, without genuine political leadership, today’s Australians will leave “a seriously inferior legacy to future generations’’.
Ms Westacott is correct.
Mr Abbott should get on board.
He should heed the words of Whitlam, who said at his 1972 campaign launch:
A national government which cuts itself off from responsibility for the nation’s cities is cutting itself off from the nation’s real life.
A national government which has nothing to say about cities has nothing relevant or enduring to say about the nation or the nation’s future.
In 2014 this is even more relevant.
Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism
This piece appeared in The Big Smoke on Thursday, August 7, 2014