Nov 28, 2013

Federal key to urban growth – Opinion – The Australian

In a heavily urbanised nation like Australia, the development of our cities is critical to growth in national productivity.

Our cities are home to two-thirds of our population and much of our economic activity. So if we want productivity gains and jobs we must ensure they operate as efficiently as possible.

That’s why I am dismayed about the Abbott government’s opposition to the very existence of an urban policy, and its ill-advised insistence that the commonwealth has no role to play in the provision of urban public transport.

Every Australian understands traffic congestion is a drag on their individual efficiency. The Australasian Railways Association says it’s costing the national economy $15 billion a year.

The 2013 edition of the State of Australian Cities report highlighted the challenge facing cities by noting there is significant jobs growth in the centre of cities, particularly in high-paying, technology related jobs. But it also said our population growth was happening on the edges of cities, not in the inner urban areas where the jobs are.

Economists tell us that two policy responses are needed. First, endeavor to create jobs closer to where people live in outer-urban communities. Second, make our cities more productive by increasing their density, particularly around transport corridors.

The experts describe increased urban density as a virtue because it promotes the generation of hubs that drive increased economic activity. And if increased density comes with better public transport, the resulting improvements in quality of life attract more people to the inner city, creating a multiplier effect on productivity.

But greater density increases traffic congestion. We cannot just wish that away. That’s where governments need to provide leadership and why Tony Abbott’s ideological difficulty with investing in infrastructure is so potentially damaging. He believes the commonwealth has no role in the provision of public transport infrastructure and should stick to its knitting. Instead, he wants to leave cash-strapped states to handle public transport.

In government, we took an integrated policy approach that involved working with councils to encourage urban density.

We also worked with states to commit to modern, efficient public transport solutions to traffic congestion and finalised changes to tax arrangements to encourage greater private sector investment in infrastructure.

I’ve got nothing against roads. But the health of our cities requires more than politically motivated commitments for favourite road projects. It requires leadership and policy agility. It’s simple: if we want the economic benefits that can come with greater urban density, we have to meet the resulting need for better public transport or else the increasing density will become a burden, not a productivity driver.

In government we funded vital urban public transport projects including the commonwealth’s single largest investment in urban rail, the Regional Rail Link.

We also provided money in the budget for Brisbane’s Cross River Rail project, the Melbourne Metro, the Perth Airport Link and an upgrade of Adelaide’s Tonsley Park rail line.

The Prime Minister’s rejection of these commitments means the modern infrastructure agenda is already losing steam. The government’s position is shortsighted and dangerous. It’s an abdication of responsibility and a failure of leadership. It’s also hypocritical.

Mr Abbott made traffic congestion an issue in the recent election campaign. It seems he agrees our nation needs to tackle urban congestion. He just doesn’t want to pay for it.