Sep 18, 2018

Infrastructure, Transport and Cities Committee Report – Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Federation Chamber  

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (17:02): I rise to speak on the report Building up & moving out, a title which in just several words goes to the heart of the issues that cities, both capital and regional, across Australia are grappling with today. I want to congratulate the chair of the committee, John Alexander, the member for Bennelong; the deputy chair, Sharon Bird, the member for Cunningham; all the committee members; and the secretariat for their hard work on this report. Whilst I don’t endorse all of the recommendations in the report, I think it is truly a fine example of the work that can be done in the parliament in order to secure a consensus reform agenda moving forward. Indeed, many of the proposals in the report are certainly worthy of support, and I hope that the report garners more attention from the media than it has up to this point.

There is no doubt that Australia has been, for a long period of time now, the most urbanised country on the planet. The national government, if it is going to truly represent the people of our great nation, must be involved in cities, in urban planning and in policies that are directed towards improving the productivity, sustainability and livability of our cities. That must include both capital cities and, importantly, our great regional cities. There is a need to grow regional cities and to support decentralisation in order to take pressure off, particularly, the east coast capitals.

The report makes a number of recommendations. Indeed, there are an unusually large number of recommendations in this report, some 37. Recommendation 1 is for a national plan of settlement. This is certainly worthy of consideration by government. A national plan of settlement, it acknowledges in recommendation 2, must include work also by states and territories and communities, which ‘link vertically across different levels of government’. The report goes on to talk about the need for urban planning.

I’ve told the story of being sworn in as minister in the Rudd government in December 2007. As a new minister I received briefings across aviation, shipping, transport and the range of issues that you have to deal with as a minister. One of the things that concerned me was when I asked who did the planning work in the Commonwealth department I was told, essentially, that there wasn’t a planning unit. They had all left. That’s why we established, when we were in government, Infrastructure Australia and the Major Cities Unit—to make sure that we brought planning back in, to make sure that the key performance indicator of the Commonwealth wasn’t just whether money had gone out the door but what was actually done with those funds. Had it achieved its objectives? Part of the Infrastructure Australia agenda is to go back and make assessments of projects when they’ve been completed and whether they’ve fulfilled the benefit-cost ratio that was expected when the project was approved by Infrastructure Australia. And there’s no doubt that we can do much better.

The committee recommends support for high-speed rail, particularly where you have the large populations around Australia. What that means, of course, is the corridor between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. There’s no doubt that can be a major benefit to both the urban development in those capital cities and, most importantly, to the regional cities along the route, including Australia’s largest inland city, the capital here in Canberra. There are a range of other recommendations that go to making sure that we get better planning, making sure there’s a recommendation that the Commonwealth provide support for research when it comes to cities. That occurs in most countries that are advanced economies. They have those sorts of units providing that best-practice agenda. We don’t, here, in Australia. We rely upon various think tanks and universities, but there isn’t a central body, such as the UKCRIC, that’s recommended as the model for it.

Interestingly, the committee recommends a re-endorsement by the Australian government of the Creating Places for People and Urban Design Protocol for Australian cities that was developed while I was the minister. This was worked out with industry. It was, essentially, an urban design protocol to make sure that we got best practice. The key to facilitating a public support for increases in density is convincing local communities that an increase in density will lead to an increase—not a decrease—in their quality of life. Part of that is about urban design, making sure that green spaces are built into any design of major urban centres. It is about making sure that we look at sustainability of buildings, of energy, of water, of all those issues that the government has walked away from in recent times.

There are a range of other recommendations, including that a senior minister be appointed to look at housing. Housing affordability is an issue in which this government, frankly, has dropped the ball. It is good that this committee report is supporting the issue of housing being an important national responsibility. Housing isn’t just about building places for people to live. It’s about building communities. It’s about making sure that issues of housing affordability and the nature of those communities are identified.

In terms of the other recommendations, there is support for smart cities, making sure that new technology enhances the quality of life in our cities. One of the reasons why people gather in our urban centres is because of agglomeration and what it can do in terms of quality of life. And there’s no doubt that technology can be a major facilitator of improvements in liveability and sustainability, if it is applied properly. So smart cities technology is particularly important, and I very much support that recommendation. When we were in government, under Brian Howe and Lucy Turnbull we established a process of assessing the planning mechanisms which were in place for our capital cities. This report recommends that we have an assessment ongoing through the National Cities Performance Framework, and that is something that is certainly worthwhile.

In terms of other recommendations in the report, it goes through the importance of engaging with the different levels of government. I say to the government, and particularly to the new minister—they change so often these days!—that rather than talking about the rhetoric of their so-called infrastructure investment that is, of course, off into the never-never, that this report is worthwhile and provides a policy framework. It doesn’t provide everything, but it is a step forward. With the governance arrangements, I think it ignores the fact that many of the governance arrangements that this government has put in place have essentially been distractions, including the establishment of the Infrastructure Financing Unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to do a job that Infrastructure Australia is tasked to do in its legislation.

But I do commend the report. I think it provides a constructive contribution to the debate on urban policy in this country.