In a great nation such as Australia, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are in terms of our quality of life. It’s tempting to think we have it all — sunshine, harmony, prosperity, freedom and opportunity.
But we should never forget that if we want to maintain our existing lifestyle, we can’t afford to be complacent towards emerging pressures. One of those pressures is urban growth. This manifests itself in our cities by traffic congestion.
Much of this problem is being caused by a shift in jobs growth from outer suburbs in industries such as manufacturing to knowledge-intensive industries in inner cities.
Because housing is expensive in inner suburbs, many people live in drive-in, drive-out suburbs on the edges of cities where there are limited job opportunities. In Perth, the growth has resulted in a city that hugs the coast for more than 50km along the north-south corridor.
Many commute to the city each day, spending time on congested roads. Where public transport is available, people will embrace it. The success of the Mandurah rail line, championed by Alannah MacTiernan, has been replicated by other new rail lines around Australia where patronage has exceeded all forecasts.
In October, The West Australian newspaper ran a fascinating article about US academic John Renne, who turned down a $170,000-a-year job at Curtin University because he did not want to live on the edge of town in a suburb without public transport. The only way he could afford to live near a railway line was if his wife also worked to augment his university salary. But the family had taken a decision that Mrs Renne would stay at home to raise their young children.
Interestingly, when The West asked WA Housing Minister Bill Marmion about the case, the minister reportedly said his job was to help low-income people get into affordable homes, “not to give high-income earners housing options”. Strictly speaking, Mr Marmion was correct. But his attitude, which mirrors that of the Abbott Government, seems to be that the development of cities is not a concern of government. That’s wrong.
It is a central part of the job of governments to manage change. Our national economy is in transition. It is experiencing change which is not only affecting our lifestyles, but also threatening equity by making it harder for unemployed Australians in outer suburbs to access work or training.
Any politician who says such challenges are not the business of government is asleep at the wheel. The Abbott Government refuses to contemplate urban policy and has withdrawn all Commonwealth investment in public transport.
In doing so, it is turning its back on a serious demographic problem which, left unaddressed, will affect our economic productivity and our egalitarian culture.
Here are just a few ways in which the Commonwealth can protect and enhance the quality of life in our cities:
Encouraging jobs growth in outer suburbs through incentives for businesses.
Working with councils to increase housing density along existing public transport corridors.
Investing in public transport and efficient roads.
Investing in hospitals and university campuses to encourage the development of research and associated enterprises in the middle suburban rings of cities.
Encouraging the development of second and third CBDs in our capital cities.
Tackling housing affordability by working with other levels of government on land supply and planning regulations.
There is no magic remedy to the growth pains facing our cities. But Canberra’s approach of doing nothing will let down the nation.
There is a leadership role for the Commonwealth in reimagining our cities and the ways in which governments can ensure they remain productive, sustainable and liveable.
It was counterproductive for the Federal Government to cut funding for all public transport projects that were not under way, including $500 million investment in light and heavy rail in Perth.
The Government has instead focused on seeking to build new toll roads.
There is a role for investment in roads which is why the former government expanded the Great Eastern Highway, created the Gateway WA project and allocated funds for the Swan Valley Bypass.
But the success of the transformative Perth City Link project jointly funded by the Commonwealth and WA Governments shows what can be achieved.
All it requires is co-operation with other levels of government and vision.
Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Cities, Infrastructure and Transport.
This opinion piece was originally published in the West Australian on Tuesday 6 January 2014.