Feb 6, 2019

Opinion Piece – ‘Australians want a say in their communities’ – Fifth Estate – Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Australians have a tremendous interest in the history of their local communities.

This was confirmed to me when last year I organised neighbourhood history walks in the inner west. I asked a local history expert to act as a guide and invited locals to join in.

The response was incredible.

When we took a walking tour of Marrickville, more than  200 people turned up – along with surprised police who had noticed the crowd and wondered what was going on.

At the second walk, through Petersham, 140 people joined in.

Crowds were diverse. Parents with babies in strollers mingled with seniors. New arrivals to the area rubbed shoulders with people who had lived their whole lives locally.

The raging success of these simple experiments in community-building contains clear messages to governments as we seek to come to grips with the huge pace of change in our cities.

The key message is that Australians cherish their local communities.

And they want a say in how their communities evolve.

Australians have a strong sense of ownership over their immediate surroundings extending beyond mere parochialism.

Most Australians accept that change is inevitable, but want it managed in a way that does not trash the existing character of their neighbourhoods or destroy their historical links to the past.

Therein sits a profound challenge for governments at this critical point in our nation’s history.

With our population now exceeding 25 million people, higher population density in some parts of our cities is inevitable. That means that in the future more Australians will live in apartments, rather than in detached houses on quarter acre blocks.

The challenge for governments is to provide adequate rail, road and other infrastructure to meet the demands of increasing populations without eroding our quality of life.

Public consultation is critical.

That is why a Labor government would create City Partnerships – formal agreements between local, state and federal government over agreed objectives for the physical, social and economic development of cities.

We want the different levels of government to work together on the basis of shared aims and actions that will allow us to properly balance development and the views of communities.

Our plan involves a significant reworking of the current Federal Government’s City Deals program, which has produced co-operative arrangements for Western Sydney, Townsville, Launceston and Darwin.

The process behind City Deals is flawed when it comes to community consultation.

The problem is that the Federal Government has decided its vision for the cities involved and then sought to impose that vision on communities.

City Partnerships will be different.

Instead of imposing ideas from the top down, we’ll work with communities through their local councils on a bottom-up approach.

Economic development will sit at the heart of City Partnerships. Greater government investment in communities can spark jobs growth and productivity gains, particularly with input from the private sector.

But unlike City Deals, City Partnerships will also take heed of community views on amenity. Rather than paying councils and communities lip service, we want them to work with us to deliver growth and prosperity.

We can’t stop progress. But we can direct development in ways that provides a proper balance between change and amenity.

Above all, our aim must be to preserve and, where we can, enhance liveability.

A great example of how not to respect communities is the NSW State Government’s process for delivering its WestConnex toll road in my electorate in Sydney’s Inner West.

A new toll road was never going to be popular.

But the consultation process over Westconnex has been a disaster.

The NSW government barely talked to residents before it began digging tunnels under their homes. And even as the drills began, it was unable to say where the tunnels would emerge or how the traffic they were meant to carry would disperse.

In 2014 one of my constituents received two letters from WestConnex officials concerning the project on the same day, one saying his house would be resumed and the other saying it would not be resumed.

That’s pathetic.

What is even worse is that when Westconnex was first proposed, the object of the exercise was for the new road to take trucks from Western Sydney to the airport and cars from Western Sydney to the Sydney CBD.

The project being delivered does neither.

We can do better. The secret is to work together. 


This piece was first published by the Fifth Estate website today. https://bit.ly/2DU7Ru6