When Dorothea Mackeller wrote of Australia’s sunburnt country and sweeping plains she imprinted her words upon the nation’s heart.
Evocative and powerful, her poetry has been appreciated by generations of Australians.
And so it should be.
It captures the beauty of our often harsh and remote rural areas where for many the fierce red of the sun setting over paddocks is a constant.
But for the majority of Australia’s population living in our cities, sighting a sliver of dusty pink peering between buildings is the closest we get to Mackeller’s graphic portrayal of the outback.
And as the nation that still dreams of a four bedroom house with a backyard at the end of a cul de sac, it’s time we face a somewhat uncomfortable realisation.
We’ve become a nation at odds with our image.
Urbanisation has changed our way of life.
Four out of every five Australians live in cities.
By 2031 our four largest capitals – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth – will have increased by 46 per cent.
The other capital cities – Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart and Darwin – are expected to grow by nearly 30 per cent.
If our cities are left unchecked then the productivity, sustainability and liveability of our nation will languish.
Danish architect Jan Gehl said, “first life, then spaces, then buildings: the other way around never works.”
He has a point.
The creep of urban sprawl has become a costly, unhealthy exercise.
And it’s eating into the wellbeing of neighbourhoods in the outer regions of our cities.
I am concerned that our communities are paying too high a price for long commutes and increasingly limited access to the opportunities they need to reach their full potential.
To guarantee healthy cities well into Australia’s future, governments must ensure suburban communities do not succumb to the tyranny of distance.
This starts by putting people first.
If the members of a community are healthy, it follows that the community as a whole will be healthy.
It’s important that we do not underestimate the role that urban design has in shaping our communities.
Even more so as we face the impact of climate change.
And while we must look at ways to encourage active living through cycle ways and connected neighbourhoods, this is only one part of the solution.
To improve the health of our communities, we must also tackle the growing phenomenon of drive in drive out suburbs.
If we fail to consider this then we put at risk our faith in the concept of ‘a fair go’.
I’ve long admired that ingrained in the Australian psyche, is the firm belief in being able to achieve anything.
Regardless of your postcode.
But urbanisation can rightly be considered in two ways: it either undermines this long-held view, or wholeheartedly embraces it and reaffirms it.
Which view prevails will be determined by whether we plan and invest adequately in our cities.
And if we fail to recognise the contribution healthy communities make to the productivity of our cities, then we are squandering the nation’s best resource.
Labor has always focused on policies that strengthen communities.
That’s because we believe society requires investment.
When I was Minister for Infrastructure and Transport we did exactly this by lifting infrastructure spending to record levels.
When we took office, Australia was 20th among OECD nations when it came to infrastructure investment as a proportion of GDP.
When we left office, Australia was first.
We doubled the roads budget and we allocated more investment to public transport than all other governments combined since Federation.
We established Infrastructure Australia, which conducted an audit and identified a national infrastructure priority list.
We set up the Major Cities Unit and the Urban Policy Forum.
We produced the annual State of Australian Cities report, which was downloaded more than three million times in 2013 and we released Australia’s first national urban policy, “Our Cities Our Future.”
By contrast, in his first week as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott took it upon himself to abolish the Major Cities Unit.
He disbanded the Urban Policy Forum and marginalised Infrastructure Australia.
Infrastructure spending stagnated.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that infrastructure work conducted for the public sector has declined by more than 20 per cent since the 2013 election.
20 per cent.
And this year’s Budget included a $2 billion cut in infrastructure spending over the next two years – cut from their own figures in the 2014 Budget.
It just makes no sense.
Interest rates are at record lows.
Private sector investors are looking for opportunities.
The amount of money held by superannuation funds in this country is approaching $2 trillion.
Yet despite these factors, investment is not happening at the pace required.
Because of these infrastructure decisions, Australia is staring down the barrel of a significant infrastructure deficit.
There has been a change in direction in recent weeks and I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government on their appointment of a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment.
But there’s a lot of catching up to do.
I’m concerned that the Minister for Cities is working within the Department of Environment, rather than the department that actually drives infrastructure spending – the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.
I’m not surprised the Coalition is confused too.
At least five of Mr Turnbull’s Ministers claim to have some level of responsibility in this policy area.
First, there is the Minister for Cities, Jamie Briggs.
Then there’s the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, who is the senior Minister to whom Mr Briggs reports.
There is the Minister for Major Projects, Paul Fletcher, who reports to the Deputy Prime Minister and the actual Infrastructure Minister, Warren Truss.
Off to the side is Josh Frydenburg, who as the Minister for Northern Development, is also talking about infrastructure.
And while I welcome this renewed interest in cities, I would prefer to see Malcolm Turnbull funding buses and trains, not just riding them.
LABOR’S NEXT STEPS
Labor understands that the cost of inaction is too high.
We also know the traditional Commonwealth funding approach simply cannot deliver the infrastructure our nation needs.
This is why we’ve put forward a plan to secure private sector investment.
In October Bill Shorten announced that a Labor Government will create a $10 billion infrastructure financing facility.
This will unlock the billions of dollars of investment available in the private sector, elevating Infrastructure Australia to an active participant in the infrastructure market.
It will mobilise private sector finance, Australia’s superannuation industry and international investors.
We will use a mixture of loan guarantees, loans and seed money to mitigate risk.
This will give the private sector the confidence it needs to be involved and opens the door to accessing superannuation investment.
It will bring a national pipeline of investment online.
Infrastructure Australia will operate as a catalyst for private sector investment, with the strictest financial discipline, commercial rigour, credit risk assessment capacities and a commitment to nation building.
We’ll make sure we get good projects up and going by working with the private sector to overcome market failures.
We’re committed to working in new creative ways with all levels of government, the public and private sectors because we want to make sure communities get the level of investment they need.
Working together makes sense.
Creating healthy and sustainable communities benefits all of us.
URBAN DESIGN & HEALTH
But there’s no time for the Federal Government to take its foot off the pedal.
We can’t be reactive when it comes to population growth in our cities.
We have to be proactive.
Otherwise our suburbs will be stuck in a perpetual game of catch up.
There is currently a diabetes epidemic in Western Sydney.
We don’t hear it talked about enough but it’s a problem.
Figures published by Medicare Local and NSW Health estimate that by 2025 the prevalence of diabetes within Western Sydney will be 204 percent higher in men and 147 per cent higher in women.
Of course we can calculate the cost of this to our health system.
But our primary concern should be the direct impact on the quality of life of families affected by this condition.
And while, of course, we can’t put these statistics down to urban design, we do need to consider the role that planning plays in shaping our neighbourhoods.
I think we can accept that if there’s no footpath down your street and no park just around the corner, there’s less incentive to get out and about.
This goes to more than just a person’s physical health.
It impacts a community’s social health.
When you aren’t walking down your street and when you aren’t at your local park then you’re missing out on those casual interactions with other people that transform a collection of streets on a map into a community.
And when you don’t know your neighbours, then you don’t know to look out for each other.
You also lose out on the vibrancy and sense of belonging that comes with being connected to the people around you.
In the next 25 years there will be a 65 per cent increase in single person households.
This means that there will be approximately 3.4 million people living alone.
Many of these will be older as a result of our ageing population.
The latest projections by the ABS show that within a generation the proportion of people aged 65 years and over will increase from 14.2 per cent in 2012 to 20 per cent in 2041.
Over the same period, the proportion of very old people, those aged 85 years and over, will double from 1.8 per cent to 3.6 per cent.
The ideal community is one that supports ageing in place for those who want it.
That means easy access to health services, groceries and social opportunities through public and community transport options.
But not everyone can afford to live in a suburb that has all these things.
And sometimes, even when you live in a suburb that has all these things, it still isn’t enough.
Last year the tragic story of Natalie Wood came to the nation’s attention.
She lived in Surry Hills in the heart of Sydney.
Yet despite living in one of Sydney’s most bustling and vibrant suburbs, it wasn’t until eight years after her death that anyone noticed.
I don’t say this to speculate on the reasons why this occurred.
I say this to highlight how important it is that we know something of the people living close to us, particularly those most vulnerable such as the elderly.
We are now in summer with the hottest days ahead of us.
Heatwaves are Australia’s biggest natural killer.
The Heat Island Effect means city residents, particularly the very young and the elderly, are more susceptible.
In the outer suburbs of cities, this can be even more pronounced as a consequence of poorly considered urban design.
With co-operation from all levels of government, as well as the development and urban design industries, we can reduce the heat in our cities, improving our levels of personal comfort and making them safer for all.
Many councils are already on the case, having accepted that the situation can only become worse because of the effects of climate change.
They know cooler cities are not only more comfortable, but more efficient.
For example, the City of Melbourne has estimated that during a four day heatwave in January 2014, business across the city suffered a $37 million decline in revenue due to lost commerce and increased operating costs.
That’s why the Council is working to lift its tree canopy from its current level of 22 percent in all public areas to 40 per cent by 2040. The City of Sydney is working to lift its canopy in public areas from the existing 15.5 per cent to 23.5 per cent by 2030.
These councils and others across the nation are implementing simple and sensible measures including planting more trees and providing more parks, open space and water features.
These measures not only address issues associated with climate change, but they also create more neighbour-friendly and liveable places.
I’ve always believed liveability and sustainability go hand in hand.
When Labor was in Government we invested in cycling infrastructure through our National Bike Paths fund.
We also launched our active transport policy, “Walking, riding and access to public transport.”
We did this because we recognised Federal Government should be involved in identifying ways to reduce the community’s high dependence on the car, including better planning, new infrastructure and lifestyle changes.
We also wanted to encourage more Australians to consider greener, healthier ways of getting around.
The simple fact is when cardiovascular disease kills one Australian every twelve minutes; I don’t think we can say it’s not a Federal Government issue.
This is everybody’s business.
The Federal Government has a role to play in identifying best practice, then facilitating and investing in its replication where appropriate across the nation.
For instance, in Perth as part of the Citylink project, you can leave your bike at a u-rail on the platform. Bike hubs and lockers are also provided at a number of stations.
Victoria’s Regional Rail Link, which was funded by the former Labor Government, offers secure bike parking at new stations including Tarneit and Wyndham Vale.
And many workplaces now offer end of trip facilities like showers and bike racks.
By encouraging people to cycle and use public transport we’re promoting active living, while also tackling issues of congestion and sustainability.
DRIVE IN DRIVE OUT SUBURBS
Australia is in a state of change when it comes to where people work.
Australia’s transformation to a knowledge intensive economy has seen the CBDs of our cities become the heart of the nation’s productivity.
According to research from the Grattan Institute, the CBDs of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth generated almost 15 per cent of all economic activity in Australia in 2011-2012.
Similar findings from PwC show that just ten Statistical Area 2s produce almost $1 of every $5 of national income in Australia.
But for the average worker this simply means longer commuting journeys.
The tragedy of this is that many working parents spend more time travelling to and from work than they do at home with their kids.
Suburbs in middle Australia are being transformed from lively communities where people lived, worked and played into drive-in, drive-out suburbs where people can afford a home but can’t find a job.
The national government must commit to tackling congestion.
It’s not just about a wasted $53 billion in productivity because of congestion.
It’s also about the wellbeing of people in our communities.
Nobody wins when they’re stuck in a traffic jam.
We need to do much more than commit to extra toll roads before there is any business case.
We must attack this problem at multiple levels to give all Australians the time and space they deserve to be more than just numbers on someone’s payroll, more than just cogs in a machine.
It’s one of the reasons why I support High Speed Rail.
The proposed High Speed Rail Link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra shows how carefully targeted investment and commonwealth leadership could make a real difference when it comes to strengthening links between cities and regions and, in the process, lifting productivity and livability for both.
The vision of having a four bedroom house with a backyard is no longer appropriate for everyone.
Some people need to live closer to town and the fact is, while our population grows our detached dwellings in the inner and middle rings of cities cannot.
This is where government comes in.
The Commonwealth has a role to play in providing policy leadership and direct investment to make our cities more productive, sustainable and liveable.
Now that we’ve moved on from debating whether there should be national involvement at all in our cities, we’ve arrived at another, more important, crossroad.
Creating and maintaining great cities is not just about quality of life.
It’s also about equity.
Successful cities are inclusive cities.
We should be aiming to make our cities places that provide people with opportunities to be the best they can be – whether this is through education, employment and training; or whether we’re making sure that whatever an individual’s circumstance, their environment provides them with the opportunity to live a healthy life.
Government must rise to this challenge, and Labor has a plan and a commitment to do just that.
I said earlier that if the members of a community are healthy, it follows that the community as a whole will be healthy.
It also follows that if the community as a whole is healthy, then as a nation we can be productive, sustainable and liveable well into the future.