Speech to Built Environment Meets Parliament – Building better cities
Parliament House, Canberra
The Hon Anthony Albanese MP
Minister for Infrastructure & Transport
Leader of the House
Member for Grayndler
22 June 2011
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today before this great crowd of designers, architects, builders and planners – though I understand your ranks have been thinned due to the Chilean ash. All of you are committed to building better cities, better urban spaces and better places for us all to live.
I congratulate Built Environment Meets Parliament – or BEMP.
By coming to this particular building each year, you place these most important issues directly in the glare of the national spotlight.
It’s just over a month since I released Australia’s national urban policy – Our Cities, Our Future.
When I launched it at a Property Council of Australia breakfast I referred to the work of the late, great cities guru Jane Jacobs.
This week, I was reading a new book – Triumph of the Cities – by another American economist, Harvard University’s Professor Edward Glaeser.
It’s subtitled – How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier – and it is filled with remarkable facts and thoughts about how cities work and prosper.
I was therefore very pleased to discover that Professor Glaeser is your keynote speaker this afternoon – although I understand the ash means he’s now coming to you via video link.
And I am indeed curious to hear the thoughts of someone who’s prepared to take issue not just with Jane Jacobs – at least with some of her views – but also the great Indian leader, Mahatma Ghandi, who he says was plain wrong when he claimed that the growth of India depended not on its cities but its villages.
India’s growth, writes Glaeser, depends almost entirely on its cities. Cities like New York and London, he says, succeed because they are where talent is concentrated and where smart workers and smart firms flock to be near each other.
Taking on two near demi-gods – Jacobs and the Mahatma – takes some courage so I’d be very interested to hear what else the Professor will be talking to you about this afternoon.
But what have a bunch of the nation’s top planners done?
You’ve scheduled his address to clash with Question Time!
National Urban Policy
When I launched the urban policy, I said I wanted it to spark a national conversation about our Australian cities.
And today is a great opportunity for such a conversation.
Many of you will have attended one of the 18 forums we held in each of our major cities over the past 12 months and I thank those of you here who contributed your ideas.
The Federal Government does have a critical role to play in making our cities more productive, sustainable and liveable.
Despite the romantic view of ourselves as a nation of rough, tough country-folk, Australia is one of the most urbanised nations on the planet.
Cities are our principal centres of economic activity.
They account for about 80 percent of GDP and employ three out of every four Australians.
They are where labour, industry and social institutions are most concentrated.
But in Australia, we cannot ignore the fact that our cities are under strain.
Congestion is costing us dearly.
Not only does it steal time from our work and family lives, it is also a major economic drain.
The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimates that if left unattended, congestion will cost our economy $20 billion by 2020. That’s why the Gillard Government is turning a national eye to the business of cities.
Not because it’s easy, not because it’s without risks, but because it’s necessary.
Productivity is, of course, the key to maintaining our place in the fastest growing and most dynamic region in the world.
The microeconomic reforms of the 1980s and early 90s lifted our productivity to an average of 2.3 percent by the late 1990s.
Unfortunately, the effects of those reforms were worn away during the following decade.
Between 2000 and 2008, our average annual productivity growth fell to just 1.6 percent.
If productivity growth is left to languish, Australia will stagnate and struggle to keep pace with our neighbours.
That is not something this Government is prepared to let happen.
That’s why in 2009 all State and Territory Governments agreed through COAG that they would have in place capital city strategic plans by 1 January 2012.
Each city will have its own plan serving its own interests, but the result will be a nation better connected and served by its infrastructure.
Indeed, future Commonwealth infrastructure investment will be linked to these plans and the principles laid out in our national urban policy.
Right now, the COAG Reform Council is reviewing the plans against nationally agreed criteria.
We would like to see cities with populations greater than 100,000 put in place similar plans.
Let me be clear, this is not a takeover of State and Territory planning roles.
But the Commonwealth will use all the levers at our disposal to drive, foster and encourage the creation of more productive, sustainable and liveable cities.
We know that the future productivity of our cities depends on having in place the infrastructure to sustain them as they grow.
That’s why we’ve made record investments in productive infrastructure, including some $18 billion in urban rail and road infrastructure.
We’ve increased average annual spending on rail more than tenfold.
We have committed more to urban rail since coming to office in 2007 than all previous governments – collectively – since Federation.
We now have a major urban rail project in every mainland state capital:
- Noarlunga to Seaford rail extension & Gawler Line in Adelaide;
- The Perth City Link Project;
- Moreton Bay Rail line in Brisbane;
- Regional Rail Link in Melbourne;
- The Parramatta to Epping Rail Link in Sydney;
- As well as the Gold Coast Rapid Transit Project.
We’re also about to begin much needed improvements to Sydney’s freight rail system.
This will help free up space on the passenger network, making rail travel a more attractive alternative for car commuters.
We are also improving the efficiency of our urban infrastructure by improving connectivity via the National Broadband Network – the railway of the twenty-first century.
In last month’s Budget we announced the Infrastructure Investment Incentive, aimed at attracting up to $25 billion worth of private and superannuation investment in our infrastructure.
Projects that are ticked off by Infrastructure Australia will be eligible for the incentive.
We will be funding greater use of smart technologies for our roads and highways where data sensors can improve real time management of vehicle movements.
Such systems improve the speed and flow of traffic, reducing the stop-start behaviour that occurs on congested roads – reducing accidents and greenhouse gas emissions.
Supporting this is our Suburban Jobs program, which will see more jobs created outside central CBDs, reducing travel times and distances for our city workers.
This Government is determined to make our cities more sustainable.
How cities are planned, their density and spread and the infrastructure within them, provide enormous opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint.
The leadership of the City of Sydney with its proposals for Green Square shows a practical example of visionary, sustainable policy development and I commend the City for it.
This is also a good moment for me to congratulate Frankston City Council in Victoria for winning on Monday the Inspired Cities Award.
This local government award is sponsored by the Major Cities Unit of my department and was won by Frankston Council for its Splash Card Scheme.
The card connects students and young people to jobs with nearby businesses, using virtual infrastructure and boosting the economic growth and liveability of the area.
This is a great practical example of how we can make our cities work better – by encouraging job opportunities near where people live and integrated with public transport hubs.
The urban plan also looks at how we can better manage our natural resources and incorporate climate change risks, when we decide on the location, design and operation of new infrastructure.
In this way, we can reduce the effects of natural disasters such as the recent floods across Eastern Australia.
The Budget also backed the Henry Review’s recommendation to replace the current tax formula for motor vehicle fringe benefits.
Under the old arrangement, the taxable value of a car’s fringe benefit actually fell the more you drove.
Each year, two million Australian vehicles have been taking advantage of this benefit, costing taxpayers $1.7 billion.
Clearly, this reform was long overdue.
What we now have is a much simpler system, with a single rate of 20 percent, regardless of kilometres travelled.
This practical measure will make a real difference.
Let me look now at what we can do to make our cities more liveable.
In last month’s budget, we announced seed funding for high-quality urban renewal projects.
These will serve as models to show how we can create more liveable buildings and better public spaces and streetscapes.
We want to encourage a better supply of appropriate mixed income housing for people of all ages and abilities, both in metropolitan and regional cities.
Last year’s 2010 Intergenerational Report also urged a national approach to our cities.
We know that our cities are continuing to grow and that the makeup of the population is changing.
Those aged 65 and over will nearly double from 14 percent to 23 percent by mid-century.
That means a smaller workforce and an eroded tax base.
We therefore need to be smarter about how we attract and sustain our workers, with a variety of affordable housing and job opportunities close to home.
Too many of our cities have areas defined by their lack of access to jobs, educational opportunities and services.
We need to make sure that as the economy grows, people are not left behind.
This was a major theme of the recent budget – a Labor budget – that recognises that everyone in this country should have the opportunity to share in our future prosperity.
Providing training and prospects of employment is good for individuals – and it is also in our nation’s interest.
The Australian Government wants a prosperous and resilient future for Australia with cities that lead the world in their productivity, sustainability and liveability.
It’s a deeply exciting area to be working in, for it can literally change the shape and face of our nation.
I thank you for your continuing belief that our cities can and should be better places for us all.
Let me conclude as I began with Professor Glaeser’s elegant contemplation of our urban world.
“Cities,” he says, “have been the engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in the Athenian market place.
“The great prosperity of contemporary London and Bangalore and Tokyo comes from their ability to produce new thinking.
“Wandering these cities – whether down cobblestone sidewalks or grid-cutting cross-streets, around roundabouts or under freeways – is to study nothing less than human progress.”
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.