Jun 9, 2011

Turning a national eye to our cities – Opinion – The Punch

As friends and family gathered to celebrate my friend Tom Uren’s 90th birthday recently, he had many reasons to be proud of his contribution to Australia. History books abound that record the unique achievements of the Whitlam Government in which Tom was a senior figure. But there’s a big one that is barely remembered – the role the pair played in getting rid of the septic tank. These famously malodorous mosquito and cockroach breeding pits lay beneath the lawns of suburban homes everywhere, including the then home of Prime Minister Whitlam in western Sydney.

As Tom tells it, by the time he was elected to power Gough had decided enough was enough – a modern Australia deserved a modern sewerage system. So he appointed his Minister for Urban and Regional Development, Tom Uren, to clean up the country by funding new sewerage plants across urban Australia.

What’s unusual here is that this was one of the first forays by a Federal Government into something that had until then been the absolute province of the States – disposing of waste. But the Whitlam Government realised that left to the States, this public health issue could take forever to fix. Hence Tom Uren’s unusual federal assignment.

In 1990, Federal Labor once again took direct interest in our nation’s major cities. The Better Cities program set out to revitalise our inner-city communities but this worthy program was abandoned six years later with the election of the Howard Coalition.

And now, the Gillard Government is once again turning a national eye to our cities. Not because it’s easy, not because it’s without risks, but because it’s necessary. Cities are home to three out of every four Australians making us the most urbanised nation on the planet. It is our cities that produce 80 percent of our national wealth.

And as a planet we are becoming ever more urbanised. For the first time in human history, one night last year more people in the world slept on a bed in a city than in the countryside. That’s unlikely to change. People are drawn to cities for all sorts of reasons and life in an Australian city offers much. Access to high-quality medical and educational facilities, a wide variety of jobs and social activities are just some of them.

But the facts are that our cities are facing unprecedented pressure. Anyone who has sweated their way through the morning traffic on their way to work will know what I mean. Congestion is sapping away at the productivity of our cities. It is stealing time from our families and workplaces. In fact the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimates that if nothing is done to arrest it, congestion is likely to sap $20 billion from our annual national wealth by the end of this decade.

One way this Government is tackling this issue is through investing in urban rail. Like sewerage, urban rail is something that has traditionally been left up to the States. But we believe that public transport is an issue of such importance that we are now funding a major urban rail project in every mainland State capital. Since we came to office in 2007, we have committed more to urban rail projects than all previous governments – collectively – since Federation. We are also investing in Smart Motorways, where data sensors on our major highways can improve real time vehicle movements. This improves the speed and flow of traffic, reducing the stop-start behaviour of congested roads, reducing accidents and greenhouse emissions.

But it’s not just about traffic congestion and the loss of productivity. As our cities grow, we also need to make sure that they are sustainable. We know the planet is groaning as the population grows and that means we need to be much smarter about how our cities are planned and how we deal with waste, water and energy use. We also need to account for the reality of climate change in the design, location and construction of our city buildings and structures to protect against the kind of disasters we’ve seen in Australia in recent years.

I am particularly impressed with the leadership show by the City of Sydney at Green Square – visionary and sustainable development that by 2030 will be home to 40,000 people and a workplace for 22,000. We know that by mid-century one in every five people will be aged 65 or over. That means a smaller workforce and an eroded tax base. We must be smarter about how we sustain our workers with variety of affordable housing and job opportunities close to home where walking, cycling and public transport are genuine alternatives to the car.

For a city to really work it’s got to be liveable. That’s why in the budget we announced $20 million in seed funding to invest in demonstration urban renewal projects. We will be working with the States and Territories on a set of design standards so that our homes can be more sustainable and adaptable over time to changing needs.

Reaching this point has been a national process with the Commonwealth working hand in hand with the States and Territories through COAG. By next January, all of our capital cities will have in place strategic plans to show how they will meet a nationally agreed set of criteria. This is a condition of future Commonwealth infrastructure investment.

We know there is a very long way to go. But the interest that has greeted the release of the policy – Our Cities, Our Future – has been heartening. There’s clearly a hunger among Australians for our cities to perform better and a realisation that it’s for the benefit of all of us that our cities become more productive, sustainable and liveable.