Tony Abbott is wrong: Federal government must have a focus on our cities

When Dorothea Mackellar pined for her sunburnt country from a desk in dreary London, the Australian nation, then in its infancy, was entirely different to the one we know today.

The area I represent in Melbourne’s north – today a very typical Australian outer suburban place, home to manufacturing and retail and housing construction and transport firms – was then a very typical Australia rural place.

When the states combined to federate in 1901, Australia was largely an agrarian nation. About half the population of around four million lived rurally and our economic prosperity famously rode on the sheep’s back.

These days Australia is, overwhelmingly, an urban nation—one of the most urbanised on the planet.

With a population on its way to 24 million, around nine in every ten Australians live in cities and their suburbs. For the vast majority of us, cities are where communities are made, where relationships and families are formed. They are also where life’s chances are distributed.

Our national living standards have long depended on the urban economy. Cities are engines for economic innovation, responsible for about 80% of gross domestic product and three quarters of all jobs. This was a point made last week in a lecture by Business Council of Australia Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott.

And recently, the Grattan institute released a report reinforcing this point and further highlighted the need to better connect people with jobs and opportunities within Cities.

With the difficult but essential transition from resource-exporting industries to service and knowledge-based industries, the urbanisation of the economy will continue in future decades

For all these reasons, our cities should be thought of as prized national assets.

Although urban concerns have traditionally been the responsibility of state and local governments in Australia, the federal government has a legitimate and important strategic role to play. Since Whitlam, this has been recognised.

Responsibility must rest with all levels of government to ensure our most important of national assets—our cities—are meeting the challenges of liveability, equity, sustainability and productivity.

In this respect, the Abbott government’s recently announced White Paper on federal reform is worrying.

With the terms of reference, released on June 28, the government expressed its vision for federal-state relations, with the activities of federal government ideally limited to areas deemed ‘core national interest matters’, as typified in the Constitution.

This would have potentially far-reaching implications, leaving little room for federal government involvement in many areas that were not concerns when the Constitution was drawn up over 100 years ago—including the profound social and economic challenges confronting urban Australia.

If adhered to, this narrow reading of government responsibility would create a federation fit for the challenges of last century, not the present one.

In the area of urban policy in particular, there are numerous examples of federal government playing a constructive role, supporting state governments and local communities to address the issues facing our cities and our nation.

Far from undermining or usurping the authority of state governments, as the Abbott government seems to assume, previous federal initiatives have shown that different levels of government can and should work together to improve our cities.

In the early 90s, for example, Brian Howe initiated the Building Better Cities program. The program involved the federal government working with state and territory governments to invest in demonstration projects that achieved shared goals.

The successes of the Howe era galvanised federal Labor’s urban agenda when in government from 2007 to 2013. In close consultation with the states and territories, these governments walked us back from the infrastructure precipice our major cities were teetering on.

For reasons unknown, Tony Abbott has torn up this Better Cities unity. There is no Minister under this Government with responsibility for urban policy. Indeed, one of this Government’s first acts was to abolish the Major Cities Unit which had helped inform the decisions of policy makers. Australia is effectively flying blind.

For the people I represent in the outer Melbourne electorate of Scullin, active Federal urban policy has spread social and economic opportunities in very practical ways, by extending the tram network north to Mill Park. It also contributed, for a time, to reducing road congestion as people were provided with a viable public transport alternative.

This project went some way in stemming the drift toward the “two Melbournes” we see today: an inner hub of jobs and activity, and an outer ring where opportunities for a decent life are increasingly constrained.

With proposals rigorously assessed and costed by Infrastructure Australia, an independent agency, Labor governments made targeted investments in urban roads and public transport in support of the national interest, and the aspirations of many suburban families.

There is more to be done.  An area like mine can’t afford a stop-work order on cities policy.

As the Abbott government contemplates its plan for the future of the federation, it must have regard to the enormous changes our nation has undergone since its creation. Today, we need a federal government attuned and responsive to our cities—our prized national assets—not one that is blind and indifferent to them.

About Andrew Giles

Andrew Giles

Andrew Giles is the Federal Labor Member for Scullin in Victoria. Prior to being elected in 2013, Andrew was a principal lawyer at Slater & Gordon, practicing in employment law, where he helped people uphold their rights at work and resolve the issues they face in their workplace.

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