Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Planners lack power and government leadership
Planners, it seems to me, are like lungfish, able to lie dormant underground for months or even years until, as conditions moisten, they emerge. The Big Wets occur here roughly every second decade. Then individuals of the genus Urbanicus strategii are called willy nilly from below-stairs to resume their impossible life’s task, namely, to remake our cities without any powers.
It’s a federal Labor thing, this vain urge to “fix” our broken cities. And, having popped up under Whitlam in the ’70s and again under Hawke-Keating in the ’90s, it is not without a certain pathos, for in both cases it failed, as it will likely fail now.
Whitlam-Uren’s Department of Urban and Regional Development, DURD to its friends, had grand aims. It was going to decentralise the capitals, rationalise growth, remedy urban decay and – hear this – develop Canberra as an attractive alternative. In three years it spent more than half a billion, mostly on land purchase and on nose-bagging every planner in the land. But when it vanished, and mud closed once more over the planners, not a ground-level trace remained.
Twenty years on, Brian Howe’s Better Cities Program, son of DURD, re-employed many of the same people. Acknowledging the Commonwealth’s dearth of planning jurisdiction, it adopted a project-based approach, where you fling money at select projects and hope that the message will somehow spread. This, I believe, is what we call “leadership”.
The projects funded by Better Cities ranged from the reasonably deserving, such as East Perth and Ultimo-Pyrmont, through the doomed (inner Launceston) to the downright disastrous, such as Newcastle’s Honeysuckle.
Now the lungfish have risen once more from the depths to gather around a new promise-fount that is known, with distinctive Ruddite blandness, as the Major Cities Unit. Grandson of DURD.
And not a moment too soon. Australia, perhaps surprisingly, is one of the world’s most urbanised nations, and although “suburbanised” might be a more apt term, the fact 78 per cent of us qualify as city dwellers makes the cities debate and the population debate the same. The future of Australia is the future of its cities, decisions urgently required, like, yesterday. But decisions are not what’s happening.
Hysteria abounds, especially at those election-promise pressure points where Rudd now looks increasingly Howardesque. The hoo-ha over a few incident boats and Rudd’s – well – overboard response, more befit an armed invasion than a few desperates seeking shelter. Similarly, the yellow-peril phobias that have turned a population prediction of 36 million by 2050 into a sinister policy statement say more about us than the continent.
Well managed, Sydney can cope easily with 7 million. Ditto Melbourne. Many cities thrive with more. And then there’s climate change.
Hysteria should inspire action, not inertia. Yet the government’s paralytic cowardice on tax and climate change also blankets, like so much volcanic ash, its Major Cities Unit.
Even its location, within Albanese’s gargantuan Infrastructure Australia, reminds me of how cynical CEOs treat equal opportunities units, making them advisory only and placing them far enough down the bureaucracy to guarantee failure.
The Major Cities Unit, too, is strictly advisory. Headed by Dorte Ekelund, formerly of Perth and Canberra, it’s a year old, so what has it done? I power-walked to Ekelund’s recent talk to find out. But the only certainty I gleaned is this. PowerPoint should be banned.
When a senior public servant addresses her professional peers on “Transforming Australian cities” by lip-syncing to 18 frames of digital dot-points with all the content of a mummified ministerial sound byte, you know you’re being sold a pup. And a runt, at that.
“What I always say,” she began, “is how wonderful it is to be talking about urban policy and representing the federal government at the same time.” She was right. She does always say it. The proof, slide for slide, is on the internet. Then again, it wasn’t the first time for her audience, either, many of whom had clambered from the mud for Hawke-Keating in the ’90s and even Whitlam-Uren before. That’s a heap of patience with “key themes”, “liaising” and “facilitating outcomes”.
For transforming Australian cities was one thing Ekelund’s speech wasn’t about. What her unit has done, basically, is collect data, twigs towards a National Cities Strategy. With the Council of Australian Governments, they’ve agreed “criteria” that brim with platitudinous codswallop designed to “address nationally significant policy issues” and “provide for” (but not provide) infrastructure.
If transforming our cities was your aim you’d eschew jargon. You’d be precise and unequivocal. You’d ban sprawl, promote density, tax our world-beating mega-houses, ration energy, build railways and cycleways, tax roads and petrol (more), reward exercise and link every last dollar of stimulus or cities funding to energy and emissions targets.
A recent nationwide survey shows 75 per cent of us would accept higher density housing to preserve wilderness, but even here Ekelund equivocated, saying “it could be good or bad”.
Peak oil, she conceded, is pretty much upon us. But as she also noted, this is an election year. Nobody move.