(Acknowledgements and introduction)
In these remarks I want to say a little about how the COVID pandemic has affected our cities, and how this in turn affects the role of governments in securing a better urban future.
Of course, I’ll touch particularly on the challenges and opportunities facing my - our - hometown, but I hope you’ll appreciate that the perspective and policies I’ll be discussing are more broadly applicable.
In considering the experiences of the past two years and incorporating these into our thinking we must avoid two traps: pretending we can snap back to business as usual - or seeing today’s ‘new normal’ as somehow set in stone on the other.
Melbourne’s future is yet to be written!
We know that cities can decline, and even die. But urbanisation isn’t going anywhere. The virus hasn’t destroyed the economics of agglomeration.
The question for policy makers must be: what is to be done, to appreciate what recent experience has shown us about how our cities work, how they haven’t, and how they can work better - for all their citizens.
The Committee’s recent Benchmarking Melbourne report highlighted the risks of simply reverting, and observed that ‘cycles of city-shaping change tend to materialise when there is a bigger and better toolbox to translate vision and plans into reality’.
That toolbox must include a national urban policy that’s fit for purpose.
Under Anthony Albanese, Labor has such a policy, underpinned by a broader framework designed to secure cities that are more productive, liveable and sustainable.
What’s been happening in Melbourne, and what does this mean?
ABS data released last week showed that Melbourne’s population declined last financial year, by 1.2%.
This was a greater decline than in our other capitals and ended an extraordinary run of population growth.
The global pandemic’s effective pause on new arrivals, in particular international students, saw the city centre the most affected, with a population decline of 11% in the CBD and of 10% in Carlton.
The Property Council estimates that Melbourne CBD occupancy in February is still only 15% of what it was pre-pandemic.
So where does this leave the place we are gathered in this morning?
For Melburnians, and for Australia’s economy, what does this really mean for our future prospects - and, more pointedly, what can be done to shape this future?
But last week’s Budget had nothing to say about our cities.
It confirmed our long held suspicions about a retreat from urban policy, and that the City Deals program has withered on the vine.
Even in respect to SEQ, just announced to great fanfare.
For Melbourne, of course, there’s nothing.
Three years after being promised two City Deals, we have none. Just a reference in a press release.
After councils have spent so much time, money and effort putting together ideas to meet what they thought was the brief.
This brand of uncooperative federalism doesn’t end here under Mr Morrison, sadly.
At the end of last week, Minister Fletcher launched an extraordinary attack on the infrastructure agenda of the Andrews State Government, and the Suburban Rail Loop.
Extraordinary in two respects:
Firstly, in showing no regard for collaboration between jurisdictions. Indeed, no respect for the role of the state, nor the decisions of Victorian voters.
Secondly, in showing no self-awareness. It should be beyond belief that the Minister responsible for the Leppington Triangle purchase, and the rolling scandal that has been the commuter car parks program to seek to lecture another government on its infrastructure agenda.
Looking for someone else to blame is no foundation for an urban policy that meets the needs of Australians.
A plan to revive, and also reimagine our city centres
I mentioned earlier the particular impacts we’ve seen in our city centres.
The places that have latterly driven employment and productivity growth have been quietened, through first the direct consequences of restrictions and then as a consequence of changes to patterns of work and consumption.
And today, even with fewer people currently living and working in central Melbourne, congestion has already resumed its status as our main handbrake on productivity growth (along with its wider effects on commuter’s lives).
When I last spoke with members of the Committee for Melbourne, at the end of 2020, I was also thinking about where we are now, in the heart of the Hoddle Grid.
About its extraordinary contribution to Australia’s growth, pre-pandemic.
And how we need a sustained focus on the central areas of our major cities as a centrepiece of our recovery.
It doesn’t seem that this is a view shared by the current government.
The only reference to our CBDs in last week’s budget was funding for the Scone CBD Revitalisation project, a town of just over 5,000 people in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate.
The Benchmarking Report I spoke about earlier points to the relative advantages Melbourne has in its core.
These strengths, and the appetite for innovation we’ve seen on display over the past two years, point to our capacity to secure a future worthy of Melburnians.
Reports of delays in some public servants returning to their offices full time illustrates the need for this. Whilst I don’t have a crystal ball, it seems clear to me that a more distributed model of work, together with a shift in consumption, means a rethink is required of the idea of a CBD economy solely built on office workers and associated spending.
So calling on people to return to their desks can’t be a satisfactory policy response. Snapping back to where things were in 2019 won’t - can’t - cut it.
There’s a rich debate underway about CBD recovery, and indeed reimagination - with a pronounced move away from the term ‘central business district’ to talking about places of activities and experiences - something highlighted as a relative advantage by the Benchmarking Report.
This is being led by urbanists and, in a more practical sense, by the community and business leaders who are closest to the action and to understanding. By groups like the Committee for Melbourne.
Through the pandemic localised innovations and incentives have responded to the challenges presented to central cities, and many of these should endure as we shift to look to seize the opportunities which are there for Melbourne.
We need to bring together a clear-eyed understanding of how to unlock Melbourne’s potential, with a complementary national approach.
Involving those obvious national policy levers like immigration and trade policy, and building on our wider strengths in education, healthcare, and the diversity of our population through enabling a bottom-up approach to city-shaping in this context.
One last point: it’s often stated that we have to choose between city centres and the suburbs.
Indeed, we can’t.
As we work to reimagine CBDs as places of activity and experience as well as knowledge work, at the same time we must be seizing suburban opportunities in a world of more distributed work.
Instead of a drift to a tale of two cities, a more inclusive and connected Greater Melbourne.
The Australian Cities and Suburbs Unit
Labor recognises that to advance a national urban policy worthy of the name, you need the right institutional framework.
Under Tony Abbott, the Liberals ripped up what had been in place as he retreated from responsibility for cities.
When he was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, urban policy returned to its rightful place - but this wasn’t, and still hasn’t, been reflected in the resources and structures necessary to turn aspiration into outcomes.
The fact is, the Commonwealth right now just isn’t equipped to discharge its responsibilities to those places most affected by the pandemic, and the millions who live and work in our cities.
Compounding this is the Morrison Government’s continual undermining of Infrastructure Australia- more interested in the political benefits of infrastructure spending than making long-term, city-shaping investments.
This is why Labor has committed to a review of Infrastructure Australia.
We will also establish the Australian Cities and Suburbs Unit, within IA.
I’m so excited about this, as an anchor for the cooperative national urban policy that will help drive our recovery - and secure more productive, sustainable and liveable cities.
The OECD’s report Making Cities Work for All, set out five pillars of a national urban policy approach to secure inclusive growth: money, place, people, connections and institutions.
To date, the scope of our engagement from the national level has fallen some way short of this, short indeed of a full appreciation of what a place-based approach should entail.
So the new unit will recommend to Government the design of a new National Urban Policy framework, informed by expert evidence, industry expertise and community input.
It will also produce an annual State of the Cities Report, a report card on the progress and performance of our cities, helping to identify the specific initiatives of local councils and state planning authorities which are effectively working to improve our urban communities.
All of this will make a difference, giving Melbourne - and cities around the nation - a toolkit to work with, to turn vision into reality.
Enabling real city partnerships, built from the ground up.
Just over a century ago, Melbourne emerged from the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Stronger, due to the lessons learned. With better physical infrastructure but also a better sense of how our federation should work, with a new national Department of Health.
One hundred years on, our challenge is the same.
This is another time for assuming responsibility, not resigned fatalism.
In an urban nation, in this urban century there is a critical role for national leadership from national government in securing cities that first recover, and then thrive.
That become more resilient - as well as productive, sustainable and liveable.