Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Unfinished Business – The Role of National Government in Shaping Our Cities

September 18, 2019



From Gough Whitlam to Anthony Albanese, modern Labor’s mission has had the state of our cities at its core. Because we have long recognised that they matter: to the functioning of our economy, and to how we live.
Since 2013 and the election then of the Abbott government there’s been an important debate underway around the responsibilities of the commonwealth to those places where the vast majority of Australians live and work, our cities and their suburbs.
This is a debate I’ve been an active participant in: working with Anthony in leading Labor’s cities taskforce, as the representative of a rapidly growing electorate in Melbourne’s north and more recently as shadow minister.
I’m pleased to report some progress.
From a refusal to engage under Prime Minister Abbott, low-lighted by his congestion-boosting refusal to fund urban rail projects, we now see a significant measure of bipartisanship in this space.
I’d like to acknowledge the role of the Property Council in this debate. While we haven’t always been on the same page in other policy spaces, when it comes to national urban policy, there’s been something approaching a unity ticket.
There’s now a place for place-based policy-making in our national politics.
The argument isn’t if, it’s how.
Notably, both sides of politics are supportive of city deals. A concept brought to Australian politics by Anthony Albanese, and constructively pursued by the Property Council. Indeed, very effectively articulated in the What makes a City Deal a ‘Real Deal’ paper of November 2016 - ten propositions that set a useful frame.
I think that there’s more to be done here. In particular, to orient future deals more around shared objectives and associated governance arrangements than simply infrastructure projects. And to see a clearer voice given to those nearer to the ground in building successful communities on their own terms.
This won’t be secured through unsolicited letters sent in the days before an election.
It’s about relationships - based on shared understandings sufficient to overcome the hurdles of federation and the vicissitudes of the political cycle. That’s why we have spoken of partnerships, rather than deals.
A government without a coherent plan for Australia’s economy, also lacks a vision for Australia’s cities - in recognising progress made, it’s important not to lose sight of this critical national aspiration.
So, where to from here?
I’m proud of the urban policies we took to the last election. But I don’t assume they will all be fit for purpose in three years time. It’s time to take stock, listen, and learn.
As Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure I have, of course, some basic responsibilities.
Like holding the government to account, pushing back against its populist instincts - in particular a worrying tendency to seek to conflate immigration with congestion, and making the case for more transparency and openness in decision-making.
Like joining the governor of the RBA, and pretty much every economist, in calling for productive infrastructure investment to be brought forward - to keep our cities moving, and the economy moving.
And in being clear that Labor will support good policy - just as we will fiercely oppose decisions that are not in the national interest.
But I would like to do two things in particular.
Firstly, to lead a big conversation around the role of cities, and of city-shaping policies and projects, to our economy and for our society.
This remains underdone, and this carries consequences. It’s the missing vision.
If we are serious about boosting productivity, we simply must get more serious about shaping the complex organisms that are our cities.
If we are serious about tackling inequality - whether as a moral or an economic imperative, or, better yet, as both - we have to think harder about how where people live shapes not just their opportunities but their experiences and relationships, and what can be done, at a policy level, to respond to this challenge and enable better economic and social connections.
And if we are serious about tackling climate change, we have to do better in incorporating sustainability into our city planning.
Getting urban policy right is absolutely fundamental to our future. So let’s treat it with the respect it deserves.
Secondly, I want to explore and seek to answer a couple of big questions. Working closely with Catherine King, as the senior shadow in the infrastructure space.
- What is the right institutional framework within national government to drive and sustain national urban policy?
- How can we build on the existing city deal architecture to drive better collaboration, across governments and with communities and businesses, around shared objectives?
In these endeavours, and more broadly across this exciting portfolio, I welcome the dialogue with the Property Council of Australia and its members. Now, early in this term in opposition, is a time for me to listen as much as to talk.
The views in this room matter - to me, and to our shared challenge of realising more productive, sustainable and liveable Australian Cities.