Making Cities Work

Chifley Research Centre Website 24/09/2009

My first memory of politics is my mum and dad telling me Gough Whitlam sewered Western Sydney. It might seem odd today but it was a big issue in 1972. It improved the lives of a lot of people and the places where they lived.

“It was said of Caesar Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble. It can be said of Gough Whitlam” Neville Wran once remarked, “that he found the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered and left them flush”.

The Whitlam Government did a lot of things. I think it’s telling that what my parents remember most are sewer pipes. And it’s a message that has stayed with me to this day. That infrastructure matters. Sewer pipes matter. Good roads and public transport matter. So do broadband connections and affordable housing – and they matter most in our cities.

Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Seventy per cent of Australians live in our major cities. The work they do accounts for 78 per cent of our economic growth.[1] Cities are the engine rooms of our economy. That’s why making them work should be at the forefront of national economic policy.

Unfortunately not every federal government has understood this. Whitlam sewered these suburbs only after they were ignored by a succession of conservative governments. When Paul Keating was first elected in 1969 he made the same point. In his first speech he said:

Filthy sewers and lack of adequate sanitation are reminders of the shortcomings of government generally in this country…the bulk of Australia’s population, as you all know, is concentrated in the capital cities and regional areas, yet there is less attention paid to the problems of these areas than there is to rural areas.[2]

The sewers have now been fixed, but otherwise he might have been talking about any conservative Federal Government.

The last government took the myopic view that unless it involved moving freight or shifting votes the Commonwealth shouldn’t invest in cities. Now in opposition they are still struggling to come to terms with the concept. This is what Joe Hockey said on Sydney radio last year:

You know what the biggest investment in infrastructure is? Investing in people. Giving them tax cuts, helping them pay their bills every day. Giving them a job. That’s what I call investing in infrastructure.

Tax cuts and jobs are important – very important. But they are not infrastructure. And this is where national leadership is now required.

The biggest problem identified in the hundreds of submissions to Infrastructure Australia last year was congestion. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Congestion already costs us about $16 billion a year, or two per cent of GDP. That’s $16 billion of wasted time. Time when freight could be on the shelf not sitting on a dock or on the road. Time when we could be with family, at school, at work or another job.

That’s why national leadership is needed. Connecting people and places is good for the economy – whether that’s on the road, on a train or in cyberspace.

Westlink M7 is a good example. This is one project where the last Federal Government did get involved because it is a major freight route through Sydney, but it has also been a boon for motorists, the local community and the economy.

It has cut congestion and made Sydney’s west a better place to live. It has also been a magnet for economic development. Some of Australia’s biggest companies have flocked to relocate along its corridor, creating 10,000 new jobs and generating more than $3 billion in economic development.

I think we need to build more M7’s, but I don’t just mean roads. I mean intermodal terminals, broadband networks, affordable housing and public transport. We need to work with the private sector and we need to provide national leadership.

The standard response from the Liberals in Canberra is it’s not our responsibility -Someone else should be doing this. I think that’s the wrong approach. Wiping our hands of responsibility won’t make the economy any stronger or more productive.

Last year I visited to Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world. The first thing that struck me was the blue sky. No smog. One of the reasons for this is the city’s 500 kms of metro lines, largely funded by the national government. 86 percent of commuter trips are by rail. Scale and density suits it. It’s what makes a city of more than 12 million work.

We have very different cities, but the big difference is the involvement of the national government – national investment in public transport. National government taking on the role of a leader not a bystander.

Because a city doesn’t work if you can’t get online, if you can’t get to work or if you spend more time with your foot on the brake than the accelerator. It doesn’t work if you can’t afford to live there.

And if a city doesn’t work then the economy suffers. That’s why this is so important. Improving the performance of our economy means improving the performance of our cities. Making them work.

We have two options. We can leave it to state and local governments or we can get in there and help. I think the Federal Government should be involved. I think the economy demands it. And so do the people that elected us.

[1] Cities contributed to 78 per cent of all economic growth in Australia between 2000 and 2006. Tony Malkovic, “Re-building Australia from the Ground Up” (2008), Australian Chartered Accountants.
[2] Paul Keating, First Speech, 17 March 1970, House of Representatives.