Urban Planning

I congratulate the member for Oxley for moving this motion on urban planning. I am deeply interested in the future of our cities and I am pleased to be able to contribute to debate on this topic. Questions about the appropriate role of government are central to any discussion about our cities. My view is that government must be involved in and must lead with the planning of our cities. In 1965 Gough Whitlam rightly said, ‘Urban planning necessarily means public planning.’ Governments do not merely have a role to play in urban planning; they have a duty to actively plan for the future of our cities. This extends to the federal government as well as to state and local governments.

I congratulate the member for Oxley for moving this motion on urban planning. I am deeply interested in the future of our cities and I am pleased to be able to contribute to debate on this topic. Questions about the appropriate role of government are central to any discussion about our cities. My view is that government must be involved in and must lead with the planning of our cities. In 1965 Gough Whitlam rightly said, ‘Urban planning necessarily means public planning.’ Governments do not merely have a role to play in urban planning; they have a duty to actively plan for the future of our cities. This extends to the federal government as well as to state and local governments.

It is ironic that in modern Australia, where four-fifths of the population live in urban centres, the enduring images of our country are of the outback and wilderness. The Australia in which most of us live and work is better reflected in two large aerial photographs I have in my office. The first is an aerial shot of the Melbourne CBD and surrounding areas. Although changes to the inner city have dated the photograph, many features are recognisable—the centres of power, the major transport nodes, the inner urban residential areas and the major health, education and cultural institutions. The other is a photograph given to me by a high school in my electorate. It is also an aerial shot and it is focused on the school and the surrounding suburbs in south-east Melbourne—low-density housing, parks, local schools, a small shopping centre, residential streets and a number of major arterial routes. These two photographs illustrate what I think are some of the interesting features of our cities: the concentration of major institutions and centres of power in the inner city; the enormous changes that have taken place in the inner cities over the last 15 years and the relative stability of the established suburbs; the prosperity, security and seeming homogeneity of suburban areas; and the division between inner urban and outer suburban areas.

More than most other areas of policy, urban planning calls for an active role from government because we have a collective interest in the form of our cities. Planning and other government activities provide the framework within which private decisions about land use can be made. All governments have legitimate policy objectives in areas like economic prosperity, social justice and environmental sustainability. These objectives can be facilitated by the structure of our cities, or they can be undermined. The Commonwealth has substantial involvement already in a range of policy areas that raise questions of urban planning. Decisions about industry and innovation, migration, public transport, road funding and infrastructure policy and our response to climate change all affect the form of our cities. I am hoping for greater direct Commonwealth involvement in urban planning.

To act as though urban planning is not a federal issue does not lessen federal implications; it simply results in poor policy outcomes. We have seen an example of this problem arise over the last five years with the housing affordability crisis. The crisis is real, it is happening and it is adversely affecting thousands of Australians. Home ownership remains a cherished aim for most Australians, yet today it is out of the reach of so many. The present crisis could have been ameliorated with acknowledgement and action by the Howard government. Instead, the Howard government had no response and it abolished the position of housing minister in 1996. In fact, there was little indication that the previous government made any decision with reference to the implications for our cities.

In contrast, Labor has a long and proud tradition of Commonwealth involvement in urban affairs. Throughout the Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments, the Labor Party led the way. The Keating government had the Building Better Cities program, which was scrapped by the Howard government on coming to office. The recent announcement by the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government of the creation of a major cities unit in his department is part of this tradition of Labor policy on urban affairs, as is the establishment of Infrastructure Australia and the Building Australia Fund, which were announced in the budget. The Rudd Labor government is addressing the future needs of our cities and our economy. They are inextricably linked and to ignore this link, as the previous government did, is to fail in the responsibility of national leadership.