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Urban policy under Labor

By Jago Dodson - posted Friday, 25 May 2012

In just under two months time the second anniversary of the election that returned the Gillard Labor government office will be marked. Looking towards that date and the anniversary of Labor's 2007 election victory in November offers a moment for some reflection on the policy achievements of nearly five years in office. While the pricing of carbon emissions, the taxing of mining profits and the introduction of a disability insurance scheme rank among Labor's higher profile reforms other areas of potential import also deserve recognition. In particular Labor's efforts in the urban domain deserve appraisal.

The Rudd-Gillard Labor government has followed a party tradition since the 1970s of attending to the problems, stressors and deficits pressing upon Australia's major cities and the reform demands these pose. Labor has gradually assembled a matrix of policy capacity to address urban issues that stands in contrast to the disinterest in cities held by the Howard government and also to the approach to urban policy taken by the Whitlam and Keating Labor governments.

Labor's urban policy has combined three general streams. The first and most prominent has been to re-energise federal engagement in urban infrastructure. The boom years under Howard, combined with cautious state Labor governments had seen a lacuna in infrastructure development in Australian cities. Rudd Labor established the Infrastructure Australia agency which has since introduced new formality into Federal infrastructure selection and procurement. The agency's program also formed a direct means of bolstering stimulus funds in response to the global financial crisis.


Urban public transport has been a focus of the Agency's program with projects such as Brisbane's Eastern Busway and the Gold Coast Light Rail scheme receiving federal support. The agency is not without its critics though. Paul Mees of RMIT has rightly queried Infrastructure Australia's selection methods, while I have elsewhere argued the focus on infrastructure has potentially relegated the more significant task of metropolitan planning to a second order concern.

The second stream of Labor's urban policy has been in the urban planning terrain, via the Major Cities Unit, an element within Infrastructure Australia, which has been charged with scoping urban policy problems, compiling large information and research documents and facilitating policy development. The Major Cities Unit contributed to the development of the National Urban Policy announced in 2011 as well as encouraging greater attentiveness to urban problems across other portfolios. The national urban policy is heavily focused on urban productivity accompanied by some attention to questions of liveability and inclusion.

Some dispersion and overlap of policy responsibility has occurred however as a result of a short order response in early-2010 to a sudden public interest in national population questions. The effect of this was to include National Urban Policy within planning for population growth as much as with the dedicated urban frame. The key policies to date have been a 'Suburban Jobs' program seeking to encourage greater suburban employment clustering and technology for road management.

A further stream of policy development under Labor has occurred through the Council of Australian Governments' urban reform agenda in which promise of Federal funding for urban planning has been used as an incentive for the States to institute a harmonised and streamlined model of metropolitan strategic planning aligned to collectively agreed national level principles for urban planning. This has so far produced a major review document on current metropolitan plan conformance to national principles with a further program of revision and alignment yet to occur.

The 2007-2012 Labor urban program sits in contrast to the approaches taken by previous Labor governments. The Whitlam urban program of 1972-1975 involved a vigorous new Department of Urban Development which engaged heavily in both the redress of infrastructure and services deficits in Australian suburbs, the stabilisation of metropolitan land markets and forays into wider restructuring of national settlement patterns. Though controversial, the Whitlam schemes left their imprint on cities, via a mix of heritage protection, service equalisation and land development agencies.

The Keating 'Better Cities' program of 1990-1996 was initiated with redistributive intent under Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe but was soon recruited to Prime Minister Keating economic stimulus program in response to the 1991 recession. This iteration saw Better Cities focus on projects rather than urban restructuring, including urban renewal schemes and brownfields rehabilitation, as well as selected transport projects like the Gold Coast regional rail. The legacy of Better Cities is mixed; the focus on projects left urban processes largely unchanged, although its renewal components may have unintentionally contributed to an acceleration of gentrification and increasing urban socio-spatial polarisation.


So how can we assess the current Labor urban program given this historical context? Rudd-Gillard Labor has pursued a less energetic and more gradual approach to urban policy development than the Whitlam program with the focus placed clearly on the establishment of higher-order principles than ground level redevelopment or restructuring of urban processes. The infrastructure program shares some superficial similarities with Whitlam though where the focus in the 1970s was on local suburban service deficits the current schemes are targeted to megaprojects like road and rail links. This feature is partly shared by the Keating schemes, which included some infrastructure development, but the current urban program includes few urban redevelopment projects, although the suburban jobs element is yet to be rolled out.

Two features of the current arrangements that are distinctive are the use of COAG as a reform pathway and the attempt to instill a hierarchy of policy settings for urban policy. Second, the use of a policy unit rather than a domineering department as the vehicle for policy development may result in greater tolerance and adoption of urban perspectives by other portfolios, perhaps even over the longer term. Much of this policy though is fragile, possibly even ephemeral. A change in government or even a shift in the priorities of the current government could easily see elevated strategic policy evaporate with little trace especially where the states revert to a highly politicized mode of metropolitan planning.

The avoidance of DURD style activism may make policy more acceptable now and the construction of megaprojects makes for the appearance of action and the awe of monument. Building structures though does not equal restructuring. And many of the problems facing Australian cities, such as imbalanced urban employment patterns, suburban disadvantage, governance deficits and environmental despoliation have institutional not infrastructure origins.

And institutional restructuring , such as improving metropolitan governance, or acting to shift employment and housing market patterns in cities would likely require gruelling policy contests. Although Labor is not without some determination in other areas such as carbon mitigation and resource rents, the urban space may not offer enough reward for such toil. Yet while it has made some progress over the past five years Labor will need to do much more than pouring concrete if it is to cement its urban legacy.

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About the Author

Jago Dodson is a Research Fellow at the Urban Policy Program, Griffith University.

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