Australia is depicted as a vast waste land of deserts, rivers and farms. The truth, however, is that Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Australia’s cities are home to over 80% of the nation’s population and account for nearly 90% of the nation’s GDP.
A map illustrating Australia’s population distribution
Australia’s mythology and psyche are, conversely, rural.
While most Australians have seldom visited the vast interior of the nation, they feel a kinship to this vast hinterland. Much of this feeling is derived from the fact that most of the national wealth originates in the coal fields, gold and iron ore mines, located outside the country’s cities.
Australia, therefore, in spite of its urban centric population, is the only OECD nation that has no explicit national urban or city focused department or agency. One of the primary reasons for this is that Australia’s States formed the nation, reserving the powers to organise local settlement and community development policies to the states. Australia’s states create, control, establish and abolish local governments. Moreover, the nation’s largest cities are the state capitals. The relationships between the state and the city, consequently, run deep. State governments essentially run capital city governments and intervene heavily in other local government; setting local government boundaries, establishing and de-establishing local governments and local institutions.
A further reason for national policy constraint with respect to cities is that the Australian national government has never reached into cities, in the way the U.S. Government has, with urban specific revitalisation efforts. Until the 1970s, therefore, few national Australian governments engaged in urban issues, other than connecting cities with roads and rails. Strong conservative-country parties that ruled Australia found cities anathema because cities were the seed bed of labour unions and the spawning ground of the opposition Labour Party. In 1972, however, Geoff Whitlam’s Labour Party took control of the national government and almost immediately established a city oriented government office, the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD).
Shaping a National Urban Agenda
DURD took on the role of national policy building with a flourish.
This new national creature set out to reform local governments and to decentralise and decant crowded cities. This bold experiment mimicked American and European new green belt towns. The largest and most complex of these projects was created in two cross border connected cities, Albury and Wodonga, with the formation of a Bi-City cross border development corporation to create a new city growth pole, located midway between Sydney and Melbourne.
Several other less ambitious projects were also undertaken.
In the cities themselves, national government funds were funneled through states to revitalise central city under-privileged areas and preserve old inner city communities. Whitlam’s efforts were cut short when his government was the first in Australian history to be terminated by the Queen’s representative, in 1974. With the dismantling of the Labour Government, succeeding conservative governments withdrew direct city engagement.
Bob Hawke, another Labor leader, took over government again in 1983-1996, with a more modest interest in urban policy, emphasising inner city revitalisation. Better Cities; the Hawke approach focused on demonstration projects aimed at city beautiful type developments. This was a popular programme, with both successes and failures. Again, it was abandoned when another conservative government led by John Howard came to power from 1997 to 2008. Howard’s government kept some elements of city building, improving urban infrastructure, such as seaports, airports and roads, but there was no central unit to push cities.
Another Labor Government, led by Kevin Rudd, came to power, in 2009, with a fresh approach to urban policy, with the primary goal of knitting together a national urban policy through a National Infrastructure Agency.
The Cities Unit
For the first time, in 2009, a small Cities Unit was established.
The unit is charged with advancing “integrated governance structures and best practice strategic planning to support the coordinated development of Australia’s major cities, and to set a geographic context for policy, planning and investment decisions, including infrastructure. The Major Cities Unit works across portfolios to ensure that relevant policies and investment are aligned with, and support, the objectives of the National Urban Policy.”
In 2009, Australia gave its first well organised, and by all accounts bi-partisan, support to urban policy. Urban policy is now directed at formulating strategies that rationalise the urban settlement landscape, with increased densities, better transport and improved housing and community development. For the first time, national government has a unit that tracks urban population and investments.
While national urban policy is still in its infancy, there is now strong support for targeting national resources to enhance urban economic competitiveness in such areas as developing national broadband, ports, high speed rail and reducing the urban footprint, with higher densities and housing. At the State level, all States have crafted some form of climate change/sustainability efforts, regardless of party leadership, with money and other national supports.
It does not appear that Australia will turn back on urban policy formation. Some form of national agency to develop and guide urban policy is emerging. It is not clear what form this will take, but there is little doubt that Australia now recognises it is urban based and that its future is tied to the fortunes of its cities, not its sheep.