Opinion: local government needs a voice at the national cabinet

By Andrew Giles

August 19, 2020

Andrew Giles (AAP Image/James Ross)

It’s almost a cliché’ to say the challenges we face today are unprecedented. But it makes this no less true.

The challenges we face as policymakers and elected officials are enormous.

How we respond to the challenges of a pandemic and a deep recession, in particular how we craft policy to make our cities and suburbs better, healthier, more liveable and productive places.

But there are lessons we can learn from the past, ones that we can adopt and adapt for our own times.

Nearly 30 years ago, Brian Howe was the minister responsible for the Building Better Cities program — launched in 1991 by the Hawke Labor government in cooperation with the states and territories and local government.

The program is credited with leading the revival of Australian inner cities, the most significant change in urban Australia since World War II.

Howe wanted to address ‘spatial disadvantage’ arising from economic changes, and the social problems associated with settlement patterns emerging in Australian cities. He did so, not just through funding projects but looking at how we could secure better urban planning, closer collaborations: better cities, and better lives for their residents.

Today’s recession will not just increase social inequality, it also risks accelerating the growing spatial divide within our cities.

Where we live really matters, and this can’t continue to be ignored by our national government.

In Melbourne, COVID — 19 cases during the second wave were concentrated in the northern, western and south — eastern suburbs with higher concentrations of lower paid workers engaged in casual and insecure work.

Indeed, there’s a close correlation between the prevalence of insecure work in a local government area, and that of COVID — 19.

In the leafy eastern and bayside suburbs, where more residents are able to work from home, infections have remained relatively low.

We need to find new ways of making work more secure, but we also need to make sure that one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic is not greater spatial inequality.

It’s why investing in services in our growing outer suburbs is so important.

It’s why investment in social and affordable housing is important.

It’s why we need to make sure there’s a vision for our suburbs — that ensures that no one is left behind in the pandemic, and that everyone can get ahead in the recovery.

It’s why we need to listen to voices from the suburbs too — to ensure their lived experiences of the pandemic inform our policy responses.

National cabinet

So I want to speak about the national cabinet, and specifically, the exclusion of local government from it.

The national cabinet has played an important role during the early stages of the pandemic in coordinating Australia’s response to COVID — 19, but a truly national cabinet must include a seat at the table for local government and for cities and suburbs to be a particular focus of it’s work.

The successes of the national cabinet flow from its capacity to bring jurisdictions together in shared pursuit of common goals — despite the obstacles our federation sometimes puts in our way.

City deals

Which brings me to City Deals — which represent the same concept.

I’ve said before that the current City Deals program falls short of what has been required to deliver real and lasting change to our cities.

To meet the challenges of reconstruction we need real partnerships where all levels of government work with and listen to the private sector and communities.

But too many current city deals are merely a collection of infrastructure projects that the Commonwealth was always going to contribute to, not mechanisms which enable us to address the challenges our cities and suburbs are facing.

There are also significant questions about the progress of key City Deals around the country that are falling well behind schedule: including deals for Perth (announced more than three years ago, but still an idea in search of its expression), South East Queensland and the NW and the SE Melbourne City Deals.

We need progress on these deals.

We needed them yesterday.

And of course, true City Deals can’t continue to neglect our suburbs and the lives of the one in five Australians in outer suburban growth areas.

Labor understands that we need a new vision for our suburbs: one that is underpinned by job creation, service delivery and the principles of building communities rather than dormitories.

The international debate over 15 — minute cities, and the experience of lockdown as revealing more profoundly how proximity matters when it comes to amenity as well as opportunity for, must inspire real change.

Western Sydney University identified that 300,000 people leave Western Sydney every day for work, if left unchecked, the report estimates that there will be a daily outflow of more 560,000 commuters by 2036.

This, we can’t just ignore.

Our suburbs, and suburban jobs, will continue to be a key priority for Labor.

The COVID- 19 experience

It would be remiss of me not to speak of the impact that COVID-19 has had on our cities and in particular the way we work.

The COVID crisis raises some key questions about the future of our cities and suburbs.

Will large companies retain slick CBD headquarters but allow their employees greater flexibility to work from home and potentially from satellite offices in the suburbs?

As the NGAA Jobs and Commuting Report points out the way forward may be a hybrid model — most workers are keen to return to an office setting, but not everyday.

The Centre for Cities in the UK similarly has identified this as a key pandemic impact on cites.

This trend could help create jobs and the liveability of our suburbs, and boost local economies. While impacting our CBDs, and jobs there in sectors like retail.

Other big questions emerge, which we need to factor into our thinking about an urban policy that’s of ongoing relevance, include:

  • How work is done?
  • What are the lasting changes in consumption?
  • And to what extent will habits formed during lockdown continue?
  • How do we get people moving safely again, can we revive mass transit, and will commuters transit preferences change over time?
  • What are the key implications for health and well — being that urban policy can address?

A huge ‘known unknown’ for our cities and suburbs is what happens to immigration, and when (and how) our borders reopen.

Immigration and trade policies have always shaped our cities, and their labour markets — this won’t change in the future but the range of impacts is enormous, including the internal migration consequences of an extended pause in skilled migration.

All of these questions demand flexibility and adaptability from policymakers.

They also call for, more of the above, when it comes to the successful elements of our pandemic response to date: getting governance arrangements right, building governing capacity (in terms of data, expertise), and identifying shared objectives.

Brian Howe’s Building Better Cities program helped build Australia out of our last recession, and left an enduring legacy: better cities!

The principal focus of Building Better Cities was on projects targeting inner city disadvantage.

Now, 30 years, our urban geography demands a different approach — to deal with the spatial inequalities of today, and to better connect suburban Australians to all those things that make up a good and secure life.

Rebuilding better, and more resilient, cities and suburbs is critical to economic recovery from pandemic and recession.

But it’s more than that: where we live means so much to all of us.

These places need to matter equally in government, and around any national cabinet table.

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