Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Address to Committee for Adelaide - Towards More Sustainable Cities

March 11, 2021




Getting urban policy right is critical to Australia's economic recovery.

Cities are the places where the vast majority of Australians live and work.

Our CBDs - the places which have dominated jobs growth for the past decade - have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

We know that the pandemic has helped to accelerate existing trends - such as the decline of bricks and mortar retail, the rise of working from home and rising inequities within and between cities.

These changes underscore the importance of having an effective, national urban policy framework.

A framework that can make our cities more resilient to future shocks.

Urban sprawl, traffic congestion and declining housing affordability all pose long term threats to the continued growth, productivity, sustainability and liveability of our cities and suburbs.

Australia's government needs to consider all these objectives, all these dimensions of the urban policy challenge.

As Gough Whitlam said, more than half a century ago: "Practically every major national problem relates to cities. A national government which cuts itself off from responsibility for the nation's cities is cutting itself off from the nation's real life." There is perhaps no greater long-term threat to our cities than climate change, especially here in Adelaide.

Adelaide is the most vulnerable major Australian city to deaths from heatwaves.

Adelaide has the highest heat-related death rate in the nation, with over 550 deaths since 2001.

Tackling climate change means reducing our emissions, of course.

It's why Labor has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, along with so many leading businesses, the South Australian Liberal government - but not, to all our cost, the Morrison Government.

Good urban policy also has a key role in helping to tackle this challenge.

The City of Port Adelaide Enfield has the highest proportion of urban heat islands with 19.9 percent of its land falling into this category.

This isn't a problem only for Adelaide - it's also a key focus for urban planners in Western Sydney.

Good urban policy can help alleviate these heat islands by doing things like:

building green infrastructure into regular street upgrades and by planting more vegetation to shade building surfaces.

Making our cities sustainable, means also making them more liveable and more productive.

These are inter-related.

And we can create new jobs by adapting our cities and making them more sustainable.

But to do so, we've got to have a vision, and a plan to realise it.

Unfortunately, the Morrison Government has neither.

Meanwhile, cities around the world are taking steps to adapt to climate change and become more sustainable cities.

Australia's cities risk being left behind in the race to be more sustainable.

Labor understands that achieving this goal will require genuine, long-term partnerships with local and state governments as well with businesses and local communities. These should be to achieve shared objectives, not just agreements to deliver particular projects.

We understand that local problems require local solutions.

And we also understand that big problems require buy-in at the local level to make them work in the national interest.

Building better and more sustainable cities will be a key focus for an Albanese Labor Government - because it's the key to better lives for the vast majority of Australians.

So how can we make our cities more sustainable?

Part of the answer can be found in making our cities smarter.

The role of the smart cities or the "internet of things" as enablers of sustainable development is critical.

Our cities need to get smarter, with technological solutions deployed to address a wide range of challenges. Better digital infrastructure should be a no-brainer.

Smart sustainable cities benefit from improved energy efficiency, reduced environmental pollution, better water usage and giving people a healthier environment in which to live.

Adaptation will also play an important role in making our cities more sustainable.

As Anthony Albanese has said: "if we recognise the challenges and opportunities, and develop the right policies, we can harness the urban transformation in a way that will help us build back stronger from the pandemic and the recession".

From pop-up bike lanes to transforming old office buildings to new usage, and making them more sustainable in the process, we can see cities around the world embracing this.

The dimensions of this challenge, indeed this opportunity, are vast.

And so must be the scope of our appetite to reshape our cities to make them more sustainable and resilient, and so more liveable and productive.

Urban water, air quality are just two priorities amongst many that we now have the chance to reconsider through an effective framework.

This week Anthony Albanese announced that a Labor government would establish an Urban Policy Forum, to bring together experts and governments, and - significantly - flagged that this forum would involve the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Such a group can bring a sustainable development perspective into the heart of urban policy.

Real change can happen.

One only has to look at South Australia's stunning transformation to a renewable energy powerhouse for inspiration.

South Australia now has the cheapest wholesale energy in Australia.

And South Australia is well on the way to reaching 100 per cent renewable energy before the end of the decade.

Cheaper, cleaner power is critical to restoring South Australia's place as a national manufacturing hub.

It's also got great export potential with the State Liberal Government saying that by 2050 - renewables could provide 500% of SA's energy needs, with the surplus being exported.

I note the advice of the OECD this week to governments to focus on a green transformation in marshalling recovery efforts.

This must be heeded.

I think there is an opportunity for Adelaide to be a real leader in the 20 minute neighbourhood movement.

Or as my friend Tim Williams calls it: "Near-by-hoods".

A movement given impetus by the move to working from home, and by the experiences of lockdown.

Here, there's a great starting point in the form of the city, already recognised in the work done by Deloitte for the Committee for Adelaide, in envisaging a city of villages.

And Adelaide brings together our national advantages as the world begins to reopen, with some relative advantages all of its own.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Adelaide is ranked 10th in the world for liveability and this can be built on.

This isn't just a good in and of itself, it's an economic opportunity - to attract and retain talent. To seize this moment, to bring in and back the people who will fulfil the promise of this city's future.

A more liveable, sustainable Adelaide will be a city more resilient to any future shocks.

I want to spend some time today talking about the Adelaide City Deal.

Starting at the start - Labor will honour this arrangement, but we won't leave it at that.

Labor is committed to transforming city deals, including to take account of the impacts of COVID19 - including the take up of technological change, new working and consumption habits, lower migration and slower population growth.

To this end, we will offer to parties the opportunity to improve existing arrangements - to collaborate to transform them into genuine city-shaping partnerships.

A new deal for Adelaide! The Adelaide City Deal has enormous potential.

I've been reading and thinking about this, and now I've had the chance to engage first-hand, including through visiting Lot 14.

It's this potential that is what really matters here, understanding that and

realising it: not what's been agreed, but what can be done with this template.

Especially knowing what we know now about the pandemic and our cities.

My criticism of the deal as it stands goes to its size and scope.

At $551 million, and $174 from the Commonwealth, I think a city the size of Adelaide could have expected more for a long term city-shaping arrangement in the national interest.

Especially when we can see the size of the deals that smaller communities are benefiting from.

But there's much to work with.

That we now have a ten-year framework is important, to go with the longer-term thinking of Infrastructure SA.

And the areas of focus: innovation, supporting the culture and tourism economy and population, are present as they should be.

We are talking about something more than a list of projects, and this matters.

The population challenge is particularly important.

For some time South Australians have been leaving for Sydney and Melbourne in prime working age. An older population has been getting older.

And our international borders have been shut for a year.

But the present circumstances should be understood as an opportunity.

The long-term trend of young South Australians heading to Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane for work opportunities has slowed considerably because of COVID.

Adelaide has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop brain drain, and anchor young talented people here.

Before us, there's a sense of an exciting future for this city.

Adelaide's future will, at least, in part be determined by how different levels of government and different sectors of the economy collaborate.

Effective and enduring urban policy requires collaboration: finding a shared vision, then finding the ways to work together to realise it.

In that sense, we're in safe hands, because the Committee for Adelaide knows this well: bringing together a wide range of stakeholders, with a broad range of perspectives on one big question: making Adelaide better.

Yesterday, Anthony Albanese outlined Labor's vision for cities.

He outlined six measures Labor will implement as we recreate cities policy in the wake of the pandemic and the recession: Transform City Deals into genuine City Partnerships (as I've already mentioned).

Revitalise our CBD's.

Renew the independent role of Infrastructure Australia in urban planning.

Deliver a new National Urban Policy framework.

Publish annual State of the Cities Report And give local government a voice in a meaningful National Cabinet process.

I want to briefly touch on each of these - but it's important to think of them as connected. This is a joined-up framework for our urban recovery, and a framework into which many perspectives can participate in.

On CBD revitalisation - we need a plan. Instead, all we have at the moment is a generic plea for workers to return to the office.

Labor will also establish a Cities and Suburbs Unit within Infrastructure Australia, an independent body tasked with assessing the progress of City Deals.

This new unit will make recommendations to Government on the design of a new National Urban Policy framework, informed by expert evidence and community feedback - it will be bottom up, not a top down model.

The Cities and Suburbs Unit will also release an annual State of the Cities report. This will measure the progress and performance of our cities, helping to identify the specific initiatives of local councils and state planning authorities which are effectively working to create more productive and sustainable communities.

And Labor will give local government a real voice at the National Cabinet, correcting the error made by the Prime Minister in leaving out local council from this important decision-making body.

Australia is home to some truly great cities - and Adelaide is certainly one of those.

But there is no room for complacency.

The COVID-recession has hit our cities hard - revealing challenges, accelerating changes.

We have an opportunity to do better.

To make sure our cities are resilient to future shocks like climate change.

To make sure cities like Adelaide don't just bounce back, but bounce forward from the pandemic.

To make sure cities like Adelaide are more sustainable, more productive and more liveable.

To make sure Adelaide seizes this moment, stops the brain drain, and anchors local talent as a source of growth.

And in doing so we can tackle climate change, create jobs and strengthen communities in our city.

Labor intends to seize this opportunity, not run away from responsibility.

That's Labor's vision for our cities, one I will be proud to work with Anthony Albanese in delivering on this vision in government.