Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

The National Government's Role in the Development of Cities

April 21, 2021






It’s both my pleasure and a privilege to join you today, and to talk about the role of national government in urban policy - in shaping our cities, and our national settlement.

A lot has happened since I was initially approached by the John Cain Foundation to discuss Labor’s approach to cities and urban policy.

The foundation has joined with Per Capita.

The world has been shaken by the COVID pandemic – which has accelerated trends and exposed weaknesses in our economy and society.

Almost all of these bear on, and in turn are shaped by, our approach to urban policy.

How Australia’s government approaches urban policy really matters -

Because urban policy encompasses all the domains that affect prosperity and quality of life in our cities and suburbs: those places where the vast majority of Australians live and work, and where 80% of our GDP is generated.

Everything from transport and infrastructure; housing; urban planning; economic development; industry and innovation policy; business and education, skills and training; healthcare and social infrastructure. Immigration, too, of course.

The right national framework for urban policy will improve the lives of millions of Australians.

Get it wrong and we end up with worsening urban congestion and all the ills that brings, declining housing affordability, a bigger carbon footprint and unequal cities that are only liveable for the few.

These are the stakes.



Today, I also want to reflect on the life and legacy of John Cain -

John was a generous mentor, kind friend and wonderful example to me.

But that’s the least of it.

All Victorians owe John Cain a great debt: for his contribution to public life, and for the manner of it.

Decency and integrity, principles and vision: an unbeatable combination for an effective political leader.

We should better recognise this. Perhaps we could work towards an annual address befitting his stature, and the importance of his example?

How John Cain remade Melbourne isn’t properly acknowledged.

From opening up public spaces to all, to embracing the Yarra River as an asset.

From the Tennis Centre to the redevelopment of the MCG -

And by reforming liquor licence laws that enabled our world class late night economy and laneway scene.

We see his vision for this city as we walk, drive or ride through it.

Around the world, it appears on TV screens.

What might have been if his premiership had coincided with a collaborative national focus on urban policy - with his understanding of place better appreciated?

How might his values and his vision drive today’s debate?

How might he have perceived the opportunities and risks to our CBDs of more employees working remotely?

How might he have thought about reviving our CBDs after the pandemic and recession?

And, what's the best way to give greater prominence to social infrastructure?

These are the questions that I, and Anthony Albanese have been grappling with in recent months.



Since World War II, every Labor Government has made an important contribution to urban policy in Australia.

In 1945, Ben Chifley commenced post-war reconstruction with large-scale investment in public housing.

Gough Whitlam and Tom Uren connected many suburban areas to sewerage across Australia and established the Department of Urban and Regional Development.

Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Brian Howe drove change with the Building Better Cities Program.

And Anthony Albanese as a Minister in the Rudd and Gillard Governments established policies to support the development of our cities, including establishing Infrastructure Australia and releasing Australia’s first ever comprehensive National Urban Policy, which identified three key pillars of productivity, sustainability and liveability.

These pillars continue to frame our approach, the first principles of our attitude to Cities policy.

It’s an extraordinary legacy of reform, that has truly shaped Australia’s cities and suburbs for the better.

And perhaps a slightly intimidating one as the Shadow Minister -

I’m humbled to have the chance to build on it.



Last month, Anthony Albanese outlined Labor’s vision for cities and for urban policy. 

Labor will implement six measures as we recreate cities policy in the wake of the pandemic and the recession:

  • Transform City Deals into genuine City Partnerships;
  • Revitalise our CBDs;
  • 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.

Our policy is designed to be a joined-up framework for our recovery, a framework for enduring partnerships to secure those three pillars.

I see this as answering the call of the great British urbanists Peter Hall, to fix the broken machinery that has been holding back urban policy.

To address the fractured responsibilities for cities - within governments, and between government, the community and the private sector.

This was of course the initial rationale for the City Deals program.

But in place of long-term, city-shaping understandings to secure shared objectives we have pale imitations of the UK City Deals they were intended to emulate.

Held back by a paucity of vision, an absence of transparency and, frankly, a lack of interest on the part of the Commonwealth under the Morrison government.

This has to change.

Labor will honour the existing deals, but we won’t leave it at that.

We are committed to realising real City Partnerships, putting in place the mechanisms to enable this, so that they are built from the ground up - as they always should have been.

Right now, we desperately need a plan to revive - indeed reimagine - our CBDs.

The data tells us how critical this is but anyone who has been to Docklands at lunchtime on a Monday can attest to this.

A plea for workers to return to the office is no substitute for a plan, especially when there are so many ideas and initiatives that could be harnessed to see buildings and space repurposed, and these critical clusters of economic activity and jobs moving again.

Labor will 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 both expert evidence and community feedback.

The Cities and Suburbs Unit will also release an annual State of the Cities report - it will measure the progress and performance of our cities, helping to evaluate the specific initiatives of local councils and state planning authorities.

This fixes a missing link, which has been preventing the development of a dialogue with the Commonwealth around the planning of our cities and so denying the possibilities of effective collaboration to grow and rebalance our urban economies.

And Labor will give local government a real voice at the National Cabinet, reversing Scott Morrison’s wrong-headed decision to exclude local council from this important decision-making body.

This is already having serious consequences for our recovery efforts -

Great ideas aren’t being shared and the lessons of recent rebuilding efforts, such as that in Christchurch, have demonstrated the critical importance of engaging those decision-makers closest to the ground.

Labor’s vision meets the challenges of this moment, and anticipates the opportunities we must grasp to secure the future Australians deserve.

But first we must listen, and I’ve been doing just that.

On Zoom and more recently in person - I’ve been meeting with local governments, businesses, academics, ‘committees for’ and state representatives.

Building my understanding of the distinct challenges and opportunities in different cities and of how we can come together to get the machinery of people, policies and investments working effectively, together.

Anchoring real partnerships for recovery, and to reshape our cities to meet the needs of all their citizens.



I’ve also been asked to speak about the Building Up and Moving Out report.

I was pleased to be part of the Infrastructure, Transport and Cities Committee’s work which led to this report, in 2018.

The report made 37 recommendations to the Government.

I don’t propose to discuss all of these at length, rather to empathise two aspects of the report  - a clear sense and articulation of the national interest in and national responsibility for the planning of our settlements, and an understanding of the breadth of the issues we need to consider if we are to secure our future prosperity, sustainability and living standards.

We are one of the most urbanised nations in the world and as the report states “The Australian Government is the only entity which can influence policies and outcomes at a national level.”

A clear call to action.

But what’s happened since 2018?

When this report was tabled in Parliament, I asked - “Is there the political will to carry forward the debate contained in this report?

Three years later - we now have the answer.

It’s a no.

Like other significant reports presented to the Morrison government, it gathered dust before receiving the most cursory of responses.

Almost every word that accompanies so-called in principle agreement to recommendations has been contradicted in practice.

Tony Abbott liked to pretend that cities didn’t exist -

To his credit, Malcolm Turnbull did genuinely make an effort on urban policy -

Under Scott Morrison, well, his approach to urban policy is like everything he does -

No responsibility.

No transparency.

No accountability.

To blame the states instead of seeking to develop shared interests, in the national interest.

We simply don’t have any meaningful engagement with shaping coordinated planning, building useful and useable data - any of building blocks for an effective national framework.

But this shouldn’t be this hard.

The City Deal framework deal could and should be built upon, if taken seriously, as we are proposing.

Real city partnerships could be the glue that binds together a vision for our cities and suburbs that is effective and enduring, situated within a renewed national urban policy, that is itself shaped by better data, as we keep track of the state of Australian cities.

Reimagining their CBDs and restoring the jobs that depend on them, and at the same time exploring opportunities to secure work closer to where most people live.

With Infrastructure Australia fulfilling its intended purposes, with a further focus on place - understanding what’s happening in Australia’s cities and suburbs.

Alongside a coordinating National Cabinet process that’s no longer blind to cities, and at which the level of government closest to the people - local government - is represented.

We could use the COAG commissioned capital city planning work led by Brian Howe and Lucy Turnbull as a starting point.

The formal structures and limitations of our federation can no longer be an excuse for coordinated action - and history shows us they have never been a barrier to national leadership.

So much of what national government does shapes our urban economies, and with them our nation and its future prospects.

Our challenge is to take responsibility -

To fix the broken machinery -

And to make our cities more liveable, more productive, more sustainable and more resilient to any future shocks.



I put liveability first.

Because cities are where we live, not just where we work.

John Cain wouldn’t have needed reminding of this, but it’s too often overlooked.

We need to talk more about housing, not as an asset class, but as a human right and the foundation of living a decent life, accessing opportunity and amenity.

Building more homes isn’t everything when it comes to enabling people to live fulfilling and productive lives - but it’s fundamental.

How those houses are built, and where, matters too.

The restrictions of lockdown showed us that even in our Garden City of Melbourne hundreds of thousands were not able to access green space.

Access to employment opportunities is critical, but access to services and amenity cannot be ignored when we think about stronger communities, twenty minute neighbourhoods and what building blocks are required to secure good lives for the suburban many, not just the well-off few.

Currently, over a million Australians are unable to access housing on the market, or need assistance to avoid rental stress.

House prices are rising at the fastest pace in 32 years, making it even harder for first home buyers.

Just 10 percent of homes are affordable to the bottom forty percent of potential first home buyers in Melbourne.

For renters, the situation is even more dire - last year only 3% of available properties on the rental market were affordable and suitable for households receiving welfare payments.

We currently have more than 30,000 fewer public housing dwellings than there were ten years ago.

The response of the Morrison government isn’t good enough.

We need a National Housing and Homelessness Plan as my friend Jason Clare has recently called for.

That this has been neglected in the existing City Deals is nothing short of a disgrace.

Because making our cities and our suburbs work better also means making it easier to buy a home and easier to rent.



Cities are all about connections.

This is most apparent when we think about what frustrates them: notably, congestion.

A huge drag on productivity and economic growth, a still greater impact on the quality of too many people’s lives.

Before any of us had even heard of COVID-19, Australia’s productivity had flat-lined, wages had been stagnant, business investment was going backwards and annual growth was below average.

A pandemic is no substitute for a plan to really bust congestion.

We are presented though with an opportunity that we must seize in the form of hybrid work.

That those who work in knowledge jobs have spent time working remotely, and will continue to do so, opens a window to rebalance our urban economies.

This doesn’t mean rejecting the economics of agglomeration.

The reasons for many knowledge businesses to cluster together in the centres of our major cities are the same today, as in 2019.

Similarly, it will remain important for colleagues within those businesses to work alongside one another - the workplace will become more a place of collaboration than task-performance.

But the dispersal of work means we can revive and reimagine suburban hubs as well as our CBDs.

These can be complementary objectives - as John Cain demonstrated when his government developed Southbank whilst matching a broader public health agenda with building hospitals in the suburbs.

Both examples are relevant now.

To plan for a CBD that’s more than just a collection of workplaces, but where citizens come together to share activities and experiences - as PWC’s recent report on the future of city centres flagged only weeks ago.

And for people in growing communities to be able to access essential services, as well as good job opportunities, close to home.

More remote work also raises concerns about a re-gendering of work.

Will women disproportionately work from home and so further bear the burden of unpaid work there, whilst also missing out on networking opportunities in the office?

Many other questions require addressing.

What does less people commuting to the office mean for our CBDs?

What happens to our retail districts in the age of Amazon and online shopping?

And how can we best realise the opportunities for new work hubs in our suburbs?



The 21st century is the age of urbanisation, and the time when the impacts of climate change must be addressed, adapted to and above all effectively mitigated.

The sustainability of cities matters so much more than the attention it is presently being given.

It’s only in recent years that a majority of humanity were living in urban areas - soon this will be more than two-thirds.

In the world’s most urbanised nation, we must get moving and make this a national priority.

Especially as the immediate aftermath of the pandemic presents challenges, such as the decline in public transport usage.

Now that Mathias Cormann is at the OECD, it would be remiss of me not to refer to its March Interim Economic Outlook.

This set out some priorities that Mr Cormann’s former colleagues should pay attention to: ensuring a fast vaccination rollout, and maintaining fiscal supports for young people for starters, along with prioritising digital infrastructure.

And seizing the moment of a green transformation.

There are serious environmental challenges to be addressed in our cities, too.

As well as promoting electric vehicles, as Labor has proposed, we need to do more when it comes to transit: to get people back on public transport, and continue to promote active transit - including through initiatives like twenty-minute neighbourhoods.

We can’t continue to ignore the inequity within our cities that is exposure to heat.

Air quality and urban water concerns also need to be considered, as we plan for a sustainable urban future.



Labor understands that the critical question for a national approach to urban policy rests on governance -

The Liberals see urban infrastructure as just another opportunity for election pork barrelling.

This fosters cynicism and denies the reality of our cities as complex and interconnected organisms.

That’s why it’s so important that we have committed to producing an annual state of our cities report, and to establishing an Australian Cities and Suburbs unit

- to do for places, what Infrastructure Australia does for projects.

The Auditor-General does spend a lot of his time going over programs like the Urban Congestion Fund, but this isn’t how many people would design a governance framework!

Trust in institutions is fundamental for securing change.

We can never take it for granted - we have to recognise how quickly the pandemic sheen has worn off in the face of the scandals engulfing the Morrison government.

And we should also bear in mind two things in this regard -

Firstly, we must play to the strengths of the different levels of government (as the state of the vaccine rollout so vividly demonstrates right now);

Secondly, that city-shaping can’t just be a technocratic issue.

Cities are places for people.

Those citizens must be better connected to the debates over the future of the places where they live and work.

Labor - unlike the Morrison government- recognises what the pandemic has exposed.

That we have been sleepwalking towards tales of two cities in all our major centres -

Haves and have-nots being segmented -

And where you live shaping how you get to live your life.

When we say, we’re all this together, we should mean it.

I say this about all Australians, but it goes for those of us with the capacity to make change too - rebalancing our cities requires national leadership, but this must involve effective cooperation and engagement across all levels of government to secure a shared vision.

This means, getting on with fixing the broken machinery and putting in place the mechanisms that can meet our shared challenges.



We are experiencing this generation’s second social democratic moment - and we cannot waste it.

The decisions governments make now will determine whether we bake in inequality, or if we can secure a new Australian social compact, grounding a good society.

Defining the responsibilities and the role of national government in shaping our cities is a big part of meeting this challenge.

Because how our cities work in large part determines how we live.

Building better cities means securing better lives for the large majority of Australians.

It won’t happen by itself, and it can’t happen without consistent national leadership, fostering collaboration and driving innovation, closer to the ground.

On recognising that different levels of government have complementary roles to play - if we can agree on a shared vision, beyond the short term, and, from the national perspective, focus on planning and process, not on projects as ends in themselves.

Today, we have a Prime Minister who takes responsibility for nothing.

Whose sense of the possibilities of federation rests on having Premiers to hide behind, and who has been determined to deny any role for local government.

Who has had nothing to say about Australia’s cities, proving through this Gough’s adage of half a century ago - that the tired government he leads has nothing to say about the lives of the large majority of Australians.

Under Anthony Albanese and Labor we propose a better approach.

We know that a new social compact must take account of place, through a national urban policy that’s fit for purpose.

To this end, we take inspiration from the past, apply that to the present, with a focus on the future.

In our urban nation, in this urban century, we are committed to securing cities that work for and belong to all of their citizens - places that are productive and which drive economic growth and prosperity, that are liveable and sustainable - and that have the resilience to withstand future shocks.

This is a grand nation-building project, that must be led by the national government - as a genuine partnership.

With the states and territories, local governments, businesses, community groups, and ordinary Australians.

So that we are all in this together.

Today, we know so much more about how our cities work, and how they haven’t.

We can see the opportunities.

Now, we have to seize them.

John Cain wouldn’t waste this moment and nor should we.