Urban policy - speech in Parliament

Mr GILES (Scullin) (12:50): In December 1972 Tom Uren was appointed as Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam government. This was a watershed moment in Australian politics as it recognised the role that the Commonwealth government can and should have in our cities. In 1973—and on the day before the day I was born, I note in passing—Minister Uren wrote:


The Australian Government believes it must be positively involved in the life of our cities and that it has a significant role to play to ensure that they are our servants rather than our masters. In doing this, we are concerned that all people get fair access to a full range of public services and utilities such as schools, recreation, health services, public transport, adequate housing at reasonable cost, choice of employment, an adequate range of commercial and shopping facilities, community welfare services and essential services such as garbage and sewerage. These facilities need to be blended together in cities which retain a sense of human scale and a sense of belonging and liveliness. These are essential conditions ought to be available to everyone.

Prescient, visionary words from a great Australian, these bear repeating today and need responding to. This is a challenge that Labor is up for.

In Australia we have seen a significant shift in the demographics of our cities whereby formerly deprived inner-city areas are becoming gentrified and often unaffordable. These inner-city areas are close to all the public services and utilities that Mr Uren spoke of. The other aspect of this shift is that those on low and middle incomes are often being pushed further and further away from these services and opportunities in the cities, especially jobs. Many of the people that I represent in this place make up the latter of these two groups.

Scullin is an area of Melbourne's north that would profit from greater involvement in our cities from the Commonwealth, as would the electorate of Calwell, I am sure. Scullin experiences the best and worst that extraordinary levels of population growth have to offer us. The best is of course the different people, many of whom come from across the seas to us and bring inspiring stories of hard work, hope and dreams. Unfortunately, we also see something of the worst: a lack of infrastructure and job opportunities creating and compounding social dislocation. Labor went to the last election with a suite of policies designed to tackle these problems. For instance, Labor promised to fund Melbourne Metro, to build a real NBN to people's premises and, of course, to have a minister for cities putting the concerns of urban residents, in one of the most urbanised nations, at the centre of national government. These policies would have made a real difference to the lives of people in Scullin and throughout the suburbs of Melbourne and our other cities.

Instead, we have a government which pursues a policy of wilful neglect, claiming that urban policy is none of its business. The coalition recklessly axed the Major Cities Unit, much to the dismay of leaders in the field such as the Planning Institute of Australia and the Property Council—not traditional friends of the Labor Party. The Abbott government has withdrawn from the urban policy sphere and inflicted massive cuts on Commonwealth spending on urban public transport. Thomas Mulcair, Canada's opposition leader, recognises, as we do, the national interest we share in the success of our cities. He said yesterday:

There can be no national vision for our cities; no national 'project' without an urban project; no national agenda without an urban agenda.

Our self-described 'infrastructure Prime Minister' would do well to heed this advice, but we will not be holding our breath. Instead, we will get to work.

Labor has moved to promote the importance of urban policy, and caucus members are working together to share ideas including about the full potential of our cities. I want to pay tribute to the work of the member for Grayndler, who has been a tireless advocate in this place. He has been especially instrumental in his advocacy for urban rail and the importance of independent expert oversight of infrastructure investment. There is a large and growing body of work about cities. Labor believes experts should be listened to, not ignored. That is why we created Infrastructure Australia and kept it independent.

Australia is amongst the most urbanised nations in the world. It is vital that the Commonwealth is an active player in ensuring the economic health of our cities. Labor has always recognised urban policy is not just about amenity. Traffic congestion and poor planning can act as handbrakes on productivity. The Commonwealth needs to be engaged in this policy area for the sake of our economy. Cities are everybody's business. Labor knows this and that is why we are filling the void this government has left. I am pleased to advise we have already received a positive response from experts as well as from community leaders who wish to brief Labor members about issues affecting all of our cities. We will listen to our experts and give communities a voice.

In my own part of Melbourne, the Access Denied campaign shows both the strong level of support for major public transport investments and the deep interest in communities around having a say in shaping their cities. I look forward to working with them and communities around Australia and playing a part in driving the policy process so that our cities can realise the great vision that Tom Uren outlined so many years ago. We recognise that Australia in the 21st century can only realise its opportunities if it engages with the great challenge of ensuring that our cities are as productive, sustainable and liveable as they can be.

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