Unpopulate or perish – revisiting the Whitlam decentralisation vision in a digital age

By LAURIE PATTON | 5 December 2017

On the 45th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government let’s reflect on a forward-thinking policy that deserves revisiting for a digitally-enabled world – decentralisation.

It’s predicted that pretty soon 90 percent of all Australians will live in our capital cities. But does it makes sense for most of us to be jammed into a handful of increasingly overcrowded population centres?

Urban economists argue big cities are more efficient. However, it might be timely to undertake a broader analysis of the real costs of building homes and providing the associated infrastructure and utilities in outer areas of sprawling capital cities compared with moving people to smaller centres. In any case, is it all about economics? What about quality of life?

What about the cost of health services for an increasingly anxious populous struggling to deal with the stresses and strains of modern city living? What about the increasing pollution that is inevitable as more cars, buses and trucks hit capital city roads?

Improving ‘liveability’ is one of the key outcomes that flow from the deployment of ‘smart city‘ technologies and concepts, along with more sustainable and more technologically empowered communities. The current smart city focus tends to be on the larger existing cities, but why not apply the principle to every community, large or small?

There’s been quite a deal of media coverage lately about the need for better Internet access in regional, rural and remote Australia. Delegates to the annual Broadband for the Bush conference routinely highlight the communications challenges facing everyone living outside our major population centres, while pointing to opportunities for improved delivery of health services and education using emerging online technologies.

However, the debate mostly centres on those already living and working in the bush. Maybe it’s time to consider the advantages of encouraging more businesses, and the people they employ, to move to regional centres? Rather than seeing the demand for broadband outside our capital cities as a problem, perhaps we could turn it into a solution?

Four decades ago the Whitlam Government envisaged a more decentralised nation, and hence the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation was formed. There are many reasons why the Albury-Wodonga decentralisation experiment failed to spur a significant population shift. For one thing, subsequent governments didn’t share the Whitlam vision and follow through with the policies required to encourage more such initiatives. However, arguably the biggest stumbling block was the lack of communications services. It’s a long way from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne and even further to Sydney. In an era when meetings were habitually held face to face, and before we even had fax machines, this was an insurmountable hurdle.

The question we need to consider now is has the Internet provided the solution – the ability for people to work collaboratively without necessarily having to be in the same room, or even the same city? We’ve already seen the creation of numerous Internet-based jobs that can be carried out remotely. This is a trend only likely to continue.

One of our largest telcos has several high rise buildings in both Sydney and Melbourne, each filled with thousands of employees who only leave their office to buy lunch. Yet they all struggle with congested transport systems which means hours spent getting to and from a workplace that could, in most cases, be located pretty much anywhere. On the other hand, there are country towns dying economically because outdated local industries have closed down.

America provides a case study worth considering.  Of more than 300 cities, only a handful are even close to the size of Sydney or Melbourne. Rather than all fighting for space and labour in a handful of places, US businesses are spread across hundreds of regional towns and cities. Likewise the UK, where only two out of 200+ are as populated as Melbourne or Sydney.

One or two major employers can provide the demand for a skilled workforce and the service industries that make a regional city viable. However, we will only see this happen if we have a natioal decentralisation plan – preferably with bipartisan political support and the suport of the states and territories.

The digitally-enabled world we are entering will be full of avenues to rethink how we build a better Australia. New ideas will abound. Perhaps we should also have another look at some of the policies of the past that might have been ahead of their time but are now possible thanks to technology.

As we envisage our future we need, more than ever, governments that listen to the people. More community engagement in decision-making processes might help us strike the right balance between forcing people to move and an orderly and welcomed creation of opportunities to voluntarily decentralise.

Maybe the sea-changers and tree-changers were just the advance guard? Economic incentives, subsidised relocation expenses and the like will no doubt be required. So long as this happens in collaboration with appropriate stakeholders, including community groups, trade unions and so forth, then surely it is not beyond us? It requires the ultimate ‘unity ticket’ – every level of government and both sides of politics agreeing on a bipartisan future strategy.

The Greater Sydney Commission has proposed we morph the city into a “tripartite metropolis” – with distinctly separate eastern, central and western zones. The core idea is that people are able to commute between home, work and other key locations within 30 minutes. Critics of the plan point to the need to create a massive number of extremely high-rise apartment buildings, which may or may not be how people wish to live. The Greater Sydney Commission says it will take 40 years to complete the transition. We could do a lot of other imaginative things over four decades if we developed an innovation-led decentralisation plan.

The Internet has already dramatically changed the way most people work and live. But we’ve only just begun to realise the potential. Of course, we’ll need a 21st Century National Broadband Network to fully realise the opportunities.

(Laurie Patton was CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia, the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users, from 2014 to 2017. This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in John Menadue’s “Pearls and Irritations“.)