It’s poor long term planning, not the size of the population, that’s the problem

LAURIE PATTON | 21 November 2018

As Christopher Pyne has pointed out, “We don’t need to put a handbrake on population growth, we need to manage our population growth sensibly in a country which quite frankly can take a lot more than 25 million people”. Pyne comes from Adelaide, of course, where the state government says it would like to see a lot more people living.

There are numerous regional centres across Australia crying out for economic development and keen to encourage businesses and the people they employ to move there, voluntarily of course – where both would benefit from a lower cost of living, cheaper land and so on.

It’s not about how many people live in our country, or where they come from. It’s about where we’ll all live in the future. And it’s about how we leverage modern communications technologies to make living outside a handful of overcrowded and increasingly dysfunctional capital cities more viable.

Australia is roughly the same land mass as the United States, which has a population of circa 350 million. There are more than 300 cities in the US, yet only a handful are as large as Sydney or Melbourne. Likewise, London is the only one of 200+ cities in the United Kingdom anywhere near that big. Surely this provides a clue as to how to accommodate more people in a sparsely populated country like ours?

A modern decentralisation strategy could help de-stress our overcrowded capital cities and help counteract the pressures on the country as our population inevitably increases.

Decentralisation would also help address our rising level of rural poverty – providing employment for people already living in regional areas where jobs are scarce.

It’s predicted that soon 90 percent of us will be crammed into our capital cities. This will inevitably see house prices there escalate, greater traffic congestion, and increasingly frayed nerves.

Even allowing for all the desert in Australia we have ample room around the edges. One issue that needs to be considered as part of a decentralisation plan is the availability of water. However, there are options available.

Four decades ago the Whitlam Government envisaged a more decentralised nation, establishing the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation. There are many reasons why the Albury-Wodonga decentralisation experiment failed to spur a dramatic shift of our population. Arguably, the biggest stumbling block was the lack of communications services at the time. 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.

These days there are numerous jobs that can be done pretty much anywhere, allowing of course for a decent broadband connection.

The state government sponsored Greater Sydney Commission wants to turn that city into a “tri-metropolis” – effectively creating three CBD’s. This plan will take 40 years. We could do a lot of other imaginative things, simultaneously, over four decades.

One implication of this particular proposal, for which we can at least give credit to those recognising we have a problem, is it relies on the construction of a huge number of high rise apartment buildings and offices. Great news for property developers, but not necessarily for people’ quality of life.

It’s argued in some quarters that millenials are different to the rest of us and will happily forgo their house and land package and live in the sky. Right now that might seem a fine enough prospect. But will it still be the case for those who eventually settle down with two kids and a dog?

To begin with we need a bipartisan accord, involving all three levels of government and all sides of politics. We need business groups, civil society organisations and trade unions involved. Most of all, though, we need to include people in the decision-making.

Whatever the population in 10 to 20+ years from now, we will need to rethink where everyone lives. We need to be making decisions for the long term, not just tailored to the current electoral cycle.

We also need to critically assess the value in building ever-more tunnels, bridges and motorways in Melbourne and Sydney. They’re obviously necessary – but not a complete solution. Evidence suggests they’ll soon become clogged, at least in peak travel times when it most matters, and only serve as a delay to the inevitable.

The amount of money being spent on this increasingly inadequate infrastructure could go a long way to towards building smart communities in regional centres.

And finally, of course, we need to be looking at fast trains connecting those regional centres. Other countries are doing this. Why aren’t we?

POSTSCRIPT. This interview with Patricia Karvelos on ABC RNDrive – “Does Australia need a higher number of liveable cities?” – was recorded in March 2018.

As this article reveals, even the ‘big end of town’ understands that we need “well managed population growth”.

(Laurie Patton was inaugural Chief Executive of the Australian Smart Communities Association and before that CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia. This article, since updated, first appeared in “Pearls and Irritations” earlier in the year.)