It’s not about the size of the population, it’s about where we’re all going to live

One day a rooster, the next day a feather duster!

By LAURIE PATTON | 29 July 2018

Another week, another newspaper devotes thousands of words to the vexed question of population growth. The conclusion, once again, is that we need a more rational discussion – and, above all, a plan.

Sadly, some people are using the size of our population and its growth to justify campaigns that are simply racist and uncalled-for in this country.

The way I see it, we keep asking the wrong question. It’s not about how many people live here, or where they come from. It’s about where we’ll all live in the years ahead.

I’m keen to see decentralisation and smart cities thinking on the public and political agendas. That means looking at how the smart use of new technology can make it feasible for people to move out of overcrowded capital cities, voluntarily of course.

It also means encouraging businesses to relocate so that they, too, enjoy the lower costs of operating in regional centres.

Decentralisation 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 poverty – providing employment for people already living in regional areas where jobs are scarce, and through people moving to places where housing (both ownership and rental) is more affordable.

Australia is roughly the same land mass as the United States, which has a population of circa 350 million. Across America hundreds of millions live in homes costing literally a fraction of an equivalent property here in our major capital cities. I know this because one of my brothers has lived in numerous houses over the past 25 years in several US cities. It’s a historical thing with the Americans – largely the result of the ‘go west young man’ frontier mantra of the 19th and 20th centuries.

There are more than 300 cities in the United States, 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. This provides a clue as to how to accommodate more people in a sparsely populated country like Australia.

If we cram 90 percent of the population into a handful of already overcrowded centres – as is predicted – we will continue to see house prices escalate, greater traffic congestion, and increasingly frayed nerves.

Even allowing for all the desert out there we have ample room around the edges of the continent for more liveable cities than we are creating in Melbourne and Sydney. Queensland already shows the way, with towns and cities located all along the coast from Brisbane to Cairns.

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.

One of our largest telcos has several high-rise buildings in both Melborne and Sydney filled with thousands of employees who only leave their office to buy their lunch. Yet they all struggle with congested transport systems, which means hours spent getting to and from work.

In Sydney, a government sponsored Greater Sydney Commission wants to turn the city into a “tri-metropolis”– effectively creating three CBD’s. They say their plan will take 40 years. We could do a lot of other imaginative things over four decades surely?

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 peoples’ 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. For many of them that might seem a fine enough prospect right now. But will it still be the case for those who inevitably settle down with two kids and a dog? Methinks not.

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 also need to critically asses 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 eventually 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: One issue that needs to be considered as part of a decentralisation plan is the availability of water. However, there are options available.

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”. Perhaps that’s because he comes from Adelaide where the state government says it would like to have more people living?

(Laurie Patton was inaugural Chief Executive of the Australian Smart Communities Association and before that CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia. He is a former journalist and media executive, now working primarily in the NFP sector.)