Will miners, retirees and the NBN drive Tony Burke’s decentralisation agenda?

Grey areas show parts of Victoria without access to Broadband (mainly ADSL)

It’s easy to see why that most Whitlamesque of policies – decentralisation – has been revived in this election campaign. Not only does it offer the familiar prospect of more jobs and economic activity in regional areas, it can also be sold as improving the quality of life in our crowded, heaving cities.

However I think the Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke, is stretching credibility with his latest claim about what’s driving decentralisation.

Speaking at the National Press Club debate last Thursday, Mr Burke argued that the decentralisation debate is different now to what it was 40 years ago. Then, he argues, it was all about moving people to regional areas by relocating government departments. Now however decentralisation is:

“being driven by the market through the movement of retirees, through the mining boom and through the roll-out of the National Broadband Network, which allows businesses that previously could only be located in the heart of the CBD to locate in other areas”

His use of the present tense is curious because there’s little evidence of actual decentralisation away from Australia’s two ‘super cities’ – Sydney and Melbourne – to regional centres over the last five years. Sydney grew 1.4% p.a. over 2004-05 whereas regional NSW grew by 1.1%. In Victoria, Melbourne grew 2% p.a. but the remainder of the State grew 1.4% p.a.

But it’s the drivers of growth he cites that I find even more curious. Read the rest of this entry »


Minister for Sustainable Population: What’s in a name?

The new Prime Minister’s minor renaming of the Population portfolio to Sustainable Population suggests there’s a political agenda in play and a new way of thinking about “big Australia”. The terms sustainability and population have been conflated so the Government can walk a new path through the “big Australia” and “boat people” minefields.

But what it’s also saying is that you can’t have one without the other – population growth and environmental sustainability have to be traded off. The two concepts are necessarily in conflict, always and forever.

Population distribution, Australia (www.worldmapper.org)

While that’s perhaps true in a narrow sense, it doesn’t follow that Geelong is necessarily more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne (according to the ACF it isn’t!) or that both have a lower environmental “footprint” than New York.

In fact despite its considerably larger size, New York is substantially more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne. Large concentrations of people provide economies of scale in, for example, the consumption of energy by favouring travel by public transport and smaller, attached dwellings. Bigger is often more environmentally sustainable.

Of course bigger cities also tend to produce larger negative externalities. But the main reason that size is often accompanied by problems like traffic congestion and unaffordable housing is the failure of political and policy systems. Read the rest of this entry »