This week the ABC’s Four Corners and Q and A programs are focussing attention on an important issue facing 21st Century Australia – the size of the population. As is commonly the case with this subject, the debate is creating a fair amount of heat, but regrettably not all that much light.
That’s because we keep asking the wrong question! It’s not about how many people live here. It’s about where they’ll live.
In my new role as inaugural CEO of the Australian Smart Communities Association I’m keen to see decentralisation and smart communities 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.
ASCA is the not-for-profit peak body representing people and organisations spearheading moves to make our communities more liveable, more sustainable and more technologically empowered. While to date much of the focus has been on creating smart cities in the big smoke, why not apply the same strategies in the regions?
Australia is roughly the same land mass as the US. 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 five houses over the past 25 years in three 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. But it does provide a clue as to how to accommodate more people in a country like Australia.
If we cram 90 percent of the population into a handful of already overcrowded centres we will continue to see house prices escalate.
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 Sydney and Melbourne. Queensland already shows the way, with towns and cities located all along the coast from Brisbane to Cairns.
Decentralisation could help de-stress the capital cities and help counteract the pressures on the country as our population inevitably increases.
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 Sydney and Melbourne 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.
The 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 plan, 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 apartment buildings.
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. While for many of them that might seem a fine enough prospect right now. But will it still be the case when they inevitably settle down and have 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 Sydney and Melbourne. The evidence suggests they’ll inevitably 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 redundant 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?
Laurie Patton was CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia from 2014 to 2017. He is now the inaugural CEO of the Australian Smart Communities Association. The thoughts expressed in this article are his and may or may not reflect those of the organisation he now leads.