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

On the 45th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government Laurie Patton reflects on a forward-thinking policy that deserves revisiting for a digitally-enabled world.

Half way through this century, it’s predicted, 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 – or smart communities – 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 – people working with each other 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. Rather than all fighting for space and labour in a handful of places, US businesses are spread across hundreds of regional cities. One or two major employers can provide the demand for a skilled workforce and the service industries that make a city viable.

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 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 authors of the Greater Sydney Commission’s recently released strategy have 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.

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. An earlier version of this article appeared on 12 December 2016.



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4 Responses to LAURIE PATTON. Unpopulate or perish – revisiting the Whitlam decentralisation vision in a digital age.

  1. Rhoni Watson says:

    I live in Townsville. This city is complex and interesting culturally and politically. It has never been Hansen country, voted 62.8 percent for gay marriage, but became a pawn in the coal wars (just as poor old West Virginia did) suggesting that the region needs to choose coal over the reef. Really! that split here is about the same as Sydney’s would be if they had youth unemployment at 20%! The city’s 3 seats stayed labor but there is an expectation that that could change and become Hansen country if things don’t smarten up. What will really deliver that monstrous economically self- defeating outcome will be continued lack of serious capital investment and vision. (luckily, we did score proper internet under labor for the reasons set out in your article, but that progress was wasted, vision not a forte of present government). The potential for the politics of regional Australia to become the politics of grievence and disassociative rebellion is so very simple, it means giving up some of the capital spent to help take 20 minutes off a drive home from the city in a megalopolis. Naturally that old ‘ya gotta give up something to get something’ type thinking is of no interest to journalist in the the msm because most of them are living in the large cities and most of the reporting is self- serving which means ‘neglected’, who wants to see a bunch of cash go off shore to somewhere else in the never- never. Such a political descent would be and is being put down to an ignorant population, backward, unread, the condescension dripping from each analysis so much so that you think some one needs to get fired for its inadequacy, but the truth is not a friend here.
    Regional cities alienated from capital investment and vision taken out of mainstream consideration their voices cleverly marked down as lesser (the flyovers states they are called in U.S) have sometimes tried to find solutions in snake oil salesmen just for the sheer frustration of it all, but they haven’t succeeded here yet. It is my understanding that many America’s Tech CEO’S have got together with a vision inspired by ‘Hillbilly Elergy’ that best selling book of the 2016 U.S. election to try to give some leadership to forsaken cities in the centre of the country, in Ohio and the like. You gotta care about it and if you are not understood as something more than unthinking trogs by low- number postcode inner city coffee sippers and pressured pollies, I guess a tantrum might be what you do. But that won’t matter either until it delivers a Trump, sad, because that’s what it took for the politically pathetic to get the attention of said CEOs and the msm.

  2. Tim Herring says:

    Thoughtful little article Laurie. As a typical engineer, I used to record the time I left and the time it took me to commute to central Melbourne 20 years ago (and ran graphs to determine the optimal time of departure!). The point is times were 45-50 minutes then and 80-90 minutes now.
    If Melbourne or Sydney (both now roughly 5 million cities) were in Europe or the USA, each would be the third largest in Europe (after London and Paris) and second in the USA (after New York). Even looking at all “urban agglomerations” they would rank 5th or 6th in either place. Neither is a nicer place at 5m than they were at 3m. They will be 8m in a few years, without the infrastructure that is necessary.
    I personally think it is crazy that Australia is growing so fast in population (half this rate would be good) and trying to absorb this by remaining the most urbanised is crazy.
    The strategy behind the NBN is correct – to provide ubiquitous BB to the whole population – whatever flaws in the execution/tactics. Let’s use this opportunity to breathe life back into the regional centres and encourage rural growth. But it’s still going to take a large amount of infrastructure investment – let’s just not have it all happen in M & S.

  3. Julian says:

    “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.”
    Excellent suggestion Laurie. Trouble is, with a second-rate internet service verging on third-rate, there is a heck of a lot of ground to cover.

  4. Peter Graves says:

    There seem to be almost as many “reports” into regional development as there have been on indigenous affairs.

    Perhaps one worth re-visiting is the 1993 Kelty Taskforce on Regional Development. Their Report is titled: “Developing Australia : a regional perspective / [a report to the Federal Government by the Taskforce on Regional Development].

    Whose main outcome was establishing Regional Economic Development Organisations (
    Only for them to be abolished in 1996.

    And Professor Frank Stilwell’s Parliamentary Research Service’s Paper 8 of 1994: Australia’s Urban and Regional Development – The Policy Challenge. A copy is at

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