Proposed campus for Apple Inc, Cupertino. Design by Foster + Partners

Comments during the week by Australia’s two newest Premiers suggest traditional political understandings might need to be revised. Ideas like creating walkable communities and increasing social capital aren’t usually associated with the conservative side of politics, yet the Premiers of the country’s newest blue States are co-opting them with the enthusiasm of born-again hippies.

First we saw new Queensland Premier Campbell Newman promise at a media conference on Friday to build more freeways in SEQ because they’ll increase social capital. He said freeways will give Queenslanders faster commutes and thereby enable them to spend more time with their families, friends and neighbours.

In what must be a new record for hyperbole even for a Qld politician, Mr Newman described freeways as “family and community network builders”.

He also gave the strongest hint yet his Government will move quickly in the name of community building to repudiate the urban consolidation policies of the Bligh Government. Speaking at Friday’s media conference, the Premier said:

All Queenslanders should be able to enjoy a barbie in the backyard with the neighbours, have room to hit a ball with the kids so they don’t get fat, and somewhere to park the cars, boat and the caravan under cover. You can’t chat over the back fence if you live in an apartment. You’re not going to borrow a whipper-snipper from the bloke up the street if you live on the fifth floor.

Then we saw NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell argue during the week that his Government’s newly announced plan to close “lightly patronised” rail stations in Sydney is all about creating walkable communities. Mr O’Farrell said greater reliance on walking is essential to tackle the growing obesity epidemic among the State’s children.

Social capital now appears to be a commodity claimed by all sides of politics. Mr O’Farrell said walking another couple of hundred metres or so to the station will not only make us fitter, but create safer communities with more eyes on the street. “Walking creates vibrant and safe public places. Foot traffic enables small businesses to activate the street”, he said, sounding as if he were reading directly from the New Urbanist hymn book.

He acknowledged the plan to close every second station at night and on weekends would save money, but insisted the Government’s primary motivation is to improve the quality of suburban living. “This isn’t only about efficiency, it’s also about having healthy and connected communities”, he said.

Mr O’Farrell wouldn’t be drawn on whether he plans to wind back Lord Mayor Clover Smith’s ambitious 200 km bike path network in the City of Sydney, but the sub-text doesn’t look friendly. He said cycling is an inherently private mode of travel, whereas “walking is intrinsically social – it provides many more opportunities for chance encounters with strangers and so relieves the lonely of despair and depression. It has enormous potential to lower the State’s mental health costs”.

The Premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu, will no doubt be watching the NSW Government’s station rationalisation program carefully. If every second station in Melbourne were likewise closed after 6pm, Mr Baillieu could almost halve the cost of his massively expensive promise to put two Protective Services Officers on each station, as well as get an automatic and immediate drop in rail-related crime stats.

It seems the three eastern seaboard Premiers take the political potential of ideas like reducing obesity and raising social capital very seriously. They’re arranging a special COAG meeting on the theme of Connection, Exercise and Efficiency (CEE) for 1 April next year. But WA Premier Colin Barnett isn’t interested. When asked about the proposed special COAG meeting he reportedly said “I’m no one’s fool asked “what’s the date again?“.

P.S. in late breaking but unrelated news, Google has produced a new version of Google Maps for the 8 bit NES.