Foregoing the helicopter option, the then Communications Minister takes the train from Sth Geelong station to Torquay in July 2015 (source: M Turnbull)

The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, devoted a lot of time to the new Cities and Built Environment portfolio in his doorstop statement to the media yesterday:

Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity. Historically the Federal Government has had a limited engagement with cities and yet that is where most Australians live, it is where the bulk of our economic growth can be found.

We often overlook the fact that liveable cities, efficient, productive cities, the environment of cities, are economic assets. You know, making sure that Australia is a wonderful place to live in, that our cities and indeed our regional centres are wonderful places to live, is an absolutely key priority of every level of Government. Because the most valuable capital in the world today is not financial capital, there’s plenty of that and it’s very mobile.

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The most valuable capital today is human capital. Men and women like ourselves who can choose to live anywhere. We have to ensure for our prosperity, for our future, for our competitiveness, that every level of Government works together, constructively and creatively to ensure that our cities progress. That Federal funding of infrastructure in cities for example is tied to outcomes that will promote housing affordability.

Integration is critical.  We shouldn’t be discriminating between one form of transit and another. There is no — roads are not better than mass transit or vice versa, each of them has their place. Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits. There is no place for ideology here at all. The critical thing is to ensure that we get the best outcome in our cities.

Now of course, we have a Minister for Regional Development and the Deputy Prime Minister, Warren Truss, but cities have been overlooked, I believe, historically from the Federal perspective. So within the Ministry of Environment, I’m appointing the Honourable Jamie Briggs MP to be the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, to work with Greg Hunt, the Environment Minister, to develop a new Australian Government agenda for our cities in cooperation with States, Local Governments and urban communities.

And so he should you might think; after all Mr Turnbull will have Ministers for lots of other things, like Sport, Small Business, Tourism, Veterans Affairs, Science, Innovation and Arts.

So why not cities too? In fact he’ll also have a Minister for the Public Service, a Minister for Digital Government, a Minister for International Education, a Minister for Rural Health, and a Minister for Counter Terrorism.

There’s a good case for the new portfolio; national policy influences the way cities function and grow. An obvious example is immigration, which drives the greater part of the population increase in Australia’s largest cities.

Another important example is taxation policy. The way cars and petrol are taxed (or not!) has a major influence on the travel choices of urban residents. Taxation policy also affects the affordability of housing.

Like others I welcome the creation of the Cities portfolio. I’m also reassured by the sophistication of Mr Turnbull’s understanding of the issues; this was a doorstop statement, not a media release.

But I’m not as optimistic as others seem to be that it will lead to real action. For one thing, we all know Malcolm Turnbull talks the talk about public transport and cities; but we also know he’s nodded sympathetically in lots of directions over the last five years. He is, after all, a politician.

The new Minister for Cities, Jamie Briggs, might surprise me and turn out to be a man who can move mountains, but it would be unwise to get carried away.

  • His regulatory powers are likely to be narrow.
  • His expenditure powers will be slight.
  • The Commonwealth portfolios that have the largest impact on cities – like Infrastructure, Energy and Immigration – are in other hands i.e. Warrant Truss, Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton.
  • The most important Commonwealth functional responsibility for cities – transport – remains in the hands of the Nationals.
  • There’s little evidence that the Government as a whole sees cities in the same way Mr Turnbull does.

The creation of the new portfolio has nothing whatsoever to do with the key issue of contributing federal money for urban public transport. Nor is Commonwealth funding for infrastructure like Sydney’s WestConnex motorway in any way contingent on its existence.

The mere creation of a portfolio is no certainty of a real improvement in outcomes. It’s often more about appeasing interest groups than evidence of any real commitment to action. After all, even Tony Abbott had a Minister for Women (Michaela Cash).

The Rudd/Gillard governments’ Major Cities Unit mostly produced reports. They included the annual State of Australian Cities report; the national urban policy report, Our cities, our future; and a report on active travel.

It also had a role in driving policy across government, where it had the advantage of reporting directly to a senior Minister – Anthony Albanese – who was able to represent its ideas in Cabinet and across Government.

It was located within the strategically important portfolio of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. And of course the sorts of ideas it advanced resonated with large sections of the Labor party.

Mr Turnbull’s Minister for Cities, on the other hand, is neither personally influential – he’ll have to rely on Greg Hunt’s efforts in Cabinet – nor pushing policies that most in his party think are critical issues. Mr Briggs administrative support will come from the Department of Environment; in terms of the Commonwealth’s influence on urban policy that’s a much less relevant portfolio than Infrastructure.

If the Turnbull Government is going to make a tangible difference, it will depend mostly on the Prime Minister’s commitment to change and on his ability to lead the Government in this new direction. He will have to achieve more than merely reinstating Commonwealth funding for public transport if he wants to be taken seriously on urban policy; that’s just stopping the boat from sinking, not making it fit for a long and arduous journey.

I don’t think it can just be assumed the appointment of Mr Briggs heralds a new dawning for cities that goes beyond rhetoric; I’ll wait and see if Mr Turnbull can also walk the talk.

Update 22 September: Good article by Liam Hogan in The Guardian: Good luck to Jamie Briggs, new minister for cities: he’s likely to need it. And another good one from James Lesh, Past Liberal ‘Ministers for Cities’.