This isn't Assistant Minister for Cities Angus Taylor; it's a sculpture by South African artist Angus Taylor
A frustrated Assistant Minister for Cities Angus Taylor pausing for breath after smashing the PM to smithereens when he realises he’s just a glorified research assistant? Actually no; it’s a sculpture by South African artist Angus Taylor (click to visit artist’s site)

There are lots of complaints about Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision on the weekend to abolish the portfolio of Cities and the Built Environment he established just six months ago.

He’s instead created the position of Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Cities within his own portfolio and appointed ministerial novice Angus Taylor to the job.

Fox News presenter and former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally captured the common reaction when she described it as a “downgrade”. News Corp journalist Malcolm Farr reckons the Prime Minister “snubbed city dwelling Aussies”. He says:

Public transport-using Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has suddenly downgraded the concern he once offered to the millions of voters struggling with big city life.

The importance of administrative arrangements in policy-making are routinely over-stated but to the limited extent they matter I don’t think this is a backward step; in fact it’s an improvement. As I noted last year when Jamie Briggs was made the nation’s first-ever Minister for Cities (see Does Turnbull’s Minister for Cities mean it’s a whole new world?), there were a number of problems with the new Ministry:

  • The new portfolio was in the outer Ministry i.e. Mr Briggs was not a Cabinet Minister; he reported to the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.
  • His regulatory powers were narrow and his expenditure powers were slight.
  • The Commonwealth portfolios with the largest impact on cities – like Infrastructure, Energy and Immigration – were in others hands.
  • The most important Commonwealth functional responsibility for cities – transport – remained in the hands of the Nationals.

The new Cities portfolio invited the suspicion it was a largely powerless institution designed for looks rather than action. It was a signalling exercise that went over remarkably well because so many in politics, the media and the commentariat are happy to settle for symbols over substance.

The only reason for any optimism at the time was Mr Turnbull’s personal enthusiasm for cities policy, widely thought to be acquired from his wife, Lucy Turnbull. She’s a former Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, chair of the Committee for Sydney and chair of the new Greater Sydney Commission.

And it’s that enthusiasm that makes the new arrangements announced on the weekend a distinct improvement on the old ones.

Cities policy now falls under the direct responsibility of Mr Turnbull, who as well as being Prime Minister is chair of Cabinet. He’s well placed to shape the agenda for cities policy, the pace of change, and coordination with other portfolios. He won’t have to negotiate with a senior Minister and a junior Minister anymore.

I think Mr Turnbull is likely right when he says the cities portfolio has “in reality been promoted.”

Because it has a whole of government impact, it really needs to be in the central agency, the most important agency in the government, which is, of course, the Prime Minister’s own department.

His Assistant Minister, Angus Taylor, might well be “one of the biggest brains in the room” as the Prime Minister contends (he’s got an outstanding academic record and he wrote the pro rail report The future for freight). But I suspect it’s not about Mr Taylor. He literally is the assistant; it’s about the Prime Minister lending his personal zeal, experience, influence and prestige to the portfolio.

The Prime Minister had another option; he could’ve put the Cities portfolio in the obvious place in functional terms i.e. under the new Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Darren Chester. However Mr Chester is a National, albeit “the least worst National” according to Bernard Keane, so I think Mr Turnbull’s arrangement is more promising.

Whether the Government develops sensible policy or not is a different question; it’s only tangentially a function of administrative structures. So far the Prime Minister has mostly repeated the standard tropes of the other parties. Now it’s time for action and, hopefully, a brave new agenda that puts substance well above appearances (e.g. see Will politicians ever do anything real about cars in cities? and What should Turnbull do to prepare our cities for the future?).