"Catching favourite bus the 389 to go into the city". Malcolm Turnbull, July 2013
“Catching favourite bus the 389 to go into the city”; PM Malcolm Turnbull catches himself unawares as he unselfconciously catches a bus, July 2013. He thanks genetics for his extra-long selfie taking left wing

Ideas like creating walkable communities and increasing social capital aren’t usually associated with the conservative side of politics, yet the nation’s Liberal Premiers are co-opting them with the enthusiasm of born-again hippies.

First we saw the Premier of Tasmania, Will Hodgman, describe freeways as “family and community network builders”. He promised at a joint media conference with the other conservative Premiers ahead of today’s COAG meeting to build more limited access roads in the State because they’ll increase social capital:

Motorways will give Tasmanians faster commutes. It means mums and dads will be able to spend more time with their families, friends and neighbours. It’ll be expensive, but savings to the Health budget in reduced rates of mental illness and obesity over coming decades will more than offset the initial cost.

Then we saw the Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, repudiate the urban consolidation policies his own Government has pursued, admittedly with little enthusiasm, for the last eight years. Speaking at last night’s media conference, the Premier said high density living promoted obesity and undermined social capital:

All Western Australians 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.

Not to be outdone, NSW Premier Mike Baird stepped up to the mic and announced his Government will close more “lightly patronised” suburban rail stations in Sydney in order to create walkable communities. Mr Baird 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. Sounding as if he were reading from the New Urbanist Hymn Book, Mr Baird 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 acknowledged the plan to close every second suburban station would save a lot of 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 Baird also said the Government will remove 200 km of bike paths built by the City of Sydney.

Cycling is an inherently private mode of travel, whereas walking is intrinsically social – walking 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.

It seems Malcolm Turnbull’s rhetoric around cities has had a profound influence on the three conservative Premiers. They clearly take the political potential of issues like reducing obesity and raising social capital very seriously, but unlike Mr Turnbull they’ve found a way to make them compatible with traditional conservative ideas.

They’ve asked the Prime Minister to call a special COAG meeting on the theme of Connection, Exercise and Efficiency (CEE) for 1 April next year. But conservative politicians in the Labor governed states aren’t interested. When asked about the proposed meeting, a clearly unexcited Victorian Opposition Leader, Mathew Guy, reportedly asked, “what’s the date again?“.

In related news, the Prime Minister’s office issued a statement early this morning clarifying the 30-minute cities policy announced by Mr Turnbull last month. The statement said it was supposed to have been announced today but was released earlier due to a slip-of-the-tongue type technical error. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said it was obviously meant as a joke and should be taken in that spirit.