The outer suburbs - Mernda, Melbourne
The outer suburbs – Mernda, Melbourne

When he reshuffled his Ministry yesterday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews appointed Lily D’Ambrosio to a new portfolio of Suburban Development to “ensure our fastest growing suburbs remain great places to live and work”.

Ms D’Ambrosio, who will maintain the portfolio of Energy as well as take on Environment, was Shadow Minister for The Suburbs for four years. Mr Andrews did not establish the portfolio when he won government in December 2014, so it seems he’s had a rethink.

The Premier says Ms D’Ambrosio’s key objective in the new portfolio will be to:

Work to develop 5-year plans for jobs, services and infrastructure and to identify where state and federal governments should focus investment.

This looks like a version of place-based management; it’s as if Mr Andrews is anticipating Malcolm Turnbull will still be around to implement his City Deals initiative after the Federal election (see Turnbull’s Smart Cities Plan; is that all there is?).

The key functional purpose is apparently to coordinate government policy and programs in outer urban growth areas. That makes sense as, apart from the centre of Melbourne, they’re the areas experiencing the strongest population growth.

How Ms D’Ambrosio can hope to do that successfully when she doesn’t command a recognised coordinating portfolio is an interesting question. She has no regulatory power over development; no giant pot of infrastructure funds; and she’s not responsible for the infrastructure and services portfolios – particularly transport – that could really make a difference.

Other than the Premier or the Treasurer, the Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, seems a more obvious candidate. The key political purpose though is to send a message that the Government cares about the outer suburbs. Mr Wynne holds an inner city seat (Richmond) while Ms D’Ambrosio at least holds a middle ring suburban seat (Mill Park), albeit not in a growth area.

It’s an interesting initiative and it’s puzzling why Mr Andrews has waited until now to establish the portfolio. It signals that Government policy-making and priorities are shaped by other  forces besides progressive, inner suburban concerns.

The issues nominated by the Premier – jobs, infrastructure, services – are of course relevant to all Victorians, not just those in fringe growth areas in Melbourne and some provincial centres. So in what key ways is Ms D’Ambrosio’s new constituency different from the remainder of the state and the rest of Melbourne? How might the differences shape Government policy and priorities?

  • The population is different on average e.g. there are more families with young children; more heavily-mortgaged households; and more worry about the cost of living.
  • The environment is different on average e.g. there’s greater reliance on driving; more deficiencies in basic services and infrastructure; and relative remoteness from the facilities in the city centre.

These issues suggest a clear agenda for the new Minister for Suburban Development. Addressing the severe transport problems in growth areas; the backlog in services; and the near intractable problem of creating permanent jobs locally will require an enormous effort from the Government and a large change in expenditure priorities.

However Mr Andrews’ declared focus on preparing five year plans suggests this initiative is mainly about managing available money and political capital better in the short term. That’s useful as far as it goes (and no doubt Mr Andrews expects it’ll be helpful politically in the run-up to the 2018 election) but it doesn’t go far enough.

Establishment of the new portfolio doesn’t appear to be about the sort of long-term commitment that would be necessary, for example, to make a serious dent on the jobs imbalance in the fringe suburbs. As we’ve seen with the Prime Minister’s establishment of the Cities portfolio, a name doesn’t necessarily – or even usually – mean a lot (see Turnbull’s Smart Cities Plan: is that all there is? and Does Turnbull’s Minister for Cities mean it’s a whole new world?)