The Commonwealth’s interest stirred

Howe had an interest in urban issues from his past, and was undoubtedly being lobbied frequently by members of the left and people previously associated with the Whitlam Government (notably Pat Troy, former Deputy-Secretary of DURD, and possibly Tom Uren himself) who urged him to take up urban issues again within the Commonwealth.

Howe and his Chief of Staff, Tom Brennan, attended a conference organised by the Regional Science Association of Australia where, among other things there was considerable discussion of urban and regional development and its relationship to Australian economic reform — particularly discussion of what a cogent policy agenda for the Commonwealth might be.

I attended the same conference, then in my role as Chief Executive of the National Capital Planning Authority in Canberra, and had a number of informal conversations with Howe and Brennan touching on the need for urban initiatives, who was influential in the field of urban planning and development and related matters.

Some weeks after the event I received a call from Brennan inviting me to a meeting with Howe to discuss a possible Commonwealth urban initiative. Brennan relayed that Howe felt I ‘might be interested in helping build an urban agenda’ and asked that I give the matter some thought prior to meeting Howe.

In the spirit of ‘New Federalism’ it was clear that the Government wanted an alternative approach to the more centralist DURD model taken by the Whitlam Government.

Having been a party to the Whitlam-Uren urban and regional programs of the 1970s I had some experience to draw on in thinking about what might be a successful approach for the Commonwealth to take in the 1990s, especially in the face of continuing suspicion among the States about a Commonwealth ‘takeover’.

When I met with Howe I set out to make a number of points.

Firstly, the ‘DURD era’ was still regarded with suspicion by the States and within the Commonwealth and anything that suggested a ‘return of DURD’ would be unacceptable. Howe was aware of this sentiment and agreed with it.

That meant a new approach that drew the States and Territories into collaboration with the Commonwealth was needed, rather than subjecting them to an initiative ‘imposed from Canberra’.

Secondly, the possible scale of any Commonwealth urban initiative could not encompass all the potential urban and regional issues that, politically, the government might like to address. I used a simple calculus that divided $1 billion among six States and two Territories (everyone had to benefit, irrespective of obvious difference in need) and pointed out that $120 million per State didn’t deliver a lot when dealing with urban development.

That meant that any Commonwealth initiative, to be effective, needed to be selective. Politically that would create problems because funds would not flow across all electorates but to only a selected few — a difficult call for any Minister whose job, in part, is to assist the back bench retain seats, as well as the Party to win new ones. Howe reserved his judgement on this, while fully understanding the issue.

My proposal was that there needed to be a program of investment that had a strong demonstration effect — rather like the Whitlam-era ‘Green Street’ program that demonstrated how good design could achieve very acceptable and environmentally friendly forms of higher density housing in existing suburbs. ‘Green Street’ was very influential in impacting expectations and practice in the market place in small scale urban renewal.

To address urban renewal alone though, was not sufficient — there needed to be ‘demonstrations’ of how to manage better the development of outer suburban estates and also investments that worked in ‘the bush’ — some initiatives for Australian regional cities that would change expectations and outcomes.

Howe also wanted a social agenda in the program, and we discussed a range of ideas, including my proposal that we look at the deinstitutionalisation programs of some States that were freeing up large properties formerly the home of mental health or intellectual disability institutions and of jails. (I had previously prepared, as a consultant to the Victorian Government, a review of the Victorian Corrections system that led to jail closures and also the 10-Year Plan for the Office of Intellectual Disability Services in Victoria that was, in part, targeted at closure of a number of major institutions).

Howe was interested but sceptical, wanting to understand examples of what might be worthwhile projects, so he asked that Brennan and I work together to contact people around the States, confidentially, and produce some examples of locations and projects that might be worthy of support and that might constitute elements of a program that met solid reform principles from a Commonwealth perspective.

Over the following week Brennan and I spoke with contacts in the States — his political, mine professional, for the most part — and sought their suggestions as to what the States might welcome by way of ‘a Commonwealth urban initiative’ and, if there were projects to be supported with capital, what kinds of projects might be ‘investment-ready’ and significant in influencing urban growth and change.

Varied suggestions came back: some for pieces of infrastructure, usually transport; others for particular redevelopments on underused land, others for regional infrastructure such as port improvements. One or two were for comprehensive urban projects (redevelopment of Melbourne’s Flinders Street rail yards, for example); none were for outer urban locations (other than suggestions for new roads).

Nevertheless there were plenty of suggestions, more than enough for Brennan and I to go back to Howe and state a number of things.

Firstly, there was no shortage of projects in which the Commonwealth might invest and where investment would be welcomed — with the emphasis on capital investment.

Secondly, in order to create a significant urban demonstration effect talking up individual investments in items of infrastructure was not enough; we needed to be more specific about wanting to take an ‘area-based’ approach, where multiple outcomes could be gained from Commonwealth involvement — physical renewal, affordable housing, employment, public transport access, environmental initiatives, social gains and so on. We wanted comprehensive and linked effects wherever possible.

Third, there was a potentially very receptive atmosphere among the States and Territories if we were dealing with a capital program that could breathe new life into key aspects of urban and regional growth and change.

It was enough for Howe to feel he could have a discussion with his senior Cabinet colleagues, most importantly the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. He had undoubtedly also been canvassing his own contacts for their views and expectations.

Howe’s overtures and explanations were well received and he was given authority to commence informal consultations with the State Premiers, on a confidential basis.