Two conclusions about the Commonwealth’s urban interests

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from the Australian Government’s intermittent record of involvement in urban affairs. First, whilst the Commonwealth may not be obliged and directly empowered to intervene in the cities, there are no practical barriers to it doing so. Episodic federal intervention has mobilised a range of direct and indirect levers to influence urban development, often successfully. The Whitlam Government’s urban and regional development program, for example, produced many material improvements to urban infrastructure and amenity that would not otherwise have occurred. Consider one possible list of federal direct and indirect interventions in urban regions since the World War Two (Table 5.1):[4]

Table 5.1. Federal Involvement in the Cities since World War Two – A Select Summary


Federal investment in state and territory urban road systems



Creation of Commonwealth Housing Commission



Commonwealth-State Housing Agreements



Commonwealth pressure on States to sell public housing to sitting tenants



Creation of Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing



First home owners scheme



Major commitment to building Canberra and establishment of National Capital Development Commission (1958)



Similar commitment to building Darwin reflecting Commonwealth responsibility for territories, including the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory



Creation of Commonwealth Bureau of Roads to examine urban and rural roads needs



Creation of the National Urban and Regional Development Authority (NURDA) that became the Cities Commission under the subsequent Labor government



Creation of the Department of Urban and Regional Development and allied initiatives including the Area Improvement Program, the Australian Assistance Plan, the Sewerage Backlog Program, local traffic calming programs and the creation of Land Commissions



Creation of Department of Environment which had urban responsibilities including development of Environmental Impact Statements



Expansion of federal assistance to local governments via reconstituted Commonwealth Grants Commission



Commonwealth creation of Heritage Commission which had concern for built (i.e. urban) as well as natural heritage



Creation by Fraser Government of Department of Environment, Housing and Community Development



Hawke-Keating Governments’ Building Better Cities Program



The development of national Building Code of Australia



National Competition Policy directions that have restructured urban service provision.


A second insight that emerges from inspection of the historical record is that federal urban policy ambitions are not simply the preserve of the Australian Labor Party. The decision to eschew responsibility for urban affairs is governed by political not constitutional considerations. Both major political blocs have made this decision at different periods.

And yet, both have also produced urban policy initiatives. Labor is remembered for the scale of its national urban policy ambitions; notably during the Whitlam and Hawke-Keating eras. Much less recalled in public and scholarly debate are the urban initiatives of conservative national governments, including the creation of the National Urban and Regional Development Authority by the McMahon Government in 1972. The decision of the current Howard Government (1996- ) to eschew urban policy commitments is not a natural or inevitable consequence of the conservative political position.

Political obstacles to federal urban policy occur both within and beyond the national political frame. Opposition also emerges from other points in the federal system, notably from the States, which may, for a variety of reasons, resist Commonwealth urban policy ambitions. This resistance from within the federal system itself has frustrated the pursuit of national urban policy at different historical periods. The Whitlam government’s ‘new federalism’ approach was designed to engender new federal relations that would support its urban and regional development program. Parkin wrote:

Part of the Whitlam ‘new federalism’ vision was a sub-state ‘regionalisation’ of public administration to stand between (and perhaps eventually to replace) state and local government. Regionalisation was seen mainly as a means to bypass the other, allegedly incompetent or uncooperative, levels of government … (1982:123).

To this end, some 76 new regionalised municipal groupings – Regional Organisations of Councils – were identified ‘to pursue co-operative planning and to serve as conduits for Commonwealth funding’ (Parkin, ibid.). As Parkin notes, the program, encountered resistance from the States, particularly and predictably those with conservative governments. And yet, there was broader resistance amongst the States to initiatives that were seen to threaten their traditional policy prerogatives, including those that redefined the basic constitution and conduct of local government.

By contrast, the later urban initiatives of the Hawke-Keating administrations were not predicated on a deeper attempt to transform or overhaul the federal system. The Building Better Cities Program, launched in 1991, was marked by ‘a more flexible approach to Commonwealth/State relations emphasising a range of processes and outcomes to achieve the objectives of the program rather than rigid Commonwealth control over the States’ (Orchard, 1985:72).