Shadow Minister for Cities, Anthony Albanese, can imagine a nightmare scenario of an Australia where someone’s income is immediately recognisable by their postcode, but Australia does not need to go down this path…here’s how.


Equality and a fair go are central to the Australian identity.

Most of us want a country where everyone has equal access to the necessities: education, healthcare and employment. It is part of our social DNA to support the idea that everyone deserves the same opportunities in life.

But equality has to be nurtured. It is under constant attack; sometimes from government decisions, but more usually by change.

In 2015, I’m worried about two related threats to equality: changes in geographic distribution of jobs and a resulting threat to the vitality of our local communities. Recently there has been a big shift in the locations of jobs growth in Australian cities. In previous years, industries like manufacturing and retailing ensured there was strong jobs growth in the outer suburbs of our big cities. That was a good thing because housing affordability in the outer suburbs drove very strong population growth.

However, in the past decade, the decline of manufacturing has choked job growth in the outer suburbs, and the rise of the digital age has shifted jobs growth in inner suburbs, particularly in tech-heavy services industries like finance and insurance. In other words, our population is growing in areas where job opportunities are limited, and job growth is now situated in places where average workers can’t afford to live. This is forcing an increasing number of Australians to live in drive-in/drive-out suburbs and commute long distances to work on congested roads.

This damages their quality of life. It is a tragedy that many working parents spend more time in their cars than interacting with their children at home. If this trend continues our nation is at risk of creating a new generation of alienated young people living in the outer suburbs – detached from work opportunities and prone to welfare dependence. Governments must act to prevent the tyranny of distance compromising equality of access to work, and can tackle these challenges, which, in the process, will build stronger and more vibrant communities.

We need to provide incentives for businesses creating jobs in outer suburbs to begin to make up for the decline in jobs growth in these areas; we also need to work with business and other levels of government to improve housing affordability closer to the inner city.

My nightmare scenario is one of an Australia where people’s income is immediately recognisable by their postcode.

To that end, we need to increase housing density in parts of the inner suburbs, particularly along established public transport corridors. And we need to invest in better rail transport in our cities, giving priority to more frequent services, particularly to the outer suburbs, while also investing in effective roads.

The current demographic trend is having a detrimental effect on communities. Most people like to feel a part of their local community. They crave a sense of connection through their local shops and restaurants, schools, churches and clubs. It is hard to maintain such a connectedness if you live in a drive-in/drive-out suburb where you sleep in between driving hours each day to and from work.

It’s also hard if your inner-city community is sterile and lifeless, and provides no opportunities for you to engage with the people around you.

Again, governments have it within their means to help – by supporting communities right across our cities – whether they are in the CBD or on the very edge of town. People need to be at home, not in their cars, to interact with others in their community, to develop and improve their relationships with their family and neighbours, and to be participants in community and social life. Addressing the mismatch between jobs growth and population growth can help. But beyond this, councils and governments need to become more active in nurturing communities generally. We should work with the housing and development industries on ways to make our cities more lively places with mixed use developments that allow people to live and work in the same area. Our town planners need to think not just about the interior design of new buildings, but also about the spaces between those buildings. Properly planned community spaces can enhance communities by providing areas where people can interact. Better designed communities with more effective public transport options also have a health pay-off, particularly if we focus on the smart design of community hubs around public transport, and greater use of safe and secure walking and cycling tracks.

All of this is possible – if governments choose to accept the view that they have a role to play in the way our cities function.

The current federal government sees no role for itself in either provision of public transport or the development of our cities.

This is a great pity.

My nightmare scenario is one of an Australia where people’s income is immediately recognisable by their postcode.

That’s the last thing we need.

Successful cities are not random collections of disconnected enclaves of privilege and disadvantage.

They are diverse, and their diversity can be harnessed to drive great social outcomes as well as the economic productivity that sustains our lifestyles.

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