Ultimate civic nonsense
Kevin Rudd announced on Tuesday that he wanted the federal government to be involved in the urban planning for Australia's cities. Presumably, he thinks he'll succeed where Nathan Rees, John Brumby and Anna Bligh have failed.
Admittedly, any planning he does for Sydney couldn't be worse than what the NSW government has done. But before our nation's leader takes responsibility for fixing overcrowded trains, mending pot-holed roads and granting building approvals for multi-storey car parks in residential neighbourhoods there are a few issues to be resolved.
For one thing, it's not as though the PM doesn't have enough to-do already.
Maybe he should finish what he's already started before beginning something new. Maybe he should concentrate on fixing the health system, as he promised to do. Or completing his 'education revolution'. Or solving the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin.
Then there's the question of what the federal government knows about planning anyway. You only have to go to Canberra to get an idea of what a city planned by federal bureaucrats looks like.
Suburbs such as Woden, Belconnen and Tuggeranong, with their rows of parallel streets with identical-looking houses, have been streetscaped to conform to the most exacting standards of 1960s Scandinavian social engineering. The result is a national capital devoid of any sense of energy, vitality or community. And it isn't just because Canberra is where the public servants live.
Planning, federal government-style, doesn't allow for choice or diversity, let alone spontaneity. And you don't have to go back to the Whitlam government for the evidence. The so-called education revolution has given the country dozens of school halls of the same size, shape and colour regardless of what school communities want and regardless of whether students' most pressing educational needs are new buildings in which to have morning assembly.
When announcing this new role for the federal government, Rudd said he didn't want federal ministers to have a direct role in the day-to-day decisions of state and local governments. But there's no such thing as just a little bit of involvement in planning. Inevitably and eventually, a federal infrastructure planning minister will be approving how and where shopping centres can be built in exactly the same way as the federal environment minister now appr9ves how and where a paper mill in Tasmania or a wind farm in Victoria can be built.
The federal government is, in effect, already making planning decisions: the school halls of the education revolution are exempt from local council planning regulations. Which is what the residents of Unley in Adelaide discovered a few months ago when they found out that the heritage restrictions imposed on their homes didn't apply to the new $3 million hall for the local primary school we now have one planning law for residents who want to build a carport in their driveway, and another planning law for the federal government.
Rudd's foray into urban planning is underpinned by one central assumption: that federal politicians and bureaucrats are less susceptible to parochial and political pressure than their state colleagues, and that's why infrastructure decisions are better made at the national level This assumption is patently false. And of all people, Rudd should know it.
It's ironic that on Tuesday he spoke about the need for "efficient transport and communication networks" and the importance of capital-city airports. In -1998 his maiden speech in parliament attacked a proposal for Brisbane airport to increase its passenger capacity by building a new runway.
Kevin Rudd and the Brisbane airport saga is a perfect example of the ''not in my backyard" attitude stopping infrastructure development.
It's also ironic that Rudd wants state governments to submit their planning systems "to independent, expert advice".
Yet the federal government refuses to allow any sort of similar cost-benefit analysis of its $43 billion national broadband network extravaganza.
Federal MPs are just as good, if not better, at building roads to nowhere than state MPs. And federal MPs are just as adept as state MPs at manipulating infrastructure projects for political purposes. At least at the moment state and local government planning decisions are subject to a degree of democratic control If ever Canberra did get the power to plan our cities, whatever political accountability now exists for planning decisions would disappear.
Our planning system is not perfect, but it's not so bad as to justify the federal government taking it over.