Monday, July 19, 2010

Population: focus turns on middle ground

On population issues, both sides are not so much moving forward as spinning towards the middle ground. They're telling us what they know we want to hear.

Last year, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan wanted ''a big Australia''. Tony Abbott on Australia Day wanted ''to extend to as many people as possible the freedom and benefits of life in Australia''.

But now the focus groups have spoken. Most Australians don't want to extend the joys of living in Australia to as many people as possible. They fear more migrants might soak up jobs, add to congestion on the roads, trains and buses, and drive housing prices even higher. They want a little Australia, or at least one that's not too big.

Julia Gillard's speech yesterday was all about reassuring them that she's on their side. She defines Australians as loving ''the feeling of space, freedom and opportunity. We reject the idea that we should all live on top of each other, as is commonplace in so many countries across the world''.

Well, it's also commonplace in Docklands, Southbank and Melbourne's central business district, as well as inner Sydney. Developers can't keep up with demand for housing just like that. If you want to allow more Australians to live near the centre of their cities, we will have to build far more of it.

The alternative is for cities to keep sprawling outwards, increasing the congestion the PM says she wants to reduce. Populism can't solve the problems of urban policy. It's about standing still, when we need to be ''moving forward''.

Gillard announced two policy developments. First, three panels of eminent Australians will consider sustainable population growth from the perspective of the needs of communities, the economy and the environment. So far, so good. But they will report after the election - so Labor's policy will be decided after the election.

Second, the Government will redirect $200 million from existing housing programs for 15 regional cities to build infrastructure that could fast-track up to 15,000 affordable homes. Which cities? That too will be decided after the election.

At first sight, the program's goals look similar to those of the Housing Affordability Fund that was part of Kevin Rudd's policy at the 2007 election. So far the program has not met its targets, and maybe this is a sensible way of retargeting it, by offering more money to get councils to commit to bolder schemes. If so, then at least it's moving sideways.