CANBERRA OBSERVED News Weekly
Jeers at suggestion we not be fringe dwellers
, February 11, 2017
The recent call by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce for young people to consider “moving west” as a solution to their housing affordability predicament met with predictable howls of indignation from the commentariat.
“Houses will always be incredibly expensive if you can see the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, just accept that,” Mr Joyce was reported saying. “What people have got to realise is that houses are much cheaper in Tamworth, houses are much cheaper in Armidale, houses are much cheaper in Toowoomba.”
We cling to the coast like limpets.
The Deputy PM said he moved out west and young people could have the “gumption” to do the same to get an affordable house.
NSW Labor leader Luke Foley’s response was typical, describing Mr Joyce’s comments as “completely out of touch” with the vast majority of Sydneysiders.
“There are over 2 million residents in Western Sydney and they’re not looking for Harbour views, they’re just looking for a place to call their own,” Mr Foley told the ABC.
As is often the case with Mr Joyce, he was controversially correct. But without serious government intervention nothing is going to happen. The solution to Australia’s housing problem is complex, but the desire to cling to the coast is a major factor militating against it.
Social commentator Bernard Salt recently described the geographic reality of contemporary Australia thus: “Modern Australians would rather live in ‘sea-change’ or ‘tree-change’ communities than in remote locations,” he wrote in The Australian.
“The coastal ‘sea-change’ strip extending between Merimbula and Port Douglas contains 11 million people, including Sydney with 5 million and Southeast Queensland with more than 3 million residents.
“An inland lifestyle zone extending 200 kilometres from the big capital cities forms what Australians refer as the ‘treechange’ belt.
“The Great Australian Outback, even generously defined, contains less than 200,000 people despite covering one-third of the continent. It’s akin to Russia’s Siberia or to the African Sahara in terms of sparseness of population.”
The last permanent town to have been built in the Australian Outback is Roxby Downs, which was opened in the late 1980s near the Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine in South Australia. Since then fly-in, fly-outs are preferred to building a new city like the once proud Broken Hill.
There have been other decentralisation experiments, including Gough Whitlam’s Albury/Wodonga and Orange/Bathurst in the 1970s, but these were only modestly successful.
Ironically, Canberra could be classified as the sole successful decentralised city, which goes to show that such a policy can work if governments are determined enough.
Canberra’s population is surging past 400,000 people and is by far the country’s largest inland city.
Other growing centres such as the Central Coast and Wollongong, are growing but in actuality are dormitories of Sydney.
Mr Joyce has made his own minor bid for a form of decentralisation by pushing for more dams, and to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to his own electorate of Armidale. Only 190 jobs are involved, but the rearguard action from the small authority has been extraordinary, and the fight will continue all the way till the move actually is completed in 2019.
The national broadband network (NBN) is also supposed to produce a level playing field, putting people in regional Australia on a technological par with their city counterparts. While the interminable Inland Rail Project is lauded as a driver of commerce and population growth, its slow progress outlives government after government.
Government as a whole will have to be far bolder if it wants to drive population growth inwards.
The sentiment for decentralisation is expressed widely in the Nationals, with Queensland Senator Matt Canavan, now Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, a strong proponent of large-scale development, particularly in his home state.
Regrettably the impetus for serious thinking on decentralisation is only likely to come when the economy is no longer booming and cities like Sydney and Melbourne are no longer bursting from the arrival of tens of thousands of new immigrants each year.
In circumstances of a sudden and severe downturn, the government of the day will not shower the populace with cash as was done under Kevin Rudd, but will have to embark on serious long-term infrastructure building.
It is far from the ideal circumstance for a rethink, but it is at present hard to see the Government (or the Opposition, for that matter) taking any serious look at decentralisation against the national desire to live close to the coast and in already established centres.