COVER STORY Decentralisation: an undeveloped country
by Tim Smith
News Weekly, March 25, 2017
In 1891, at the end of Melbourne’s first property boom, the nation’s original capital was the largest city in Australia with almost half a million inhabitants.
Melbourne or bust.
It constituted 42 per cent of Victoria’s population and, as Geoffrey Blainey observed, “some economists thought that such a centralising of the people in a capital city was quite without precedent and utterly unhealthy”.
Fast-forward 126 years and that “unhealthy” trend has become much worse as 77 per cent of Victoria’s population are now in Melbourne. The vastness of Melbourne is something to behold and the centralising of Victoria’s population continues as 92 per cent of new arrivals to Victoria stay in the capital.
Victoria is growing by one person every five minutes, more than 100,000 people a year, and is the fastest growing state in the nation, with net overseas immigration accounting for about 60 per cent of this expansion.
We have seldom seen population growth like it. The Gold Rush of the 1850s saw a sevenfold increase in Victoria’s population, so that by the end of that decade almost half of the Australian continent’s population was living in Victoria. Indeed, British historian Tristram Hunt remarked in his wonderful book, Ten Cities That Made an Empire, that, despite Sydney being the birthplace of British sovereignty in Australia in 1788, “100 years on, it was the city of Melbourne, not Sydney, that was chosen to commemorate the anniversary”.
After World War II, the post-war immigration boom saw rapid population growth, particularly from southern Europe. But Victoria’s present growth dwarfs the population booms of the 1850s and 1960s, and is contributing to an infrastructure crisis characterised by severe road congestion, overcrowded public transport, schools bursting at the seams and a scarcity in the residential house market that is taking home ownership out of reach of many young Melburnians.
To this lamentable list might be added the weakening of the city’s social cohesion, as evidenced by the crime epidemic caused by Premier Daniel Andrews’ per-capita cut in police numbers.
Melbourne is nowhere near as liveable as it was. On present projections, our once beautiful city will have doubled in size by 2051, to 8 million people, to become the largest city in Australia once again. This is a worrying prospect considering just how unprepared the state is for this intensity of growth.
Growth is good but not when it is unplanned, and the present State Government is more interested in allowing citizens to self-select their gender on their birth certificates than planning for this massive growth in population.
This is the Premier who spent $1.2 billion of taxpayers’ money to rip up the contracts for the East West Link road project, ignoring the fact that a disproportionate number of Melburnians drive to work – 107,792 more than in Sydney, even though Sydney has 400,000 more people.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy’s vision is to decentralise Victoria and develop its regional cities, to take the pressure off Melbourne and grow country Victoria.
Incentives to “go rural”
The state desperately needs a government that is committed to decreasing the percentage of newcomers who make their home in Melbourne. Our state needs a government that will engage in a mature debate about how to incentivise newcomers to move to country Victoria, or give them the confidence that if they move to a regional centre they can commute to Melbourne with reliability and ease.
Victoria is slightly larger than the island of Great Britain in land mass, yet almost 800,000 people commute to London from the rest of England and Wales, mainly by train. We want to see more people commuting to Melbourne from regional Victoria. We can’t have a Melbourne that expands forever.
We want the great legacies of our Gold Rush – the regional centres of Ballarat and Bendigo – Sir John Monash’s great triumph of the Latrobe Valley, Shepparton and Victoria’s second city of Geelong, indeed the whole of regional Victoria, to become beneficiaries of this population growth.
On only three occasions during the past century has the rate of population growth been higher in the regions than in Melbourne. The first was during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when many people quit Melbourne in search of jobs; immediately after World War II; and from 1976 to 1985, thanks to the decentralisation policies of the Liberal government of Rupert Hamer.
Well past time to act
Victoria’s population, the speed of its growth and its geographical distribution is a great example of an issue that has for too long been ignored.
All the political lessons from last year, from the United States and Britain, indicate that if hardworking families away from capital cities and the governing elite believe they are missing out on the growth others take for granted, the results at the ballot box can be surprising.
Labor concerns itself with cultural relativism and niche issues of identity politics – but mainstream Australians in regional centres and outer suburbs could not care less about issues that preoccupy the chattering classes. They want better road and rail infrastructure so they can get home from work faster and spend more time with their families.
An effective decentralisation agenda is key to improving capital city liveability and the economic wellbeing of the regions.
Tim Smith is Victoria’s Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader (Population Policy and Housing Affordability). This article first appeared in The Australian on February 27, 2017, and is published here with the author’s permission.