Urban and Regional Australia: The approach and major contributions of the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating Governmenets

The future of national urban policy in Australia has been in doubt since the closure of the federally-funded Major Cities Unit in late 2013. In this post, former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe reflects on the contributions of previous federal governments to coordinated policy, planning and infrastructure investment in Australia's cities.


"There were no leaders in the Hawke Government who had those bigger ambitions about the nature of the way people lived. They were much more interested in what the big end of town was doing."

"I don’t think Hawke or Keating had given any thought to the realities of what was going on in the cities how they coped."

These are quotes of ANU academic Pat Troy in an interview with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live (4/2/2014) discussing the outstanding achievements of Tom Uren as the Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam Government. Tom was a very successful and admired Minister so first let me acknowledge his major contribution before addressing the Hawke-Keating period.

Tom Uren, together with Prime Minister Whitlam, recognised the increasingly urban nature of the Australian nation and developed a national program to address the issues that flowed from rapid and concentrated population growth, especially the increasing demand to supply services of all kinds, housing, roads, sewerage, schools and social services.

Uren as a politician never ceased to be concerned about rapid population growth resulting in growing inequalities as well as impacting on the environment. While his Department for Urban and Regional Development (DURD) was criticised for its top down approach, Tom was always most concerned about the impact on people at the grass roots level. He particularly regretted the number of major projects that had been and were being pursued by insensitive state and federal governments without consultation with the people most affected.

Around the world in the 1960’s and 1970’s there were increasing demands for more participatory planning of major investment in cities. Uren was well known for his sympathy and support of urban protest movements whether in the Glebe in Sydney or Emerald Hill in South Melbourne. On the other hand, he understood the need for reimagining cities as systems where ‘everything is related to everything else’. It was a period in which the external impacts of major public or private works were being increasingly understood - especially the social and environmental impacts of major roads and freeways.

At the same time as ANU demographer Mick Borrie was projecting future population growth Tom Uren recognised that there was a need to re-examine settlement patterns in Australia, including support for some experiments in alternative cities (metro and regional). While a talented and powerful department supported him it would be wrong to minimise the Minister’s role in driving this ambitious urban and regional program. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, he often told me that if he had his time over again he would want to work with the states and territories on more of a partnership basis.

Lessons from Tom Uren’s period were incorporated into the later Hawke-Keating periods when a national perspective of urban and regional planning and development was again adopted.

I was therefore surprised and disappointed to hear Pat Troy in his discussion with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, dismiss the Hawke and Keating governments as having no interest in the way people might be living in cities, being more interested in the ‘big end of town’. This is factually incorrect. During the 1980’s there were frequent Cabinet discussions about the spatial implications of the massive structural changes taking place in the economy especially impacts on regional industrial cities (Whyalla, Wollongong and Newcastle) as well as on some metropolitan regions resulting in financial packages of assistance to those regions.

During 1990 I initiated discussions in Prime Minister and Cabinet on the need for more research on the social/spatial impacts of a changing economy and the need to find new ways of working with the States on urban infrastructure. The Government agreed to enter into discussions with the states and territories about a modest capital program that would demonstrate best practice in the integrated planning of urban infrastructure in the states and territories with a focus on area based strategies.

The five-year Building Better Cities (BBC) program resulted and was rolled out across Australia in 1991 with the combined commitment (Commonwealth, state and private enterprise) of capital funds amounting to around $5 billion dollars over this period.

The goals and objectives of the BBC were to encourage better urban planning and management by all levels of government to result in:

  • economic growth and micro-economic reform; - improved social justice for the less advantaged;
  • reform of inappropriate and outmoded institutional care for people with disabilities and the frail aged;
  • ecologically sustainable development;
  • and - more liveable cities.

The Commonwealth quickly reached agreement with all states and territories on area based strategies designed to achieve measurable outcomes consistent with the principles of sustainable development. The focus was very much on ensuring that capital investments were designed in such a way as to ensure maximum benefits on the ground. The focus was very much on outcomes not inputs and evaluations were designed to spell out lessons that might be learned from the BBC program that were important for future infrastructure investment.

To manage this new program and associated programs the Hawke Government established the Department of Housing and Regional Development (DHURD) and the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) and had the assistance of the National Capital Planning Authority (NCPA). This is contrary to Phillip Adam’s introduction to the discussion in which he stated that there was no such department in the Hawke-Keating period and asked “why it had not been brought back to life”. The achievements of the Hawke and Keating Governments in this field were considerable and included the Department.

These achievements of Building Better Cities were developed in each state and territory and ranged in scale from the Brisbane to Gold Coast rail line and corridor to the development of a new waste water treatment plant and associated housing development in Bunbury WA.

Most importantly the states and territories welcomed the BBC program as an important example of positive federalism. It was also recognised by the Commonwealth Auditor General as an innovative model for Commonwealth state financing of infrastructure. The BBC program was more modest in its objectives than the earlier Department of Urban and Regional Development but with very few (albeit very expert) staff it demonstrated some important principles for future collaboration between constituencies to achieve a national approach to planning the future of our cities.

Tom Uren understood the fundamental issue that too rapid population growth is unsustainable and inevitably creates massive inequalities in our nation. This is evident today in the increasing infrastructure deficit most evident on the fringes of all Australian cities as well as in many regional areas. The most significant achievement of DURD was that it asked radical questions about settlement patterns especially the pressures that would arise in capital cities.

Pat Troy’s comments are therefore puzzling. The Hawke and Keating Governments were also committed to “the realities of what was going on in the cities and how they coped”. The BBC program in its own way demonstrated the importance of a cooperative federalism that was focused on achieving agreed outcomes and especially the importance of leveraging infrastructure investment to ensure environmental, social as well as economic objectives are met.