Red +Black Discussion with Adam Bandt: Cities, Architecture and the Federal Government – Part 1
In case you have not been reading the papers, 2016 is a federal election year for Australia. What makes this election year different to most is that the issue of our cities is shaping up to be a red hot election issue. Throughout this emerging federal interest in cities, the Federal Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt MP, has been advocating for a High Speed Rail Link, investment in public housing and opposing the now cancelled East West Link. In the lead up to the 2016 election, Dr. Bandt made himself available to answer some questions about the possible role the Federal Government could play in our built environment.
Red +Black Architect – Since the installation of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, there has been a substantial amount of talk about the Federal Government being more involved in cities. Anthony Albanese from the opposition has also been vocal on the need for federal input into cities. In what areas and in what ways would you like to see the Australian Government influence our cities?
Adam Bandt – The Australian government tips in billions to projects that shape our cities, transport, sometimes housing and other forms of infrastructure, but there’s no coordinated federal policy to guide how that money is spent. I don’t think that the federal government should get down to deciding planning applications in cities or areas around them, but there should be a policy that uses the power of the purse strings to drive change and certain outcomes in cities. For example, I’d like to see the government saying we will only give you funds for project X if you have a policy to change modal share on transport by a particular time, or we’re only going to give you money for certain infrastructure projects if you’ve got a policy to make housing more affordable in your city or in your state. That’s the first thing, there needs to be some rigorous criteria to add teeth to make cities more sustainable and more liveable. Secondly, I’d like to see more expertise at the federal level in the federal department so that we can guide the development of cities in Australia. For example, there should be a well resourced department of experts in planning, architecture and design who are able to advise state and local governments, but also take a step back and say maybe we need new cities, or maybe our cities need to change in this particular way, how are we going to make that happen? It wouldn’t necessarily be that that department comes in top down and tells state and local governments how to do it, but they might set the outcomes or the desired principles. At the moment, the federal public service in that respect has just been gutted. There’s not the expertise there from a design perspective that there used to be. If it hadn’t, the for example with debates about high speed rail, something we’ve been pushing for a while, someone might step back and say maybe we need a new city somewhere along the route, or maybe we need to take an existing city somewhere along the route and expand it, how can we make that happen. At the moment, no one has that birds eye view of planning and cities.
R+BA – Very interesting you should bring that up, my next question is very related. Should there for example be an office of the Australian Government Architect who can provide independent expert advice in a similar way to what the State Government Architect does here in Victoria?
AB – Whether it’s specifically architecture or whether you broaden it out to include design and other forms of planning as well I have an open mind on, but that type of thing, definitely.
R+BA – Well the Victorian Government Architect also covers landscape architecture and urban design as well.
AB – That’s exactly the kind of federal office that we need.
R+BA – Infrastructure is a huge point of contention in Melbourne in recent times. The Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel project has a solid business case and has substantial community support. Yet despite this, funding for this project continues to be difficult to come by. Are there any ways that we can change the system to prevent political stand offs over Infrastructure projects such as this one?
AB – This is part of the reason I’m very sceptical about Malcolm Turnbull and his focus on cities. I was pretty relieved when Tony Abbott was kicked out and Malcolm Turnbull came in and he made the point about being agnostic about whether we have roads or public transport. Although I want to see much greater investment in public transport, at least it was nice to have a Prime Minister who believed that the federal government should fund public transport. I think there was a great degree of optimism from those of us who, for a variety of reasons, across the policy spectrum, want a better approach to our cities. Since then I have to say it’s been pretty disappointing. He came to Melbourne to announce billions of dollars for transport and only $10 million for the Melbourne Metro project. East West Link doesn’t stack up, and yet here is a Prime Minister who’s saying that he believes in evidence and proper planning just writing billions of dollars in cheques for a project that the Victorian people have rejected and that doesn’t add up. The Greens have tried, on a couple of occasions, to amend the legislation governing Infrastructure Australia so that, first of all, you have to have proper analysis of any project, and it has to be supported economically before it can proceed, but secondly to expand the criteria that Infrastructure Australia considers. At the moment, sustainability, liveability, reducing our pollution, really aren’t in Infrastructure Australia’s remit. So if you start putting that in to the things that Infrastructure Australia has to take in to account and then say, by law, that the federal government can’t fund projects unless Infrastructure Australia has given them the tick, and that would go a long way, I think, to de-politicising infrastructure planning. I’ve got a caveat for that, which is that I think you don’t want to just let technocrats decide every element of planning. There is a space for vision and for political vision, and for saying look, in Australia, we do need some big investment and some big projects and let’s get under way and find out a way of making it work. I’m not saying outsource everything to Infrastructure Australia, but I am saying don’t spend billions or tens of billions of dollars unless, at least according to some objective criteria, they’ve said it’s worthwhile.
R+BA – Following on from that, does high speed rail stack up? And would it pass through your criteria?
AB – The reports that we’ve seen suggest it does stack up. In 2010, when we had the minority parliament, one of our conditions for support was that we get a proper study in to high speed rail completed. When that came back, it suggested that if we start now, then in 25 years time, you could have half of the traffic going between Sydney and Melbourne, which is the 3rd or 4th busiest air route in the world, being taken by fast train. And that prices would be comparable between an airline ticket and a fast train ticket in 25 years time, and that if you start with Melbourne-Sydney that the passenger numbers are there to justify that and that over time the numbers will be there to expand that further north from Sydney. That report suggested that you’re looking at a price tag in the order of $114 billion spread over many many years. Many people have come forward since then and said you could actually make a couple of changes and do it cheaper. The report we got the federal government to commission suggests yes, the numbers do stack up, and all of that is even before you start thinking about the benefits that come to those towns that are along the route. The experience in China and Japan has been that when you build high speed rail you revitalise cities along the way. But more than that, a city that’s 3 hours away from Melbourne can become a city that’s 1 hour from Melbourne. That has implications both ways – people living in Melbourne can go and work, say in a hospital in those cities, vice versa you can live in those towns or cities and now work in Melbourne, and you can commute with an hour commute. Before you even start adding in benefits like that, the numbers add up.
R+BA – Infrastructure is certainly a large aspect of how cities function, but the quality of our cities is often the result of the quality of our architecture and urban design. What if anything can be done at a Federal level to promote high quality architecture in our cities?
AB – That’s a really good question. Again I think it comes back to the federal government setting criteria for what would count as making a city liveable. Again I’d be reluctant for the federal government to start to say we’re going to approve this planning application but not that planning application. But if you had a well-resourced department, for example, it could gather best practice for what’s going on across Australia and it could start promoting good architecture to states and local governments. And then over time, you might want to incorporate that in to some of the conditions on which money is being given to states. It might be an outcome based on energy efficiency, or whether you’re situating people close to open space or services, or based on population density, or all of those things. If you had the right nouse at a federal level, you can start putting that in to contracts with state and local governments and the federal government could drive some good change in architecture I think. Again, you also can’t underestimate the inspiration and the vision that would come from having, say, a chief architect or someone of that ilk, that is able to step back and take that bird’s eye view and say where are we going, what are we doing in this country that’s great, what are they doing elsewhere that’s great that we could possibly bring here where we’re falling down. Even just a bit of vision and a bit of leadership to say even if you don’t have legal teeth to enforce it, to have someone there saying this is the direction we could go would be really significant. The chief scientist plays that role with respect to science, they don’t necessarily have the power to control how science funding is spent, but they play a huge role in advising the Prime Minister about how the Prime Minister should spend government’s money and they also play a huge role in galvanising the community around them as well. I think you could start doing something analogous in architecture and design.
R+BA – A building which is designed well will last longer, have a smaller environmental footprint and provide better utility to those who use the building and contribute more to the built environment generally. These ongoing benefits are shared by the community as a whole, yet the comparatively small cost of hiring an architect to provide the design, is the sole responsibility of the person or company commissioning the building. Do you think there is merit in architectural services to some extent being tax deductible, to encourage better design?
AB – I haven’t thought about that. I don’t know is the short answer. I’d have to have a think about that. I could see a lot of merit in it, I could see a lot of other people saying well come and commission us and we would do it. I think there’s also space in government procurement policy, because the government has the capacity to spend a lot of money on architecture and design. Perhaps we ought to be a bit clearer about how that money is spent and what kind of outcomes the government is trying to drive with that. Interesting thought, I’ll take that one on notice.
R+BA – Our public housing system has been severely under resourced for a substantial amount of time. Combined with skyrocketing land prices, it is fair to say that we have a housing crisis across the board. This crisis is despite allowing as much as $8 Billion each year to be spent on housing through negative gearing tax exemptions. Do you think it is feasible to reallocate this spending into public housing and affordable housing developments?
AB – Yes, absolutely. We are one of the few countries that has a tax system that treats housing as an investment rather than as a human right. As a result, you’ve got massive distortions in the price of new housing or buying an existing house, and you’ve got the government, when you put negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions together, you’ve got the government effectively creating this tax break where people can buy their third fourth or fifth house and get government subsidies for it, but you don’t get that if you’re buying your first house. In fact, the effect of the subsidies is to make your first house more expensive. Not only that, but we haven’t seen any substantial investment in public housing for a very very long time. Here in Melbourne we’ve got more public housing than any other electorate in the country. People deal every day with the fact that waiting lists are blowing out. There’s overcrowding in public housing and the condition in public housing is requiring extensive maintenance that often doesn’t come in time. I think part of the solution to making housing more affordable is getting rid of those unfair tax breaks. Part of it is also building more public housing and building more affordable housing. That then is going to, over time, drive down rents and take some of the heat out of price growth.
We’ve got a big problem with people who live far away from the city because it’s the only place they can afford to but are expected to come and work in the city. Then they spend an enormous part of their income on transport, parking if you have to drive because there’s no trains or trams, and an enormous amount of your time. It’s becoming more difficult for key workers, for example, to live close to where they have to work. We expect people to come in and clean CBD buildings every night, but they’re doing an enormous amount of travel to get there and it takes them a huge amount of time. I think there’s a big case for massive investment in affordable housing as well as public housing. Affordable housing aimed especially at people who we expect to work and not get renumerated as well as others. If you’re not going to pay people as well as others then you’ve got to provide them options for affordable housing. One thing the federal government could do is start thinking about housing as a question of infrastructure for cities and saying what can we do to expand public and affordable housing for cities because without it we’re going to create inequality in our cities, I think that would be a big big step forward.
R+BA – With $8 billion a year across Australia, you could say $1 billion per state or territory, pretty much, every year, that would make a massive difference.
AB – It’s a huge amount of money. We’re having a debate about tax reform, which is good, but I think tax reform should start at the top not at the bottom. Instead of asking people to pay more through GST or working out what other charges, like paying more to go and see the doctor, you can impose on the ordinary population, let’s work out whether the tax breaks we’re giving people at the top are sustainable. I think in the case of property they’re just not. You will still get investment and you will still get development because there is always going to be increased demand for housing. The idea that getting rid of negative gearing or the capital gains tax exemption, which encourages people to buy properties at expensive prices, rent them out for a couple of years, and then sell it, knowing you get a discount on your tax, is a good one. In a time when we’re told that we’ve got to have a debate about securing the country’s revenue base, I think one of the best ways of doing it is to start by getting rid of some of those unfair tax breaks. It’s the fairest, and raises a lot of money as you said.
You can continue to Part 2 of this discussion with Adam Bandt by clicking here.
To read further about how tax reform could make positive change in our cities take a look at this earlier post: Ambitious cities through ambitious tax reform
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