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Is local government capable of responding?

By Robert Gibbons - posted Friday, 28 January 2011


Floods, fires, earthquakes and epidemics bring Australians together in magnificent ways, and we “just do it”.

Brisbane’s lord mayor, Campbell Newman, has been at the fore of the flood response, as have been the mayors of Ipswich, Toowoomba and elsewhere; as do mayors wherever fire, flood, explosion, pollution or other disasters hit Australian communities.

Federal infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese has anticipated working more directly with local government as his frustration with incompetent states became more evident. “Think globally, act locally” has been the mantra since the 1997 Post-Rio conference in Newcastle NSW. Mayors generally want “action” over “words” and Albanese wants action.

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Historically, leaders in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth among others did great things which benefitted subsequent generations.

We have to ask if local governments now show strategic direction, professional capacities to plan infrastructure, and the leadership needed to unite communities? In other words, is Albanese right and is local government capable of doing what Albanese wants?

Brisbane is a good place for us to start but then look at situations which are fairly typical of our regions’ legacies, whichever state or territory.

Brisbane’s former long-term lord mayor Jim Soorley started TravelSmart in 1992 followed up by the Busway Strategy for Brisbane (1995). He planned to use buses for high-level operations where railways were absent as a genuine balance between urban quality, car usage and bus system development, to save Brisbane from Sydney-like car-saturation.

The long-term mayor of Curitiba in Brazil from the early 1970s, Jaime Lerner, turned that decrepit place into a showcase of public transport service to its community, using buses. He inspired the world. Like Soorley he showed the benefits of long-term leadership, conviction and commonsense.

Campbell Newman is an active lord mayor, developing freeway plans in concert with private sector proponents, in a similar manner to Sydney. Those projects have been proven to be suspect in commercial terms; which might not matter if urban outcomes are positive.

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In the early 1970s the Whitlam government helped to reverse the NSW government’s inner freeway plans. There has been no indication that Albanese has a similar or adapted approach.

"Tasmania Together (and Growing Victoria Together) was conceived in 2001 as an emulation of Oregon Shines. This is essentially a state-driven and –confined platform but has produced some salutary indicators. The government warns that “Collaborative approaches to complex problems should only be undertaken when necessary. Although there is a conviction about the effectiveness of collaboration, there is also a warning about its selective use”.

As explained on the Tasmanian Premier’s website, “Making collaboration work effectively can be resource intensive, costly and time consuming, and a long term view may be required to obtain positive results. Competing political and community agendas can undermine its objectives”.

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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