Last Sunday the new Turnbull Liberal Government made Jamie Briggs Minister for Cities. This marks the Liberal Party’s first positive intervention into the Australian city in almost five decades. In excellent articles Liam Hogan and Alan Davies as well as Malcolm Farr and Michael Bleby have many aspects of this appointment covered.
After spending the last few months in the urban archives, it feels similar to when Tom Uren became ‘Minister for Cities’ under Gough Whitlam. The mood amongst urbanists and the wider community is hopeful yet cautious. Particularly because the Federal Liberal Party are often perceived as urban agnostics. So Turnbull’s appointment of Briggs seemingly takes on an added level of importance: the Liberal Party, Welcome to the City.
Yet the Liberal Party has a long tradition of urban policy, particularly in roads and housing. For instance, the Menzies Government expanded the 1945 Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement in 1956 to provide low-interest loans for potential homeowners. Australian home ownership increased by 35% between 1947 and 1971. The extent of cooperation varied between state governments, and so outcomes varied from city to city. In 1981, journalist Clem Lloyd noted the ‘classical simplicity’ of Menzies’ urbanism; he implemented ‘micro’ initiatives with a ‘macro’ orientation. Menzies’ urbanism was certainly not visionary. Today, it might be interpreted as being as much ideological as belonging to a time when the Commonwealth was smaller than it is now. Either way, there was some urban policy in place under Menzies.
‘Liberal Minister for Cities #1’: Kevin Cairns
Almost two decades later, staring down the barrel of defeat to Whitlam’s Labor Party at the following year’s election, William McMahon seized the leadership of the Liberal Party from John Gorton in 1971. Prime Minister McMahon appointed Kevin Cairns as a traditional Minister for Housing. But with Whitlam and Uren espousing the need for federal urban policy, Cairns took up their concerns around cities.
In March 1972, Cairns took a detailed submission on cities to the cabinet. Believing the claims of an urban crisis were an ‘exaggeration’, Cairns nevertheless thought there was a more sophisticated role that the federal government might play in the Australian city. Particularly because of the ‘lack of concern about urban affairs’ shown by state governments. For Cairns the solution was some sort of federal ‘co-ordination’. But he noted that there were practical issues to contend with. What were the views of city dwellers? How would state governments respond if grants were tied to specific purposes? How expert was the Commonwealth in urban affairs? Cairns also pointed to the U.S. and Canada where recent federal government involvement had had mixed outcomes.
Most significantly, Cairns recommend an Inquiry into the Australian City, which would involve all levels of government, professionals like planners and architects, and individual and academic experts. The inquiry would be a ‘fact-finding committee’ to pave the way for subsequent federal action. It would add to the Department of Housing’s urban research, which it had been ‘quietly amassing’ for the previous five years. The cabinet reserved its decision and the inquiry was never initiated.
Instead, the National Urban and Regional Development Authority was formed in October 1972, less than two months out of the election. Despite Cairns having advocated for cities, the authority came under the control of the Prime Minister. As always hopes for this urban initiative were high, with one commentator stating that, ‘we have for the first time a clear programme from the Government to ease the strains of urbanisation in Australia which are considerable’.
The Australian city was a signifiant election issue in December 1972. On the one hand, the Liberal Government had a budding though unproven urban policy. On the other, Whitlam and Uren had years of urban activism behind them. Plus the Labor men were on good terms with some of the best urban thinkers of the time. Such as Patrick Troy, who had led the Urban Research Unit at the Australian National University since the mid 1960s. Prime Minister McMahon’s decision to take responsibility for this new urban authority possibly reflected the prominence that cities were to have during the election campaign, or may have just been poor judgement.
In 1972, then, in the dying days of his Liberal Government, Prime Minister McMahon and his Minister for Housing Cairns brought about federal urban policy. Their commitment to cities and the strength of this agency would never be tested. But the Liberal Party did momentarily show an interest in cities. Cairns did not quite become a ‘Minister for Cities’ – there would be no standalone department and ultimate control for the nascent authority rested with McMahon – but Cairns had nevertheless laid some of the groundwork for a future urban ministry.
‘Liberal Minister for Cities #2’: John Carrick
After coming to power, Whitlam and Uren rejected the Liberal’s authority for a standalone powerful urban ministry. They renamed the authority to the catchier Cities Commission and brought it under Uren’s control. Uren choose merger with his ministry rather than rescission, even though this meant duplication, in order to respect the good work that he thought the authority had been doing.
After the election that followed the 1975 Whitlam Government dismissal, Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser appointed John Carrick to replace Tom Uren as Minister for Urban and Regional Development, that is as ‘Minister for Cities’. He retained the post for 41 days before the Fraser Government abolished the ministry. So went the Liberal’s National Urban and Regional Development Authority too.
Liberal Carrick was thus Australia’s most recent ‘Minister for Cities’. The axing of this post on 22 December 1975 marked the Liberal Party’s exit from the Australian city. The Howard and Abbott Governments also adopted the ‘classical simplicity’ of Menzies’ urbanism. And so it became an accepted fact that the Liberal Party – as opposed to the Labor Party – sought little involvement with cities.
Turnbull’s appointment of a Minister for Cities is not a complete a break with the Liberal Party’s past. From the mid 1960s under successive Liberal governments the Ministry of Housing – along with the ANU’s Urban Research Unit – had been quietly preparing for possible federal involvement in the Australian city. McMahon and Cairns took an activist urban agenda to the 1972 election, even if it was in response to the Whitlam programme. Liberals Cairns and certainly Carrick held ministerial posts in which they in part represented cities – and even Abbott wanted to build roads through cities!
Only some strands of Liberal ideology reject the involvement of the federal government in cities. The recent reluctance of the Liberal Party to become substantively involved with cities is as much bound to Menzies’ urbanism as it is a rejection of Whitlam’s legacy. With an election looming and the Labor Party and its shadow minister for cities Anthony Albanese once again agitating for cities, Turnbull’s appointment of Briggs may well be history repeating itself. Alternatively, with Turnbull’s longstanding interest in cities, this may instead mark a new era of Australian federal urbanism, especially if the post were to be eventually elevated to cabinet level. At the very least, we might hope that the 2016 election will be fought in part over the Australian city, with the various parties proposing distinguishable far-sighted urban platforms. Perhaps a Minister for Cities will turn out to be good for something after all.
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