In 2006, Canada’s Prime Minister, Steven Harper, was elected using many of the strategies and policies of the Howard government. Mr Howard’s national campaign director, Brian Loughnane, advised the Canadian Conservatives in the 2006 election and when Mr Howard visited Ottawa in 2006, he was the first foreign head of government to be invited by PM Stephen Harper to speak to Canada’s Parliament. Clearly Mr Harper is a Howard fan, but the response of his government to urban issues is markedly different to that of Mr Howard.
Canada and Australia share a lot in common, besides our Head of State and membership in the Commonwealth. Both countries are highly urbanised, with a significant proportion of our populations living in major cities. Canada has nearly 80% of its people living in urban centres (well over 60% of the population lives within 160 kilometres of the US border) with the bulk of the country being sparsely populated. Canada ranks 219th in the world in population density, and Australia is ranked 224th.
Like Canada, we are one of the most highly urbanised nations of the western world with over 85 % of our population living in urban areas largely concentrated in our capital cities, with 90% living within 50 kilometres of the coast. Canadians and Australians are, in essence, fringe dwellers. While the outback of Australia and the north of Canada are rich in resources, each country faces the high costs of providing infrastructure and services to the more remote parts of the vast interior and north, while also catering for the ever- increasing concentration of population in growing mega cities.
Even though they both have Conservative federal governments and a high proportion of the population living in major cities, the Federal responses to the challenges of urban growth is markedly different. This is partially due to the way each nation was established. Under the Constitution of Australia, any residual powers are left to the States, while the Constitution of Canada leaves residual powers in the hands of the Federal government. In Australia we have seven State Labor governments, so the argument might be that Federal/State consensus is highly difficult to achieve – at present.
In Canada there are two governments at a Provincial (State in Australia) or territory level which have conservative governments and Canada also has the “Quebec Issue” – but somehow they have managed to bring Federal, Provincial and City leaders together with degree of consensus on urban infrastructure issues. The Government of Canada has a Cities and Communities Branch within the Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Portfolio.
It actively funds major urban infrastructure such as a $5 billion Canadian injection of money into public transport from the gasoline tax revenue. One tangible result of this Federal-Provincial cooperation is in the booming western city of Calgary which received 40 new Light Rail Cars adding 30% to its capacity under this scheme.
Consensus on place-based approach
An External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities was established by the then Canadian Federal Liberal (centre left) government in February 2004 – and retained by the incoming Conservatives. The number one recommendation of the committee was “that all governments in Canada adopt a place-based approach to policy-making, which will allow them to foster better capacities to understand, develop and manage Canada’s places for the future. Specifically, the Committee recommends that the leadership role of the Federal government be one of facilitation and partnership with other orders of government and civil society, to deliver locally appropriate solutions to issues of national consequence playing out at a local level.” Imagine something like that happening in Australia!
Both Liz De Chastel, National Policy Manager of the Planning Institute of Australia and Paul Waterhouse, Property Council of Australia National Manager, have both expressed the view that the Federal Government should be much more interested in cities than they are at present. Australia is one the very few OECD nations which does not have a strong federal commitment to cities and in particular, mass urban transportation – and it will ultimately affect our competitiveness on a global scale. Even “the land of the free (enterprise)” and our biggest ally, the United States, has a much more hands-on approach to federal funding of urban initiatives, including public transport. There are numerous other programs including housing affordability and others being delivered with federal/provincial cooperation in Canada.
This November, as Urban Designers and concerned citizens, we should be asking Mr Howard and Mr Rudd: “how can you continue to ignore 85% of your electors?”