Metropolitan regions are the missing link in Australia’s reform agenda

Sydney, which unlike Australia's metropolitan regions, definitely does exist. Image: Getty.

Perhaps all Western countries with which Australia might choose to compare itself have, since the early 1990s, engaged in intergovernmental decentralisation. They have done so as part of a metropolitan “renaissance” that includes “experiments” with metropolitan government.

By contrast, Australia’s state governments remain responsible for metropolitan governance. The state responsibility exists in a context of increasing intergovernmental centralisation that favours the federal government, as well as finance and treasury in federal and state governments.

New forms of metropolitan governance, and a (claimed) worldwide decentralisation of roles and responsibilities, have been a response to neoliberalism and the competitive forces arising from globalisation. How might Australia’s “unique model of metropolitan governance” be explained? Does it enhance economic competitiveness and the building of fair cities?

At first blush an answer lies in Australia’s Constitution. Federalism in Australia is premised on subsidiarity between the federal and state levels of government. No provision is made for the possibility that metropolitan governments might best undertake metro-scale roles and responsibilities.

Metropolitan governments can be created through constitutional change, but this is improbable. Instead, the governance of Australia’s urban regions is premised on local government being a “creature” of state government. This notion, a product of the 19th century, empowers state governments to legislate metropolitan governments.

A precedent exists for a state government creating a metropolitan government. Created in 1925, Brisbane City Council incorporated all the urban region’s local authorities with an eye to financial viability and metro-scale efficiencies in the delivery of water, sanitation, roads and so on. The council now serves about half of the effective metropolitan population.

The missing element of reform

Neoliberalism, from an urban perspective, comprises reducing government spending and the role of government in the economy and in delivering infrastructure and services. The responsibility of government – that is, to ensure the delivery of hitherto public goods and services – does not change. But its role changes substantially: government is not itself responsible for delivery.

Both the Labor and the Coalition governments, at all levels, have embraced public sector reform. This has involved increased competition, deregulation and privatisation and the outsourcing of infrastructure and service delivery. Where this cannot be done profitably, civil society is promoted – an example is NGOs’ involvement in social housing.

But government still bears responsibility for ensuring services are delivered. For example, failures in the private delivery of public transport services contributed to the fall of the Brumby government in Victoria in 2010.

Setting Australia apart, institutional restructuring has not been accompanied by intergovernmental decentralisation. In comparison, throughout the European Union the metropolitan “rescaling” of urban regions was undertaken to enhance their global competitiveness.

This is especially relevant to global city strategies and, one might think, to Australia. Every state, except Tasmania and the Northern Territory, claim their capital cities are, or should become, global cities (“world city” in the case of Queensland).

The metropolitan impetus arising elsewhere from globalisation is not felt in Australia. Australia has not created metropolitan governments. Consequently, there has been no debate by a metropolitan constituency about the desirability of a global city strategy.

Such strategies are closely associated with enhancing inner-city economies and lifestyles. A common outcome is increased social and spatial divides. The global city machismo of state governments is not matched by a concern for fairness.

The missing link: metropolitan governance

In effect, while Australia has embraced neoliberal institutional restructuring, and state governments pursue global competitiveness as the foundation for urban policies, decentralisation is not on the agenda. While metropolitan governance is discussed, metropolitan government seldom is.

For example, after pointing to metropolitan governance, planning and democratic “deficits”, urban commentators refer to the need for “metropolitan-scale institutions” and for a “metropolitan governance forum”.

Marcus Spiller, a prominent urban economist and planner, has written that state governance of Australia’s urban regions is leading to ineffectual metropolitan planning and infrastructure investment. The result is less productive and more socially divided cities. Spiller’s views should be read in the light of an OECD report that “cities with fragmented governance structures have lower levels of productivity”.

Urban sprawl represents a failure to implement strategic planning as a result of the lack of effective metropolitan government. Image: AAP/Dave Hunt.

Transport and planning ministerial silos also compromise effective state leadership in the development of urban regions. Big-budget transport ministries show scant regard for planning ministries.

A consequence is that, despite a professed commitment to compact cities in state-prepared metropolitan strategic plans, infrastructure investment has contributed to urban sprawl. This diminishes access to jobs and education opportunities, and negatively affects household incomes. The city loses the full productive potential of its labour force.

Cities pay high price for funding imbalance

Ineffectual planning and investment and compromised productivity also reflect Australia’s extreme vertical fiscal imbalance. In the words of Paul Keating, Australia's prime minister from 1991 to 1996:

The national perspective dominates Australian political life because the national government dominates revenue raising, and only because the national government dominates revenue raising.

Paul Keating. Image: Australian government.

Without a constitutional remit to do so, vertical fiscal imbalance has created a “perverse incentive” for the federal government to get involved in transport funding, housing and other matters about which metropolitan residents might presume to know best.

Thus strategic plans that last the term of a state government and metro-scale infrastructure projects and services that depend on an alignment of state and federal priorities have proven fraught. This is epitomised by the East West Link road project in Victoria. Melbourne’s residents (75 per cent of the state’s population) favour public transport, but this was irrelevant to the federal and state Coalition. Victorians now have to pay the A$642 million termination fee for the East West Link.

Federal priorities have changed between public transport, the “roads of the 21st century” and “agnosticism”. State priorities have fluctuated between public and private transport, and have been much influenced by federal priorities – that is, following the money. No wonder Infrastructure Australia complains about “infrastructure gaps”.

Dysfunctional infrastructure planning and funding, ineffectual metropolitan governance and endless blame-shifting poorly serve the creation of competitive and fair cities. It is no surprise that Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan of the Grattan Institute held that Australia’s cities “are broken” and “are no longer keeping up with changes in how we live and how our economy works”.

It is at the scale of metropolitan areas where issues pertaining to globalisation, economic competitiveness, social diversity and inequality are embedded. Labor and the Coalition, at federal and state level, serve metropolitan constituencies with an eye on the next election. Politicians parade trophy projects, services and plans with power, not a metropolitan perspective, in mind.

There is a wealth of comparative experience to guide us. Effective metropolitan governance requires intergovernmental decentralisation. Metro-scale planning, infrastructure investment and services, and partnerships with the private sector and civil society are best led by a representative and accountable metropolitan government.The Conversation

Richard Tomlinson is professor of urban planning at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.