When Canberra’s voters go to the polls tomorrow, they need to think long term

The legislative assembly of the Australian Capital Territory. Image: Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons.

This Saturday, the Australian Capital Territory goes to the polls to elect its legislative assembly. One Canberra resident thinks it needs to think long term.

For one day, it is our decision that determines the future of our city.

It is up to us to consider all that we see around us, and all we cannot yet see: the future light-rail lines, hospitals, affordable homes and road duplications our politicians have promised; the future people who will join us and to make our population double in the next fifty years; the future influx of traffic on our roads, pupils in our schools, and jobs required to make our economy grow.

Yet nowhere in Australia are people better qualified to have such foresight - to imagine what a future could be even though it is not before their eyes.

Canberra is a city which waited half a century for a dustbowl separating north and south to become a lake. It did not build in between or give up because that’s not what great cities do: great cities have vision, from which comes a plan, to be implemented over decades. In 1963 the Scrivener Dam was opened, and Lake Burley Griffin was born.

It is a city where world-class scientists race to discover our future possible, where world-class institutions equip students to make our future achievable, where bureaucrats and officials aim to make our future sustainable.

Canberra does long term. The problem is, politics often doesn’t.

Like in late 2014, when a promise to tear up a contract to deliver the East West link saw voters in Victoria remove a first term government for the first time in 60 years. The cancellation cost taxpayers $1.2bn, only for the project to reappear last week in the state’s independently produced long-term thirty-year infrastructure plan. 

Today, here in Canberra, a promise to tear up a light rail contracts is again headlining an election. That’s despite the estimated $300m compensation cost taxpayers will have to cover, the damage it will do investor confidence locally and nationally, and the precedent it sets that long-term projects can be ditched every three or four years.

Politics struggles with long term infrastructure because of the clash of short-term political and long-term infrastructure cycles; the strength of rhetoric relating to cost and debt over value and investment; and the difficulty in communicating a compelling future vision.


If we spend every weekend arguing about the cost of a lawnmower, the grass keeps growing regardless. The longer we argue, the longer the grass, the more expensive the lawnmower required to cut it will be.

All evidence shows the population of Canberra is growing. In half a century it will have doubled. Twice as much traffic. Twice as many people requiring homes, schools, hospitals and employment. We can keep arguing about the type of infrastructure required, but the longer the argument, the greater the population, the more expensive (and disruptive) the infrastructure will be.  

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme would be too expensive to make happen today. It required action in 1949 to enable it to provide a third of renewable energy to the eastern grid in 2016, and water for agricultural produce worth $3bn. This is how infrastructure works – decades in advance – as it is too expensive not to be of relevance 30 years after it is built, or to be part of broader resilience and sustainability plans. 

So to truly consider light rail or any major infrastructure project, voters must zoom out, see the big picture decades from now. The difficulty is that politics likes to zoom in.

A shorter four-year cycle supplemented by a daily news cycle means rhetoric becomes about present day cost and not long term value. Spend is equated to present day debt, like a credit card, rather than to a future investment, like a mortgage. The cost of doing is criticised without consideration of the cost of not doing. By 2013, congestion will cost Australia $53bn a year.

The key is to find a way to keep the focus zoomed out: to keep infrastructure at arms-length from politics through a bi-partisan long-term plan or an independent body; or, sell, sell, sell the bigger picture – set out a compelling long-term vision of which infrastructure forms a part.

I’d advocate both – but I’d emphasise vision. Martin Luther King did not inspire by saying, “I have a plan”. A vision allows cities to have reach beyond their grasp. Constantly pursuing goals which upon achieving are reset to be just out of reach again. Like scientists. Like researchers. Like government. Like Canberra. 

On Saturday we are the government. The present was taken care of by those preceding – so listen for long-term, think in decades, and vote for those with vision. 

Kevin Keith tweets as @KevKeith works for not-for-profit built-environment body Consult Australia and blogs here.

 
 
 
 

Councils are failing to protect tenants from bullying landlords

Rental properties in Coventry. Image: Getty.

If your rented home has a broken boiler, mould growing up the wall, or a kitchen that’s falling apart, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not unusual. But it’s by no means acceptable: serious defects in the home can harm your health, so the law rightly requires landlords to keep their properties free of them.

Nevertheless, one in seven private rented homes has at least one severe hazard, and is classed as unsafe. That’s more than 600,000 households spending a large portion of their income on something that could make them ill.

Councils have responsibility for enforcing standards in the private rented sector. If environmental health officers find hazards on inspections of rented homes, they can take enforcement action, such as serving an improvement notice on the landlord, who is then compelled to carry out repairs. Failure to comply can result in prosecution, or, since 2017, a civil penalty of up to £30,000.

Yet most councils are not using their powers. Generation Rent made Freedom of Information requests to 102 of the councils with the largest private renter populations. Just 78 reported the Category 1 (severe) hazards they found in 2017-18 – a total of 12,592 of them. But in the same period, these councils served only 2,545 improvement notices – so only 21 per cent of landlords with unsafe homes were forced to do anything about it.

Just eight councils had a ratio of improvement notices to Category 1 hazards of more than 75 per cent, and five appear to have issued no improvement notices in the whole 12-month period.

Some councils tell us that taking informal action – such as sending warning letters and “hazard awareness notices” – is usually enough to convince landlords to make repairs before they need to reach for an improvement notice, which involves more staff time. But this pragmatic approach means that tenants are left exposed to a retaliatory eviction.

Because landlords can evict tenants without needing a reason – under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act – many use this to intimidate tenants into putting up with unsafe conditions. In 2015 Parliament passed the Deregulation Act which makes a Section 21 notice invalid if the council has served an improvement notice for severe hazards.

Our data show that only a handful of councils are reliably providing tenants with this protection. If councils aren’t routinely using their powers then tenants will continue to be cowed into silence.

This week a new law comes into force which goes some way to addressing this lack of support. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 gives people starting tenancies from Wednesday onwards the ability to take negligent landlords to court over hazardous conditions. As well as forcing landlords to carry out repairs without relying on councils – which are, after all, experiencing deep budget cuts – courts can also award compensation to the tenant.

But unlike council-issued enforcement notices, the Homes Act does not protect plaintiffs from the no-fault eviction notice their landlord might issue in response. While compensation would be incentive enough for some to take action, there is a risk that any award would be swallowed up in the costs of moving home.

You’re much more likely to have a squalid home if you are on a low income, so the threat of having to find a new home when you have negligible savings is a potent one. Rather than rely on the Deregulation Act, tenants need to have basic assurance that they won’t be evicted for no good reason. Abolishing Section 21 would mean landlords would need valid grounds for eviction, so they couldn’t simply hang the threat of a forced move over tenants living in damp, draughty conditions. This – along with restrictions on rent increases, that other weapon of intimidation in criminal landlords’ armoury – would finally give renters confidence to exercise their rights.

Last summer the government consulted on a proposal for three-year tenancies, which would be a step forward in preventing retaliatory evictions, albeit only within the fixed term. We are still awaiting ministers’ decision on the next steps, but pressure is building across the political spectrum. On Saturday, the conservative Centre for Social Justice joined the growing chorus to scrap Section 21. Without reforming tenancy law substantially, the government can expect bullying of tenants to continue and the number of unsafe homes to remain stubbornly high.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

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