03/09/2013 - 06:59

Central message belies liveability scores

03/09/2013 - 06:59

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When the Economist Intelligence Unit listed Perth among the world’s top 10 most liveable cities last week, it barely rated a mention.

Australian capitals dominate this list, which, notwithstanding the Anglophile nature of the Economist and its Commonwealth roots, is regarded as a strong measure of what makes a city a great place to live and work. Other liveability indices show pretty much the same thing.

And the reason it isn’t news that Perth was ninth, Sydney seventh, Adelaide fifth and Melbourne, again, listed number one, is that it is such a regular occurrence.

I forget how many times we’ve highlighted Perth’s position in the top 10 over recent years and noted the Australian, and New Zealand dominance.

Yet to listen to our politicians and many commentators you would be forgiven for thinking that our urban existence is at the other end of the scale.

The day after the Economist published its most recent index, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd chose Perth to launch the creation of a new portfolio headed by a ‘minister for cities’.

Mr Rudd said, if Labor were re-elected, the new minister would consider all government policy decisions from the perspective of how they relate to cities.

“Municipal governments usually get it, whereas many of our state governments just don’t,” he said.

Mr Rudd claimed state governments often tried to block the attempts by local and federal governments to reform local infrastructure.

This is not completely original by the prime minister. Labor under Julia Gillard was heading down this track, constantly talking about the need to for national vision for our urban infrastructure.

There are plenty of social engineers out there who want central authority to ensure Australian cities meet all sorts of global standards in terms of architecture, transport and cultural development.

But please, tell me, what can some central authority add to a system that has already produced the most liveable cities in the world?

Canberra does have a role in Australia’s cities but it is, and should remain, an indirect one. Melbourne is not just a great place to live because of the city. The EIU highlights stability and security as key elements of liveability.

Economic management and defence are key areas of national leadership that influence the quality of city life. Federal governments would do well to focus on those things, which are not just important to all of us, but which are designated their responsibility under the constitution. That is more enough to keep them busy.

Having said Canberra should butt out, I don’t want to appear to be complacent. Being at the top doesn’t guarantee you perpetual success (just ask the Australian cricket team), but surely there are signs that those that guide our cities – predominantly state governments and some key inner-city councils – have a pretty good formula. I’m uncertain as to how federal government meddling is going to help.

Yes, congestion is a new issue for Perth, but to suggest, as the prime minister reportedly did, that “our national major cities [are] on the verge of gridlock” is overstating things.

And anyway, state leaders have the answers – they just need the money. If Canberra cared, it would fund good state projects, not try to take them over and tell them what to do.

Regular readers of my columns will know that I am a fan of our system of federated states because we can learn from others’ successes and failures. I am unclear on how a centralised bureaucracy is going to improve that and would humbly suggest that they would do more harm than good.

The century-long experience of Australian federation already offers significant examples of how this has worked in our favour.

Perth was famously labelled ‘Dullsville’ in 2000, for its lack many of the characteristics that make for a dynamic and successful metropolis. By contrast, Melbourne – EIU top-ranked city for liveability – was constantly seen as the city we wished to emulate.

Melbourne has cultural strengths that are hard to replicate, because they were not committee-created and they certainly were not guided by Canberra. Its focus on sport, its well laid out inner city, its architecture, and its thriving multi-cultural mix. Nevertheless, the former manufacturing capital was run down and fast losing its charm when crash or crash through Liberal premier Jeff Kennett revitalised the city.

Even Mr Kennett’s greatest enemies will admit he turned Melbourne around by removing red tape and putting in social infrastructure that returned Victoria’s capital to what it is today – Australia’s most liveable city.

People here, including important institutions such as the Committee for Perth, openly talk of Melbourne as the city to chase. I think Perth – both the city council itself and state governments of both hues – have done a good job improving what we have.

Of course no system if perfect and mistakes get made, but I would rather deal with a local politician who has to live with his or her decisions than some distant minister in Canberra who has motivations that are less clear.

Each of Australia’s cities is unique, and it is up to the well-travelled inhabitants of those metropolises to determine in which direction their city goes. A one-size-fits-all approach governed from Canberra – almost universally derided as Australia’s most boring major city – is not the answer.

 

The top 10 cities in the world when it comes to living conditions:

1. Melbourne, Australia

2. Vienna, Austria

3. Vancouver, Canada

4. Toronto, Canada

5. Calgary, Canada

5. Adelaide, Australia

7. Sydney, Australia

8. Helsinki, Finland

9. Perth, Australia

10. Auckland, New Zealand

Economist Intelligence Unit

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