For a nation that sets such great store by individual responsibility and initiative, it was a jarringly statist moment when the Morrison government proposed visas for migrants that would compel them to live within designated areas. Under such a plan, new arrivals would live in a most un-Australian way, being prevented from gravitating to the coast, where the economic and cultural action is centred.
Before Victoria's recent election, then opposition leader Matthew Guy was also talking about trying to decentralise population growth, through changes to the tax regime and improved regional rail links. While the ambition of rejuvenating our state's regions was laudable, the consensus was that these proposals lacked detail and, in the end, it was the Andrews government's commitments on infrastructure that convinced voters.
Daniel Andrews and his ministers had also vowed to cut travel times between regional centres and Melbourne, introducing a degree of bipartisanship into the debate, but it is worth asking what such measures can actually hope to achieve. In its October State Orange Book, the Grattan Institute think tank dismissed the idea that states might "make economic water flow uphill", and pointed out that city-centred growth is a global phenomenon.
The premise for so many proposals to redistribute population growth across Australia is that capital cities are being "choked" by human arrivals, with Melbourne adding an average of 350 people a day. There can be no question that this has had a negative effect on quality of life in many areas of the metropolis, but it remains unclear at what point these costs might start to outweigh the benefits people derive from urban and suburban living.
Yet despite poor and irregular services, we are already seeing population booms in satellite towns as far from the capital as Wonthaggi and even Bendigo, so there is reason to believe that if people can get to jobs in Melbourne, they will commute from the regions, as they do in Britain. This, in turn, would lead to growth in demand for schools, health and community services and shops, creating more local employment.
The Andrews government has shown it is prepared to be ambitious when it comes to suburban rail projects. It now needs to demonstrate that it can extend this ambition to cover the whole state, while bearing in mind – in the Grattan Institute's words – that "governments owe obligations to people, not places".
The alternative – waiting until demand for improved rail services becomes acute and then reacting, as was the case when past governments confronted population growth in such places as Geelong and the corridor from Epping to Mernda – is a recipe for second-rate planning and increased public frustration.
Instead of squandering public money on attempts to engineer population outcomes, a government fresh from electoral success – whether it resides in Spring Street or Canberra – needs to recommit to following the aspirations and the life decisions of its people and supporting them with the infrastructure to travel promptly and painlessly to where they need to go.