The decentralisation of the nation's population was once an accepted narrative of Australian public policy before the the country's takeover by dominant capital cities.
Sydney and Melbourne groan with traffic congestion and diminish lifestyles for many, while our regions cry out for better health services, job opportunities and infrastructure. In the meantime, quarantine accommodation is cramped into inner-city hotels rather than located in open regional areas, where migrant camps once flourished.
Despite being a massive island continent, Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Some 80 per cent of its population lives in city conurbations, ranking it with Belgium, Qatar, Monaco and Singapore. Growth, investment and immigration are still concentrated on the old colonial state capitals, and Sydney and Melbourne are destined to reach a population of around 6.5 million in the next decade.
In many countries, population decentralisation has been seen as a sensible national and regional policy for a range of reasons - cultural, health, lifestyle, creativity, military and economic. It makes a lot of sense.
In general, towns need at least 100,000 people to achieve critical mass for adequate health, education, infrastructure and commerce. NSW has no towns of this size outside the country acronym for an alternative "NSW" - Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong.
State capitals elsewhere have been successfully decentralised to drive population expansion, such as Sacramento in California and Albany in New York state. In France, national policy for a long time has reinforced measures to promote people living close to the land.
Canberra remains Australia's only example of successful decentralisation - and it is a good one, which we should learn from and emulate.
I studied the concept of decentralisation in London, completing a diploma of town planning in 1983. We learnt about the garden city movement, about towns created by companies like Cadbury and Unilever, about new towns like Milton Keynes, about proactive policies like green belts that restrict city growth, and about city centres linked by high-speed trains.
Despite such knowledge, I was employed on return by the NSW Department of Industrial Development and Decentralisation to wind down the joint Commonwealth-NSW government designated growth centres of Macarthur (around Campbelltown), Bathurst-Orange and Albury-Wodonga.
These were originally planned to house up to 500,000 people each, to relieve pressures on Sydney including traffic congestion, pollution, rising house prices and social costs. Population and industry relocation to these and other regional centres was supported by a range of incentives, including loans, guarantees, payroll tax rebates and assistance for moving and rent. Research indicated that regional towns had more satisfied workforces, lower absenteeism and higher productivity. Investments were made in infrastructure and a number of government departments relocated.
These and other decentralisation policies had emerged from the Whitlam era of reform, and were subsequently supported by the Liberal and Country parties. Alas, the winds of change delivered Thatcher, Reagan and so-called rational economics, and decentralisation initiatives were painted as failures. The new fashion abandoned central planning for the free market and placed the rights of the individual over the community.
Globalisation became the mantra, with cities now seen as having to be big to be competitive. Manufacturing was allowed to relocate to China, rather than to regional Australia. Career public servants responsible for managing the common good, repositories of institutional memory, were outsourced - replaced by executive contracts and management consultants more interested in short-term profit.
Conviction politicians were replaced with career politicians advised by friends and nepotistic family.
Property developers drove city planning through lobbying and political donations. Agribusiness and the mining sector drove rural and regional planning. Big ideas lost currency, such as the proposed high-speed train linking Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; a great decentralisation driver that fell off the rails. Too hard and too risky.
There is little hope that the digital revolution will promote a big-city tree change. The lure of the marketplace is too enticing. There is no news of success from the Commonwealth government's Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. Miners continue to fly in and fly out, rather than local towns being built up. Even the construction of regional quarantine centres, like Howard Springs, is not favoured.
There is no discussion of developing a distinctive Australian cultural identity, more achievable in smaller towns than large amorphous cities characterised by high-density living disconnected from land and nature. Major historical political and cultural figures like Henry Parkes, Henry Lawson and Miles Franklin would be amazed at the trade-off of open spaces and big skies for urban congestion and canyons.
The NSW government is, however, entertaining some big ideas to tackle the sandstone curtain between Sydney and the bush. These are the Blackheath to Lithgow road tunnel and a mooted high-speed train to Goulburn.
To rekindle serious thought and action on decentralisation requires vision. One old chestnut seriously considered was moving the NSW Parliament to Bathurst. There are plenty of ideas worth discussion if we want a balanced state population and a liveable Sydney.
So is decentralisation worth keeping on the public policy agenda?
We're a developing country that should make our own future, regardless of international fashion and short-term trends that favour profiteering over public policymaking. There is plenty of blue sky and open space outside the metropolis.
- Stephen Bargwanna is a consulting planner who has worked with the private sector and governments in Australia and internationally for 40 years. He lives by the sea in Sydney.