When Ginninderra Drive was opened in 1976, Canberra had a population of 208,000. In the 45 years since, our population has more than doubled to around 450,000. Although growth has slowed in the COVID era, our population could conceivably hit the 1 million mark 50 years from now. So, it is important to start thinking: what will a million-person Canberra look like?
Will we still have our beautiful bush capital? Will commute times be manageable? Will we have a two-tiered society of landowners and apartment dwellers? Will the public service become so decentralised, and working from home so common, that Canberra might never even reach 1 million people?
With a bold vision and considered planning, the Canberra of 1 million people could see us remain as the bush capital. I would hope we would have ample green space, efficient transport infrastructure and much broader home ownership and employment opportunities. Canberra must be a destination of choice for talented, capable people who will contribute to professional services delivery and to the smart industries of Australia's future.
I have no confidence the ACT Labor-Greens government's forthcoming planning legislation will be fit-for-purpose. Their tunnel vision sees light rail servicing limited corridors across Canberra, with poorly designed and delivered bus connections. The dichotomy of options for home ownership is a million-dollar-plus house with a backyard, or a high-rise apartment. These choices certainly suit some Canberrans at various life stages, but for young people hoping to get into the market or families trying to purchase a first home, the lack of choice is unfair. This also goes to the issue of building quality. I have heard from many constituents concerned that the only way they can get into the market is to buy a multi-unit dwelling, but they have no assurance over the build quality.
The Labor-Greens government's blinkered pursuit of high-density living seems to ignore that backyards and green spaces cool cities. We do not have the land constraints of Hong Kong or Manhattan, and yet somehow Canberra is turning into a concrete jungle with increasing urban heat banks. The only real beneficiaries of progress in Canberra appear to be developers of high-rise towers, even though the government's Winton report in 2015 showed less than 5 per cent of Canberrans want to see apartment buildings of more than six storeys.
Add to this the Labor-Greens government's contempt for everyday service delivery for Canberrans, with their long lines at Access Canberra, unmown suburban grass, poor road maintenance and delayed projects such as the Canberra Hospital and Canberra Theatre. Canberra also needs a plan to close the budget deficit, not to mention the unknown price to pay by future generations of billions in government debt.
I want a liveable Canberra, but under this government there is no vision. They have held the reins for over 20 years now, and the current state of our city is firmly of their making: Canberra is becoming less beautiful. We should not have two-hour queues for basic government services, nor should we have increasingly growing commute times on infrastructure built for a city of 200,000 people. Young people and families should be free to choose to live in an apartment, not be forced into one. Future generations should not be left to foot the mounting economic bill from the legacy of this government. We cannot become a failed state.
I propose a grand planning vision for a million-person Canberra. A vision where our beautiful green spaces, that making living here so attractive, are secured forever. A vision where there is genuine housing choice. A vision where the light rail is complemented by world-class road infrastructure and other modes of public transport that will not leave us stuck in commutes for hours a day, nor driving on potholed roads.
- Peter Cain is a Liberal MLA for Ginninderra and the opposition spokesman for planning and jobs.