Jamie Briggs

At last, Australia has a minister for cities and the built environment. It’s almost too good to be true.

Someone in Canberra finally listened. Even better, it was without the bother of a new election (just a little ol’ coup, which we’re getting quite good at).

Today Australia wakes up with someone – Jamie Briggs – in charge of the tiller for what this industry knows is critical to our future. Greg Hunt remains as Environment Minister.

On the cities announcement, industry groups late on Sunday afternoon were besides themselves. The Property Council, Green Building Council of Australia, and umbrella group Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council all declaring a far more positive era ahead.

The move looks set to have positive repercussions throughout the whole sustainability industry and energy efficiency areas in particular, given the parallel support Malcolm Turnbull has stated for innovation and new technology so much of which focuses on energy and environmental concerns.

After decades of advocacy, argument and reasoned logic as to why cities deserve the most serious attention, it was the best news in a long time. In psychological terms – or confidence – a bit like a drenching rain after a six-year drought.

But then Turnbull is an old hand at understanding cities and the importance of buildings. It’s on the record in these pages. When Turnbull spoke to a Grattan Institute audience in 2013 it was clear he’d absorbed the issues.

Australia had “tragically” neglected transport infrastructure, particularly public transport infrastructure, he said. It was a social justice issue and equity issue.

“If you don’t have adequate transport you discriminate against the old, the young, the poor and the sick. This is a social justice issue. It’s a question of social equity.”

And:

“The truth is that density is not the problem; density is the solution. But density without infrastructure lacks amenity, and density without amenity is congestion, and is very unpleasant.”

His wife Lucy seems to get it too. See our interview with her around the same time, where we called her and her husband Australia’s first couple in waiting.

In a very interesting twist, the new PM has placed this new ministry under the Environment portfolio instead of Infrastructure, where you might expect it to reside.

That’s a good sign because our cities and buildings are not just economic units as so many people have been keen to focus on, they are also the front end of how we interact with the environment. It’s where all the issues of the decades ahead will confront us: emissions reductions, resource efficiency, renewable energy, climate change, food security, energy security, resilience, materials innovation, technology and the “internet of things”.

Announcing the new minister for cities, Mr Turnbull said that liveable, vibrant cities were “absolutely critical to our prosperity”, but that they had been overlooked by federal government.

In a dig to the outgoing mindset, he said that integration was critical and that “[w]e shouldn’t be discriminating between one form of transit and another”.

“Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits. There is no place for ideology here at all.”

We know there are big political challenges ahead. There is a Praetorians guard that may or may not white-ant the new PM to force a continued anti-green agenda.

But so far things look positive, if not positively good.

First thing to get the chop was the change to the legislation that would have prevented green groups from launching legal action to stop coal mines like Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. One for decent modern democracy and rights to protect our environment through legal means, one down for the increasingly Stalinist regime.

Next for the chop needs to be the threat to remove the tax free status for environment groups. To allow this for religious reasons and charities and not for the environment is not joined up thinking. All these groups use the often-times unpaid labour of thousands of people for the benefit of the rest of us. Protecting the environment has huge long-term gains and gives us the foundations to build the strong, creative, innovative and flexible country Turnbull carved out in his speech on taking leadership and announcing the new cabinet line up.

“The most valuable capital today is human capital,” Turnbull said. Humans thrive in a healthy environment.

Progressive people will be applauding, quietly. That’s Turnbull’s patch. He rides public transport, he woos bright people and he uses words such as “exciting” and “opportunities” to refer to our future –  something we haven’t heard for a long time.

The sceptical among the progressives, though, will be watching closely what happens next.

On Briggs

Jamie Briggs, as assistant minister for infrastructure and regional development, seems the industry’s expected choice for cities minister, but whether he’s up to the task is another question.

Briggs doesn’t have a great track record. He raised eyebrows in Canberra during last year’s BEMP at his insistence that the federal government was funding public transport – road investment was a public transport item because buses drove on them. Hmmm.

In June, he went on the record to say rising house prices were good problems to have.

“Rising house prices is a good problem. Growth in our cities is a good problem,” he said.

That quote was being sent around the email network on Monday and to stymie it he will have to demonstrate a far more nuanced understanding of the issues confronting ordinary Australians and particularly young Australians struggling to pay for housing.

He will need to demonstrate on environment and the roads obsession, too, that he was speaking under orders from the old regime and now things have changed.

Was there a better choice than Briggs? Some are pointing to Liberal Member for Ryan, Jane Prentice, a former Brisbane City Councillor who was one of the driving forces behind the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Better Cities, a tripartite body that boldly sought to address the black hole left by the Abbott government on cities.

The Hunt thing

Not so well received is Turnbull’s commitment to maintain the current environment policy, Direct Action, along with the man who created it, Greg Hunt, as environment minister.

No one celebrated this in their media statements.

Our inside sources (and Climate Institute’s John Connor) forecast this last week and brief analysis indicated it’s the logical thing for Turnbull to do.

At first glance this is a big negative. But say Direct Action is retained, and then all the other anti-climate policies are switched – on renewable energy, technology, the Climate Change Authority, the policy on what the Clean Energy Finance Corporation can and can’t invest in, the preference for road building ahead of public transport.

There’s evidence this could become the case, with Mr Hunt tweeting that he’d been reappointed environment minister “but with an increased focus on renewables, cities and built Env’t”.

And with Abbott and “wind turbines are ‘utterly offensive’” Hockey out of the picture, there’s hope there will be environment for renewables will be a little less adversarial.

But with Direct Action, you’re left with a $2 billion bucket to reduce emissions, except that currently it isn’t predicted to work all that well. Though as John Connor also pointed out in our conversation, you can tighten up the DA and get the safeguard mechanisms doing what they purport to do. You could also, if you were Malcolm Turnbull, direct that Hunt sends the buckets of money to the places where they will do most good, not just where it’s politically expedient for ideological reasons.

The mood off the record among green property leaders last week was not positive on the possibility Hunt would be retained. Too much water under the bridge. Too much disappointment.

There’s no doubt Turnbull has kept Hunt to pacify the angry beasts within the party and the Institute of Public Affairs.

But the move could also prove to be a fine Machiavellian play. Hunt must feel personally very bad at his appalling behaviour as environment minister under Abbott. Sure it’s been under orders but we know that’s a vacuous defence.

We know Hunt will probably feel bad because when we first heard him speak at a BEMP event before the Coalition won government, he sounded exactly like the kind of environment minister we could wish for.

Now is his golden opportunity to redeem his name and his early promise.

For starters he’s been given a new overarching policy setting.

Jamie Briggs

The Property Council in its celebratory media statement noted other positives. Scott Morrison, the new treasurer would be a handy backup to Jamie Briggs, because Morrison was head of the policy unit at the Property Council during the 1990s. He would have been part of the big push, in large part led by then CEO Peter Verwer – and involving countless reports, summits and meetings in Canberra – to put the issue under the Feds’ nose.

Under Labor, Infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese was a champion of cities. He initiated the Cities Unit and the State of the Cities report, which proved to be immensely popular. Abbott axed the unit and decimated the report.

What Turnbull has done is not genius, it is not a quick fix silver bullet solution.

It simply resets the starting mark to everyone else’s, instead of where Abbott had us, at the very back of the pack, with the worst possible handicap in history: a focus on failure and fear.

By using a more logical and evidence-based approach, what Turnbull has also done is opened up the possibility of more collaborative government. A chance to heal the deep divisions of the past six years.

This isn’t to say the Feds won’t continue to get things wrong, but Turnbull has acknowledged this – that policy is not always perfect and may need to change to get the best outcomes.

Good luck to Mr Turnbull. May the naysayers and those in government who talked down this country and not once used the words “exciting” or “opportunity” to describe our future, hold their peace. They had their chance. And now it’s someone else’s turn.

– with Cameron Jewell

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