According to the Prime Minister’s Office the absence of “built environment” in the name of the new cities ministry, now called Cities and Digital Transformation, is not much more than a contraction to avoid a long and cumbersome portfolio name.
In his cabinet reshuffle on the weekend PM Malcolm Turnbull nominated Angus Taylor assistant minister for Cities and Digital Integration to replace Jamie Briggs, a junior minister with responsibility for Cities and the Built Environment (Briggs resigned at Christmas after alleged inappropriate behaviour with an Australian embassy staff member).
Taylor will be based in the PMO, so reporting to Turnbull direct. The reasoning makes sense, observers say, since cities require someone with oversight and ability to bring national policy strings together.
But names and words are important. Queensland’s Newman government banned the word “sustainability” and the sustainable property industry itself went searching for alternative phrases during the dark years of attack from the Abbott government.
While cities generally stimulate multiparty cross-platform agreement and most people say they deserve great attention – on joined up thinking, transport policy, a population policy – the built environment is more micro and a direct line to carbon emissions and the need to reduce them. Hence perhaps more political.
And there is the deepening cloud that Turnbull has not yet delivered on expectations from a vast contingent of disaffected Liberals, climate supporters and progressives from a wide spectrum of politics. He allows his government to continue to threaten that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will be killed off and he’s presided over major slashing of jobs at CSIRO, making his commitment to innovation seem hollow. Yes, he has the Nationals to appease, especially now that new leader Barnaby Joyce is deputy PM, but some of the sparkle from the romance fashioned in his seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s east and kindled on the ABC’s QandA and on multiple Twitter feeds of his penchant for public transport, could be fading.
There was a degree of cynicism about the demotion of the portfolio from a number of people, most prominently in comments from former NSW premier Kristina Keneally on Twitter over the weekend, which, to great amusement, was “liked” by Briggs. He later deleted the tweet and said it was a mistake, blaming it on his “fat fingers”.
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) February 13, 2016
Another set of amusing Tweets in the past few days showed Minister Taylor, who is from the bush and based at Goulburn, knee deep in sheep, with the comment that here was our minister for cities.
— Lord Judge ‘n Jury (@sprocket___) February 13, 2016
Turnbull has a lot of opposition on his plate and not all of it from outside the party. Rumours have surfaced that the leaks that led to another ministerial resignation, from Stuart Robert, came from Abbott’s office. So it’s clear that Turnbull has to play a strong appeasement card right now.
But despite Turnbull’s inability to move much on climate and other progressive issues, his minders say its not affecting his commitment to the built environment.
A spokeswoman from the PMO said “the built environment is very much part of the portfolio” and that this had not changed since Briggs held the job.
And if the industry is concerned about being left out of the positive focus, it’s not showing it.
The Green Building Council of Australia, the Property Council, the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council and Building Designers Australia were strongly upbeat about the reshuffle.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, who probably understands the machinations of politics more than the industry, said it was a wait and see situation.
“I feel Angus Taylor is a bit of an unknown quality in the portfolio, so everyone has to wait and see what he makes of it and what resources he’s given,” he told The Fifth Estate on Tuesday.
Turnbull had a major job to repair the Cities portfolio, he said. Former PM Tony Abbott had a “weird hatred” of the portfolio and he “burned down to the ground every institutional structure and he sacked everyone and anything with the word cities or built form was obliterated.
“So you’re starting with a scorched earth policy.”
The key thing to watch was the money trail,he said. Just because the portfolio now resided in the PMO did not mean it would necessarily have automatic call on funding streams; that depended on decisions made in cabinet and on Infrastructure Australia.
“You can have the Cities Minister pumping out glossy reports but is Barnaby Joyce controlling the purse strings and funding regional freeways and white elephant projects in the north of Australia?”
Turnbull might have good intentions but after the grand flourish of funding for the Gold Coast light rail last year there had been no more announcements.
“We’re still battling to stop a freeway in Perth and the WestConnex still gets its funding in NSW,” Ludlam said.
He said the funding system for Infrastructure Australia – typically with ministers cherry picking from a list of projects – was “incredibly messed up and dysfunctional”.
As as to the new minister’s patch, he said, “Goulburn is lovely but it’s not a city, and it’s not where you want to base your minister for cities.”
But despite the scepticism ASBEC executive director Suzanne Toumbourou was hopeful that the move of the portfolio to the PMO was almost guaranteed to get connectivity at the high level the portfolio required.
Toumbourou said she hoped much more information and shape to the agenda would flow after the cities summit expected within months.
She said it was a good idea to keep in mind that the cities agenda was not about just capital cities. There were 18 cities captured in the State of the Cities report she said.
Dick Clarke who represents the Building Designers Australia at ASBEC said the question was, had the PM’s recent enthusiasm for the built environment evaporated or was the move a way for Turnbull to exercise direct personal control?
There might be a bit of scepticism about the new name but on balance, he said, the PM might think that between him and his wife Lucy, both had a long standing interest in cities. And that between them, especially with Lucy now chair of the Greater Sydney Commission and with a seat on the infrastructure committee for NSW, they might actually achieve something.
Clarke also pointed out the built environment was growing in influence. For instance, there was open revolt after the proposed dumbing down of energy efficiency requirements in the National Construction Code, forcing the Australian Building Codes Board to backtrack.
(It’s interesting to note that the move came from a bunch of independent but influential engineers and consultants, not the official industry organisations. That’s not saying the organisations didn’t support the revolt, just that the independents are more agile and free to move, perhaps.)
A clear fan of the new ministry was PCA’s chief executive Ken Morrison who said the move by the PM put cities “fairly and squarely at the centre of government with the imprimatur of the PM”.
“It’s not the same as having a separate minister for cities but it’s the PM indicating he wants to have a very hands on role.”
Morrison pointed out Taylor is a smart person – a Rhodes Scholar and is ex-McKinsey & Co – and has been tipped as “up-and-coming” for some time.
“There’s a lot to be positive about and as an individual he’s shown interest in these issues.
“I don’t think we should sweat the small stuff. This has brought the portfolio into the centre of government. And I don’t think the PM could have indicated more strongly how important he thinks it is.”
Morrison also said there was a “limit to what the federal government can do in some areas”.
“A lot of people have unrealistic expectations about what what a federal cities portfolio could or should do.”