A medieval disdain for evidence… fetid swamps of arrogant stupidity, up from which deranged buffoons now bubble up to be leaders. Stupidity and mendacity are new virtues, truth is falsehood, solipsistic belief reigns over disinterested verifiability, lobotomised strong-men dominate. No wonder democracy is in retreat.
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously observed that he loved paying taxes; with them he bought civilisation.
This aphorism succinctly expresses the democratic deal: harmonious collective existence depends on good government to deliver it.
However, its rhetorical neatness rests on an assumption: that everyone actually regards civilisation as something worth having.
Unfortunately growing numbers of its greatest beneficiaries now casually disdain it, and many envious onlookers are increasingly disillusioned.
In consequence, evident democratic shortcomings are no longer confined to its evolving apex, but now increasingly appear in its foundations.
Hitherto sensed as vague unease, these structural weaknesses have even grown to threaten formerly stable political parties. Increasingly corroded by us-versus-them populism, hate-framed nationalist resentment, and a medieval disdain for evidence, some have dissolved into fetid swamps of arrogant stupidity, up from which deranged buffoons now bubble up to be leaders.
Stupidity and mendacity are new virtues; truth is falsehood; solipsistic belief reigns over disinterested verifiability; lobotomised strong-men dominate. No wonder democracy is in retreat.
Even in Australia, redlines that used to define the acceptable limits of public discourse are now routinely ignored.
A lump of coal debates energy policy. Parliament votes on whether or not it’s good to be “white”. Despite growing appreciation of wartime sacrifice, members of parliament attend Nazi-saluting anti-immigrant rallies. In each instance outcry is loud – but depressingly brief.
Unfortunately, these pathologies have metastasised into urban affairs.
Having failed to keep infrastructure spending apace with urban growth we seek to control immigration at considerable economic risk, rather than reinvest in cities.
In the face of growing demand for more urban public transport, we instead start a mega road project on the promise of “urban regeneration”, since delayed, and a low build cost, now growing.
“Commercial in confidence” grounds now prevent public scrutiny of the delivery agency, now privatised.
Houses are no longer affordable, particularly for the young, so it becomes the “number one priority” politically. However, many older voters disproportionately benefit from price growth so not much actually happens.
The doubtful business case to rebuild fairly new sporting infrastructure is concealed. Clever-dick contracts look set to lock it in before the next election.
Recent building failures now point to chronically lax regulations favouring developers.
New planning and infrastructure coordinating agencies, established to satisfy electorate concerns at poor urban governance, are ignored.
“Decision based evidence making” routinely enslaves objectivity to the selection and “sell” of urban projects.
Increasingly, urban governments and their institutions are viewed as incompetent, self-serving or worse, just irrelevant.
Unsurprisingly, those who consider the only good government is a throttled one don’t seem to mind very much.
Against this depressing background the City of Sydney’s current strategic planning activities could take on new significance.
About 10 years ago the City released its “Sustainable Sydney – 2030” plan; grandly subtitled “The Vision” but more prosaically known as “SS-2030”.
The document was ground breaking in a number of ways.
SS-2030 initially addressed the whole city, undivided into parts controlled by local government. This treatment reproduced in its ambit the lived experience of most Sydneysiders.
Secondly, SS-2030 recognised the importance of Sydney to the nation’s economic wellbeing. For example, the tiny local government area administered by the City accounted for some 8 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product, mainly from professional and financial services.
Thirdly, SS-2030 also recognised that the wealth generated by these sectors was dependant on attracting “global talent”, generally understood as responding to the many urban qualities managed by local governments. This is why Sydney ranks alongside global and regional competitors, like Hong Kong and Singapore.
SS-2030 then set out the challenges faced by greater Sydney at that time, and proposed measures to address them over the next quarter century.
Grouped into topics, such as “environmental sustainability”, “transport” and “economic development”, these measures included some that could be delivered by the City alone, but many required partnerships with state and national governments.
Partnership challenges were acknowledged in the last of its 10 sub-sections. “Effective Governance and Partnerships” was a compendium of worthy delivery pre-requisites, from responsible self-governance, financial prudence and community consultation, through to the development of intergovernmental partnerships, monitoring success, and participation in governance reform.
The general tenor of this section was inarguable; how could anyone reasonably oppose “good urban governance”? Yet, here we are…
Some ideas for Sydney 2050
After a decade of SS-2030, the City is about to embark on its replacement for 2050.
Of the new challenges yet to be uncovered at least two already stand out.
Firstly, urbanisation has accelerated much more rapidly than many thought possible. Its new pressures and pleasures are the reality for most of us. How well our cities work is vital to our current and future environmental, social, and economic wellbeing.
Secondly and, as illustrated above, the institutional arrangements needed to meet these challenges seem to have declined rather than improved.
So, in contrast to the dowdy treatment of “Governance” in SS-2030, the City’s new 2050 plan might make it a shiny new project.
If so, what might be some of its elements?
Well, commencing with a working definition of good urban governance it should review its current manifestations in Sydney, its many shortcomings and its positives.
It might then review good urban governance examples internationally, particularly the historic, economic, institutional and cultural conditions in which they operate.
Barriers – ranging from implacable to the merely perceived – to the adoption of these models in Sydney could inform recommendations.
The conventional urban professional orthodoxies – planning, engineering (think urban infrastructure), architecture, and urban design – are no longer sufficient to grapple with many new urban challenges.
Cities now present urgent problems of environmental sustainability, economic growth, rapid demographic change, political representation, multifactor “connectivity”, and social cohesion that are beyond the conventional remits of these professions.
For these reasons, new professional disciplines probably need to be defined, which create, in turn, new educational demands.
A governance project would be incomplete without proposing alternative options and, crucially, criteria against which the success of each option might be assessed.
Obviously, the City would not deliver “good governance”, but its experience at thinking beyond a narrow remit would enable the City to define what good urban governance might eventually look like.
Who knows, it might resemble something like a “governator” (oh help us).
Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.