Whitlam Institute
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Cities & Suburbs

Cities & Suburbs


A national government which cuts itself off from responsibility for the nation's cities is cutting itself off from the nation's real life.

Gough Whitlam's outlook on the planning and development of Australia's cities was shaped by his experience of having grown up in Canberra – the only Australian city whose development was guided by a single level of government. This instilled in him a firm belief in the capacity of the federal government to provide the resources and organising authority to resolve the urban problems that affected the living standards and opportunities of Australians most severely. Raising a family in Sydney's rapidly growing western suburbs gave Whitlam direct experience of the consequences of poor investment in the infrastructure and services people needed in these new residential areas.

In his 1972 election campaign speech, Whitlam made it clear that cities were fundamental to the mission of his government – 'increasingly, a citizen's real standard of living, the health of himself and his family, his children's opportunities for education and self-improvement, his access to employment opportunities, his ability to enjoy the nation's resources for recreation or culture, his ability to participate in the decisions and actions of the community are determined not by his income, not by the hours he works, but by where he lives. This is why Labor believes that the national government must involve itself directly in cities. Practically every major national problem relates to cities. A national government which cuts itself off from responsibility for the nation's cities is cutting itself off from the nation's real life. A national government which has nothing to say about cities has nothing relevant or enduring to say about the nation or the nation's future'. 


Protection & Renewal of Inner City Suburbs | Funding of Urban Public Transport Projects | Connection of Suburban Homes to Sewerage | Improvements to Suburban Areas

Protection & Renewal of Inner City Suburbs

The Whitlam Government initiated and funded the renewal of inner city areas as parts of its policy of providing affordable urban housing for working people, and protecting the heritage fabric of Australian cities. By the 1970s, Glebe in Sydney had undergone significant decay and was seen by many as a blight on the city. The area was slated for wide scale demolition to make way for a freeway planned by the New South Wales Government.

Once it came to power, the Whitlam Government purchased a large tract of land that lay in the proposed freeway's path, effectively preventing its construction. The 700 buildings on the land were then restored, leading to the revitalisation of the area. 

The Whitlam Government also protected Woolloomooloo from being destroyed and replaced with a high-density commercial development. The Whitlam Government funded the restoration of homes there, and constructed new ones. This ensured that workers could find low-cost accommodation within walking distance of the CBD and the job opportunities available there.

The Whitlam Government also purchased land at Emerald Hill in Melbourne so that buildings there could be rehabilitated.

Funding of Urban Public Transport Projects

For most of Australia's history, public transport had been regarded as a matter exclusively for the state governments, yet the states had a much smaller financial capacity to fulfil these obligations than the Commonwealth did. This contributed to the deterioration of urban public transport in Australian cities in the post-war period.1

The Whitlam Government was the first Commonwealth government to provide substantial funding for urban public transport projects. In 1973, the Whitlam Government announced the Urban Public Transport Assistance Scheme to provide states with matching funds for public transport improvement projects.  Through this scheme, the states were allocated funding for the purchase of new trains, trams ferries and buses. Railway extension and electrification projects were also funded. At a press conference, Whitlam was asked "what would happen to the Government if you fell under a bus tomorrow?". Whitlam answered – "with the improvements my government has initiated in urban transport this is unlikely to happen".

The Government's plans were not fully realised, however – partly because of the need to secure the support of state governments for more extensive projects. The Whitlam's proposal to the New South Wales Government to fully fund the construction of a new railway network radiating in three directions from Parramatta, was never realised as the Fraser Government distanced itself from the project.


Connection of Suburban Homes to Sewerage

The rapid expansion of suburbs in Australia's cities in the 1950s and 1960s was not met with adequate provision of basic services and infrastructure. Many suburbs were not even properly connected to sewer lines. 

The Whitlam Government implemented the National Sewerage Program soon after it came to power. The government spent $330 million on the program before it was cancelled by the Fraser Government. The program achieved significant improvements. In Sydney for instance, the backlog of unsewered properties fell from 158,884 in 1973 to 95,505 in 1978.200  Similarly, in Melbourne, the backlog was reduced from 160,000 in 1972-73, to 88,000 in 1978-79, while in Perth the proportion of sewered properties increased from 46.9% in 1972-73 to 69.1% in 1978-79.

Improvements to Suburban Areas

The government's Area Improvement Program provided funding to local and state government bodies to construct or improve infrastructure and facilities in suburban areas – particularly the rapidly growing western regions of Sydney and Melbourne. Parks, bridges, libraries and community centres were built, extended and enhanced through this program.

The quality of life in suburban areas was also improved through the Urban Local Roads program, which sought to alleviate the impact of cars on suburban neighbourhoods, and to improve the quality of the streetscape in these areas. Through this program, a number of local streets were pedestrianised, calmed and protected from fast through-traffic to be made safer for local residents.

One reason for lack of adequate services and infrastructure in Australian suburbs at this time was the poor funding of local government organisations. The Whitlam Government sought to resolve this. The Whitlam Government introduced legislation giving local government organisations access to federal funds for the first time though the Commonwealth Grants Commission. Under this arrangement, local government organisations could receive a new source of revenue from the Commonwealth. Money was to be allocated according to the needs of each area, so under this arrangement, the rapidly growing suburbs of Western Sydney received more funding than any other region in Australia.