Australia has a federal system of government comprising six states and two special territories. It is one of the most urbanized countries in the world and average incomes are high. Three-quarters of Australians live in 18 major cities with populations over 100,000 (ABS, 2011). In 2014 89% of the population lived in an urban setting, in settlements with more than a 1000 people[i]. The majority of the population live in coastal towns and cities. Australia’s four largest cities, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, are projected to grow by 5.8 million, from 12.8 million in 2011 to 18.6 million by 2031, an increase of 45%. The urban regions surround these cities, Hunter, Illawarra, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Geelong are also expected to grow from two million in 2011 to over 2.5 million in 2031. Consequently, these four extended metropolitan areas will account for over two thirds of Australia’s population by 2031 (Australian Government, 2015). Australia’s urban areas presently generate 80% of the country’s gross domestic product and employ 75% of the workforce (Australian Government, 2011). Although urbanisation levels are high, settlements have traditionally been lower density (Lee, 2003) and urban centres with 100 or more people per square kilometre only cover around 0.3% of the total land area of the country (PIA, 2016). Generally speaking, Australian cities often do well in assessments made by the OECD and similar organisations, ranking cities against indicators of liveability. However, the consistent growth in population continually puts these achievements at risk.
Throughout most of the country’s history, the national government avoided having an explicit vision or integrated policy towards cities, except to fund road and rail connections between the cities.
The main responsibilities for urban planning and development lie with states and municipalities. This arrangement has proved to be problematic as the majority of large cities are administered by multiple municipalities and typically there is little agreement between the state and local municipalities on urban planning issues. Fragmented city governance structures, persistent political differences and short political cycles mean a lack of continuity for key decisions affecting the long-term performance and prospects of cities.
A more national approach has been taken a long time. From the 1940s through to the 1960s the Australian government funded a major expansion of urban housing to address housing shortages and affordability problems which initially focused on government rental housing but with a rapid increase in car ownership shifted to supporting owner occupation in the suburbs. One of the negative consequences was extensive suburban sprawl. Second, the government introduced a programme in 1972 to alleviate concentrations of poverty within the cities by expanding public housing and to try and steer settlement growth into new regional centres to alleviate growth pressures and congestion in exiting cities. The third initiative was the Building Better Cities programme implemented between 1991 and 1996. This sought to increase investment in urban infrastructure to improve the efficiency, competitiveness and sustainability of cities.
Australia’s first broad-based National Urban Policy (NUP), named Our Cities, Our Future, was approved in 2011. This represented the first time that an Australian Government has sought to outline its overarching goals for its cities and how it would play a role in making them more productive, sustainable and liveable. It was developed in response to a series of looming challenges in the major cities, including the escalating cost of housing, rising fuel costs, urban sprawl and its impact on infrastructure networks, transport systems, road congestion, uneven access to job opportunities and the natural environment (Australian Government, 2011). National government involvement was vital because of the limited fiscal capacity of the states and local government. The main impact of the NUP was on public transport infrastructure projects, such as the Gold Coast Rapid Transit light rail, the Regional Rail Link in Victoria and Perth’s City Link. The oversight arrangements for the policy through the Australian Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) have struggled get real traction with metropolitan-level decisions about planning and development (Burton and Dodson, 2014). In addition, a change in national government in 2013 resulted in a loss of momentum. More recently a minister of cities and the built environment was created in 2015, with the objective of integrated planning, infrastructure funding and ‘greening’ cities.
Best practice: RMIT’s Australian Node of JRC’s Smart Specialisation Platform
RMIT and Seville’s based Joint Research Centre are collaborating on an Australian Node of the European Commission’s Smart Specialisation Platform. The platform will promote international cooperation between researchers and policy makers working on initiatives to support economic and social development in regions within the European Union Member States, and in other partner countries. Particular attention will be given to the implementation of smart specialisation initiatives and the development of regional innovation systems in countries beyond the EU. The Centre of Excellence will be a repository for regional policy and development research outside the European Union neighbourhood, working in collaboration with the European Commission’s Smart Specialisation Platform in Sevilla.
 This chapter has been compiled from UN Habitat’s Publication “The Evolution of National Urban Policies: A Global Overview”
First published in Nairobi in 2014 by UN-Habitat.