There have probably been worse appearances on Lateline than last night’s Anthony Albanese extravaganza. Greg Sheridan’s encounter with George Galloway in the lead-up to the Iraq war comes to mind, when the grumpy Grouper spent most of the segment yelling “don’t go off your medication, George” at Galloway’s satellite image — leaving a bewildered nation muttering “physician heal thyself”.

And doubtless there have been times when a guest, getting up to go, has forgotten the clip mike cable, wrapped it around their neck, pulled themselves into their waterglass and drowned.

That would be worse than Albo’s appearance last night.

But that’s about it.

You’d have to say that Albo’s fumble through refugee policy was bad — but his take on infrastructure was alarming. It was also indicative of the lack of real determination to make change happen within the Rudd government. Beyond the 20-20 frou frous and flattery, this is federal government running like a state government, plundering the housing and teaching budget to build schools, etc, etc, all aimed at keeping an economy ticking over and not much more.

Everyone’s mind has been focused by new reports that we will be heading north to 30, 35 million and beyond quicker than we know it. Since most of that gain will come in Sydney and Melbourne these cities will cross a threshold becoming something else.

It is plainly obvious that we cannot grow simply by adding fresh rings of suburbs to them. Melbourne will be at Gippsland. Sydney will hit New England.

None of these new areas will have any real focus. They’ll be exurbs, noplaces. Radical and audacious policy is needed if this demographic change is to be an opportunity not a disaster.

There was none of this in Albo’s discourse about infrastructure. He burbled on like the Tasmanian minister of railways c.1956, talking about a new line here, and a new station there. He looks like Doc Evatt, and he makes Tom Cahill sound like Caesar Augustus.

Even Tony Jones was frustrated, sounding like a tutor coaching a slow-witted student:

“Anthony what about fast rail. Europe. Interlinking cities …”

“Ah but Tony remember, soon there will be a second ramp at West Footscray, and the Twisties machine will be fixed …”

This is the worst of Ruddism. It is a mad Mandarin adventure on stuff that doesn’t matter and a dull suburban Labor outfit where it does.

What we need first and foremost are not new rail lines, you clown. Not even fast rail lines.

What we need are new cities.

Whole new cities.

Cities and towns. Places designed to grow to a variety of sizes, from 50,000 to half a million or so. Some could have a strong eco-emphasis, mixing city and country, different ways of life, others could be more conventionally centralised.

We need, say 25 of them, all within 30 minutes by fast rail (250 kph) of a larger urban centre — with the expectation that they would take, in total, five million to seven  million people of the new 35 million population.

We need to stop worrying about the failure of earlier planned start-up cities — from Canberra to Elizabeth — and instead learn from them.

We need to make them not conventional slapped-up cities — box skyscrapers, slab tilt low rise jobs — but places with a core of design excellence.

Give leading architects a city each, and let them go wild. Give Peter Corrigan a city. Ashton Raggatt. Invite overseas architects in, from Gehry on down. Put Denton Corker Marshall in jail for crimes against humanity*.

Design the cities so that they will not be limited by their designed status, but enabled. So that they will grow in ways their initial designers never imagined.

Put a federal department head office, state department head office, a university in each of them, and give corporations tax breaks to locate there.

Link them by fast rail and successively revolutionised communications, so that teleconferencing becomes the norm, rather than pointless travel for bogus meetings.

Make some of them post-cities — spaces where rural life and urban life co-exist in as yet unexplored ways. Where there are farms beside skyscrapers. Where local production is emphasised, building codes allow a greater mix of styles and approaches.

Emphasise not elitism (as did that mad multifunction polis idea of the ’80s-’90s), but openness, with selected areas of rent control, so that low-income creative types, from painters to punk bands, can live there and transform them as they go.

Some of these new cities would be old cities — Newcastle, Warragul, poor old bloody Elizabeth — but it would also be a way of making sure we don’t wreck mid-size, functioning cities and towns such as Ballarat, in a desperate war against sprawl.

It also means that we won’t have to wreck Melbourne, with the new doctrine of density, so that it enters up as a characterless imitation of Guangdong.

The truth is that these Victorian cities were never designed, intended or imagined to take this insane, unserviceable sprawl. Cue phalanx of cultural studies types to tell me that, “arrrrr the suburbs are a multimodal space of rhizomatic post-metaphysical … arrr I’ve got it on a card somewhere.”

Simple rule. If you live in a place where you need a car to get around, local shopping is the mall, and the majority of people commute more than an hour a day, then congratulations, you’re in a slum of the future. The desire for the constituents of suburban living — gardens, low-rise, large houses, etc — are absolutely legitimate and there is an anti-suburban elitism it’s easy to fall into.

But there are smarter, better ways to ensure more people get a share of this, together with a whole series of other advantages, than simply ploughing up ever more far-flung fields.

The truth is Melbourne and Sydney had exceeded their bounds by about 1910. Melbourne’s natural boundaries are the Maribyrnong to the west, Dights Falls to the east, Merri Creek to the north, and Veludo Cafe Bar, Acland St, to the south. Beyond that, you can see, you can actually see in the layout, how the city started to lose its focus.

That sprawl is now terminal. Melbourne and Sydney are two of the worst-planned, worst prosecuted cities in the world.

A new cities plan should be a bi-partisan commitment over 25 years, and projected a full half-century ahead. The emphasis would then shift with different governments, but ideally the plan would show a way forward.

And to those who suggest that this is hopelessly ambitious, what can one say. Maybe you’re right, with a government whose infrastructure minister bleats “well I was hoping for a better fast rail infrastructure proposal”. Jesus, Albo. You’re the gummint! Lead!

For it’s worth remembering that, within the space of three long-lifetimes, we did do this, did found cities.

Their names were Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide …

*This is a satirical reference to my entirely subjective view that DCM’s designs are not to my taste. It should in no way be taken as an imputation that DCM are anything other than fully professional architects, or guilty of actual war crimes.

Peter Fray

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