‘Liveability’ for whom?

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Peter Whiting.

Melbourne. alh1. flickr cc.

With the Victorian elections due in November, the timing of the recent announcement of a “visionary’ $50 billion underground rail loop for Melbourne is not entirely surprising. It follows a similar ‘visionary’ proposal for a city-to-airport link at an envisaged cost of $15 billion. It is a sad reality that infrastructure spending on Victoria’s public transport has long been neglected.

The current projects undertaken by the Andrews’ government have been well received electorally:  new faster suburban trains, the Metro tunnel, level crossing removals, a program of regional rail revival are just some of the projects underway. Major road projects are planned or underway as well: the Westgate tunnel project and the North East Link project are examples.

Victoria and particularly Melbourne have been experiencing rapid population growth and the historically inadequate infrastructure planning and development is manifesting itself in traffic congestion and an electoral backlash of disgruntled voters. For the incumbent government the commitment to these big picture, big spend projects has considerable political benefit. The projects promise not only relief from traffic congestion but also stimulation to economic activity, increased employment, the opening of new growth corridors and a reassurance that Melbourne remains a highly desirable ‘livable’ city.

What of ‘social infrastructure’?

Substitute in your mind for a moment ‘social infrastructure’ for ‘transport infrastructure’. Why doesn’t this kind of expenditure conjure up for us a whole range of beneficial societal outcomes that also affirm Melbourne as a highly desirable ‘liveable’ city?

Bernie Geary OAM, the recently retired Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People, speaking on 30 August at a Social Policy Connections forum, deplored the absence of investment in social infrastructure.  He spoke of the great need for well-planned supported housing for young people which would provide them with the essential experience of living in community which many lack as a result of dysfunctional families often involving childhood trauma. Surely social infrastructure spending in this area would bring about beneficial changes to their ‘liveability’!

Much has been written in the media recently about the extent, causes and the human face of homelessness.  In Victoria 43 people in 10,000 are homeless and these include men, women and children. Alarmingly the numbers are growing and there is a certain sense of inevitability of the numbers growing with housing costs that are moving out of reach for many, particularly those on the lowest income levels.

For those we see in the city and in our suburbs as ‘sleeping rough’ there are many, many more who live insecure lives for lack of proper, safe housing and for the want of reliable employment that would enable them to retake control of their lives.

Melbourne Skyline. Craig Anderson. flickr cc.

Bernie Geary, speaking of the hysteria about gangs of ethnic youths, assured his audience there are no ‘gangs’ of youth! He did however acknowledge that there certainly are cohorts of ethnic young people who find themselves often with problems arising from a traumatised youth in their country of origin, and who now find themselves in Australia without the education, skills and employment prospects to move forward in life. Some suffer the further serious disadvantage of growing up in single-parent families, most often with single mothers trying to support large families on limited income.

Prisons are not the answer

Lamentably the infrastructure response is to address the outcome not the cause. We find more expensive prison facilities being built to isolate offenders from society when surely what we need are community support programs aimed at addressing the chronic needs of these young people. The solutions involved are not rocket science nor are they novel. There have been shown to be successful both here in Australia and overseas.

So often we see community-based initiatives funded by State or Federal governments just long enough to begin to have positive outcomes before being defunded in favour of a “new” attention-grabbing initiative which will look good on a headline at a propitious time in the electoral cycle.   We need our governments to adopt a longer term infrastructure approach to what are systemic issues.

The recent instability in the Coalition government resulting in the dumping of a Prime Minister is an unfortunate contra-indicator of longer term social planning.  Add to this the fact that in a decade we have had four prime ministerial coups and one is left wondering whether our political system can possibly deliver social infrastructure policy and expenditures that are other than either a short-term bandage approach or, equally damaging (perhaps even more so), an ideological approach based in opinions and not the reality of the situation. This ‘reality’ is the stuff of many people’s lives, people who are becoming increasingly marginalised and overlooked.

None of this commentary is meant to suggest that as a community we do not need and will not benefit from the major transport infrastructure programs that Federal and State governments are proposing in order to address the needs of a growing population. It is meant rather to challenge our governments to adopt that same long-term investment philosophy to addressing what are systemic social problems in our community.

If we have not lost our senses (and our hearts) then surely a visionary, considered and properly funded plan of long term social infrastructure spending would also result in considerable electoral approbation to those political parties who deliver it. We need more than “liveable” cities. For those otherwise on the margins of society,  we need to ensure we provide ‘liveable’ lives!

Excerpts from Bernie Geary’s talk will be posted on YouTube shortly.

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