Labor’s 2016 election campaign started a little earlier than expected yesterday, with shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese revealing how he plans to tempt swinging voters away from the Coalition and Greens in two years’ time.
In a National Press Club speech, Albanese said he’s had ‘shadow minister for cities’ added to his job description -- ‘shadow minister for everything Greens voters like’ would have done just as well.
Labor, in contrast to the Coalition, wants the see federal funding for urban public transport re-started, and for all those lovely train lines and tram tracks to run through communities in which denizens can walk or cycle most of the rest of the time.
His speech was full of references to medium-density housing, and the kinds of social infrastructure that makes a community buzz.
Labor, like the Greens, sees flower lined streets, hip cafes where you can down your morning latte, smooth bike paths you can coast along to a train station, and storage units at the station in which to lock your bike before sharing an air-conditioned carriage into the CBD.
And each time a commuter smiles, there’ll be a little flash of light accompanied by a ‘ching!’ of perfection.
Viewed from back in the middle of the Howard years, that vision would have seemed like political suicide.
Howard carved out his success over 11 years by convincing outer suburban ‘battlers’ that their new-found prosperity was somehow his doing.
There were numerous strands to that -- swelling tax revenues and generous family allowance cut through most directly.
However, a big part of the new ebullience in the ’burbs was that new cars practically fell from the sky.
Families that in the 1990s might have struggled to run a sensible Mazda wagon, could now contemplate a Fiat for her and a 5.8L V8 Ford for him. All that was required was a trip to the bank, signing a few forms to effect an equity withdrawal from the booming value of one’s home, and vrooom!
It didn’t last, long, however. During 2008, petrol prices went through the roof -- remember when Goldman Sachs set markets abuzz by predicting oil would hit $US200 a barrel in 2009?
That didn’t come to pass, but in late 2008 the suburban train line I rode from Melbourne’s west into the CBD was thoroughly overwhelmed with commuters, while car yards along the highway bulged with near-new V8s (particularly utes bought by feckless apprentices).
Car dependence has radically changed in meaning from the days when the first Holdens rolled off the production line in 1948.
In those days, having to drive to town in one’s own car was a sign of success. The hire purchase schemes offered by dealers often required a quarter of the car's value as a down payment. The more time one spent in that shiny car, the better such a commitment felt.
Now things are very different for suburban commuters.
Cars have become incredibly cheap in recent years. As the Reserve Bank of Australia noted in a recent study, Australians effectively spent a third of the extra national income generated by the mining boom on new cars -- often German, American, or offshore-manufactured Japanese brands -- and the old down-at-heel family vehicles now clog car yards at discount prices.
Petrol prices, which have been rising steadily, are set to rise even more quickly for two reasons.
Firstly, the government has sensibly reintroduced indexation of the fuel excise -- a measure that was scrapped by the Howard government, to almost universal condemnation by economists.
Secondly, the Aussie dollar has begun the long-predicted, and long-awaited fall away from its resources boom highs. From a peak of US105c, it’s now below US89c, and dramatic upward movements in pump prices are almost certain to follow.
So Labor’s staking out of ‘urban policy’ is its attempt to catch the ‘battlers’ as several tides of good fortune turn against them.
Living without a car, in a community in which no car is needed, is becoming a status symbol all of its own -- the ‘inner city elites’ are a reality.
So out in the ‘burbs, Labor has to convince car-dependent commuters that it can get them to their places of work more cheaply, and make their communities more like the pleasant inner-city post-codes where Greens voters already live.
As Albanese noted in his speech, the decline of many industries that were situated close the outer suburbs -- things like auto manufacturing and its supply chain industries -- means that new jobs are likely to be part of the ‘knowledge economy’ and more likely to require a trip each day into city centres.
The ability to drive in on new or upgraded roads is the offering from the Coalition.
However Labor is working with the shifting economic forces that have shaped cities around the world -- cities that do indeed rely much more on public transport, walking communities and better social infrastructure than Australia.
That’s why the campaign had to start early -- Albo couldn’t risk the Abbott government softening its stance on the ‘roads-only’ policy. Labor doesn’t own much right now, but it hopes to own that at least.