02/11/2015 5:47 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Our Cities Must Keep Up If We're To Remain Globally Competitive

Singapore, shipping terminal, city skyline in background, elevated view
xPACIFICA via Getty Images
Singapore, shipping terminal, city skyline in background, elevated view

When Malcolm Turnbull talks about what distinguishes his government from that led by Tony Abbott, he often talks about cities.

This is a good thing. In the world's most urbanised nation it was damaging nonsense that we spent two years with a government blind to the concerns of four in five Australians, and to 80 percent of our economic activity.

Of course, Labor has long made urban policy a national priority. Gough Whitlam from opposition put the state of our suburbs at the centre of political debate, and this lead was followed in successive governments by reforming ministers like Tom Uren, Brian Howe and Anthony Albanese.

Since losing government in 2013 we have not just sat on our hands. We've set the agenda in this area -- putting the future productivity, liveability and sustainability of our cities at the centre of the responsibility of national government. And we now have the necessary bipartisanship when it comes to our cities.

The new Prime Minister, who seems pretty keen on the sharing economy, is welcome to share our plans for innovation in infrastructure provision, for boosting jobs which are more accessible to people's homes and for coordination around urban planning.

Labor has been looking to the evidence, identifying best practice around the world. The U.S. is discussing a 'metropolitan revolution'; Cities policy has been at the heart of policy debate in Britain and urbanisation more generally is perhaps the phenomenon of the times in which we live.

I've just spent a few days in Singapore -- Asia's greenest city, and a place offering useful lessons to inform policy making in Australia.

The peculiar challenges imposed on Singapore by its geography have driven important innovations which have led to this year's Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015.

This plan includes decentralising work opportunities, boosting public transport, and advancing community and public space. These are similar themes to those set out by Anthony Albanese in his address to the National Press Club last year, but works in actual progress.

In Singapore today we see the benefits of taking a long view, of looking beyond the electoral cycle, of setting ambitious plans, and of underpinning these with targets.

All of which rests on the foundations of a strong institutional framework, with a whole of government approach to urban policy. This has extended beyond the public sector, with the quality of consultation and engagement with the private sector and the community a hallmark.

Of course, this isn't to suggest that Singapore offers a template to simply reproduce in Australia. There are obvious differences in terms of political culture and structure. It is perhaps the most expensive city in the world to live in, with housing and transport costs of particular concern.

But as we grapple with the vital challenge of making the places where most Australians live and work more productive, liveable and sustainable, let's make sure we look around us. Let's not assume the answer to every problem can be found within.

And it's more pointed than this.

When it comes to Singapore, it's at our own risk if we don't take on board its lessons. Sydney and Melbourne need to be at least as attractive a place to locate as Singapore if we are to remain globally competitive.

We saw the farce in Question Time in October of the new Minister for Cities, Jamie Briggs, being denied the chance to answer a question on cities infrastructure. If we are going to face the challenges of the future of infrastructure head on, the first step is fixing the jumbled ministerial arrangements in the area.

Once the Minister for Cities is allowed to start answering Labor's questions on cities we can really start a proper bipartisan dialogue on what we can do to get our urban environment really working for the people that use it.