By Tina Perinotto
8 September 2011 – In the “power couple” session with Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull at the Property Council lunch last Friday (2 September) it was Lucy Turnbull who outshone her husband on serious policy issues, delivering strong comments on urban planning and cities.
Malcolm Turnbull on the other hand steered well clear of the climate issues by which he made his mark in the Liberal Party and which cost him his leadership of the party.
His political comments were confined to the more innocuous tip that Kevin Rudd might resume the leadership of the Labor Party, a call for a sovereign wealth fund before Australia wasted the proceeds of its mining boom, and an insightful analysis of the deterioration of newspapers and journalism.
Lucy Turnbull by contrast showed no hesitation in making strong calls for reform in her bailiwick. As member of the Cities Expert Panel which reports to the Council of Australian Governments, a former Lord Mayor of Sydney, deputy chair of the Committee for Sydney, board member of the Redfern Waterloo Authority and the Australian Technology Park, Ms Turnbull demonstrated a strong grasp of urban planning issues.
“What’s really important for the city next 20 or 30 years is for Australian cities to improve the way they manage growth, both in terms of population and economics,” Lucy Turnbull said.
“I think in the last 10-15 years we haven’t been good at that.” It would also help if local governments could think of themselves as part of the economic system, “not just a patchwork of small precincts and villages”.
Another good idea would be for local governments to take a “higher, more strategic view of what can happen in their areas” rather than reacting to development in a “micro sense”.
On greenfields, she said, “We can’t have cities that spread out all the way without having really good public transport to support that.
“We have to get good transport otherwise our cities will become unliveable. And cities are where our GDP is made – 75 per cent of our GDP comes from our cities.”
Turnbull thought there needed to be a new model for community engagement. “The community has to be happy,” she said, “but local governments and even state governments have to harness the power of social media to engage with wider communities of people.”
Currently it was almost impossible to attract community participation from busy professional people who could not get to 7 pm council-run meetings, thus leaving the dominant influence to a handful of “noisy” people.
On Barangaroo, the massive and controversial development on the western edge of the CBD, Ms Turnbull said she was a supporter but that it has to be well designed and to “work well at street level”.
She said Sydney had fallen behind, not just with Barangaroo, which had become trapped in community and design backlash, but in general.
The CBD had to be “re-imagined”, she said.
She compared Sydney, which was moribund, to Melbourne which was “still enjoying the benefits of the reforms enacted by former premier Jeff Kennett”.
Ms Turnbull also thought much more could be done to engage community audiences in better understanding the economic drivers that deliver development.
“There is a lack of dialogue and [these issues] could be better promoted and better articulated.”
On a sovereign wealth fund
Malcolm Turnbull seized on a question from the audience about what was the single most important initiative that would secure Australia’s future.
“We must not waste the proceeds of the resources boom,” he said. “The government has to work to save more and we’ve got to establish a sovereign wealth fund.”
Most other advanced countries had done this, he said.
“It would be an absolutely tragedy if we got to the end of this boom and have nothing to show for it.”
Lucy Turnbull thought reform of the metropolitan planning system would be the single best action for the future.
On media and politics
On the broader issues of media, Malcolm Turnbull said that newspapers were failing to provide the quality journalism that would contribute to democracy. There had been a destruction of value in newspapers over the past 20 years as their proprietors failed to find a replacement for the “rivers of gold” that had haemorrhaged in the wake of online media.
“Readers have migrated to the digital platform and but the advertising dollars have not followed,” he said.
“So we are starting to get a big question mark over whether there is sufficient cash flow to support the type of quality journalism we have come to expect and demand.”
Almost without exception no newspapers had succeeded in getting people to pay for journalism online, he said.
“So where is the revenue that is going to fund the really good journalism?” Instead “we’ve gone from the news cycle to the opinion cycle.”
Lucy Turnbull said the coverage of politics resembled coverage of sports, “like The Ashes, every day.”
It was hard for meaningful policy debates to surface in this context said Malcolm Turnbull.
Moderator or interviewer in the feature style session was Imre Salusinszky from The Australian.