conservatives commit to federal funding of transit (in australia)

US readers watching the Federal budget process, in which one major party is proposing Federal disinvestment in city-serving infrastructure, might note that Australia is moving the other way.  The Labor government created Infrastructure Australia in 2008 to be a conduit for federal funding of transit infrastructure, a role similar to that long played by the Federal Transit Administration in the US.  Now, the more conservative opposition — the "Coalition" of the Liberal and National parties — has endorsed the contination of that policy, signaling that this role is likely to continue regardless of who is in Government.  On his party website, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott states:

The Coalition supports Infrastructure Australia (IA) and in government will strengthen its role, creating a more transparent, accountable and effective adviser on infrastructure projects.

We’ll keep it, we’ll fund it and we’ll listen to it because important infrastructure decisions should be made on the basis of rational planning …

The Coalition will ensure that Infrastructure Australia has guaranteed ongoing funding. … The Coalition’s commitment means that IA will be provided with the resources necessary for it to do its job properly.

It's interesting to think about why urban issues that are bipartisan in Australia seem to become Democratic concerns in the US.   In both countries, most of the population lives in urban areas, but there is a crucial difference in language that creates a difference in habits of thought.  Americans think of big "cities" as separate from their "suburbs," and often use these terms as shorthand or euphemism for a range of other oppositions.  (Only in America, for example, would a style of music associated with black people be called "Urban.")  Americans also have the idea of a suburban center (what Joel Garreau calls an "Edge City') that clings to the outer orbit of a big city but can think of itself as unrelated to it.  Hence someone in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, say, may be happier thinking of their metro area as "Northern Virginia" rather than "greater Washington DC."   

Those word choices lead to a US political reality in which big cities — narrowly defined in exclusion of their suburbs — represent a minority of the population and thus attract the interest of only one side of the political divide. 

By contrast, when Australians say "Sydney" or "Melbourne" they usually mean the entire urban area — the continuous patch of lights that you see from an airplane.  So people who live in what Americans would call the suburbs of Sydney think of themselves as living in Sydney.  This way of speaking encourages them to accept that the problems of Sydney are their problems, whereas a resident of Tyson's Corner may feel quite removed from the problems of "Washington."  When cities are understood in that inclusive way, it follows that most Australians live in cities, so naturally both sides of the political divide must care about them.

23 Responses to conservatives commit to federal funding of transit (in australia)

  1. Alon Levy April 14, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

    I see your point, but I’m skeptical. Australia is unique in that it has statistical districts that correspond to metro areas; in France, Britain, Germany, etc., cities are separate from their suburbs. I think the main issue is still that conservatives who are really right-wing liberals are not opposed to urban infrastructure investment, whereas right-wing populists hate cities and think environmentalism is a foreign imposition.

  2. Mahyar April 15, 2011 at 4:30 am #

    Except Tony Abbott is a right-wing populist.

  3. EJ April 15, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    Yonah Freemark broke this down nicely:
    There is culture at work here too. Much of the Republican party’s base is rural/suburban whites, who identify themselves in opposition to urban areas filled with the young, the intellectuals, the poor, and minorities. The “Red America” vs. “Blue America” clash is quite salient in the minds of a lot of people.

  4. Scott C. April 15, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    Although I don’t know much about Australia’s history, I assume past problems of race and how they played out in America’s cities are shaping the debate here in the States more so than in Australia.

  5. Andy April 15, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Agree w/ Scott C. The major city-suburb divides in our country emerged shortly after the Great Migration. It’s 95% about race (and by race I meant how white Americans felt/feel about sharing their community with black Americans).

  6. EngineerScotty April 15, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    Many suburban communities in the US exist as a means of capital flight–so that wealthier persons can congregate in an area which is politically separate from that which contains the poor, and thus not be taxed to subsidize said poor. And as others have noted, race is frequently (though not always) a component in this. This was exacerbated in the mid-twentieth century by mandatory (school) bussing programs imposed by courts in some urban school districts as a remedy for segregated schools of differing qualities; many whites outraged that their children were being bussed to schools in poor black neighborhoods in the name of social progress simply packed up and moved to a different school district.
    How does Australia deal with the phenomenon of unchecked urban sprawl? Legal and economic incentives in much of the US seem to encourage the building of new housing on a city’s fringe–even if there is an adequate supply of existing housing lying vacant.

  7. John April 15, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    I think people in the US also say they live in the main central city even if they live in the suburbs. For example, someone from Naperville, IL is traveling abroad, or even just within the US. They’re not going to tell strangers they’re from Naperville. They say, “Chicago.”

  8. anonymouse April 15, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

    The tension between urban and rural in the US can be traced back to the founding of the country and the early politics, and the “yeoman farmer” ideal that was supposed to be the basis of democracy. It’s one reason why the capital of New York State is in Albany, the capital of Illinois is in Springfield, the capital of Washington State is in Olympia, etc. I imagine Australian politics would be a bit different if, say, the capital of Victoria were in, say, Bendigo rather than Melbourne, and the capital of NSW was somewhere nice and central like Orange.

  9. EngineerScotty April 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    For a less cultural look at why suburbia and sprawl are frequently desired, see today’s Urbanophile post. (OK, its a replay post, but still worth reading).

  10. Tim (in Brisbane) April 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    While the focus in the comments seems to be on the social differences there is one major political and economic difference between Australia and the US.
    In Australia the State government is responsible for health, policing and education while these are the responsibility of the local government (LG) in the US. While Australia has a State-wide redistrubtion system the US has much more localised service provision.
    This allows each LG in the US to develop different focuses which encourages money flight and political ghettoisation. So the cities have (mostly) split into poor centers and rich suburbs. In Australia there is minimal benefit to moving to a richer or poorer council area so people move based mostly on geography which keeps a more mixed-income population.
    That said when each side in Australia talks about ‘infrastructure’ what they really mean is ‘infrastructure for the outer suburbs’. Those are the demographic regions with the swing voters who determine our elections. Most inner city and rural seats are relatively fixed.

  11. anonymouse April 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    @Tim, just out of curiosity, how are constituency boundaries drawn in Australia? Do you have the sort of gerrymandering that is now standard in the US, where the two parties collude to ensure that most seats stay with incumbents? You end up with some rather unnatural-looking congressional districts.

  12. Rational Plan April 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    The UK does not quite the same divide. In the UK the poorer people take buses, the middle classes are more likely use trains. So Conservatives are quite in favour for money to be spent on commuter services. Besides the Tory heartlands of the South east are all part of the London commuter belt. Even if you don’t commute by train to London the house prices of where you live are determined by how good your rail service is. As the service economy grew commuting to other metropolitan centres have grown. Rail travel has soared throughout the UK. It’s not really a major difference. Today it’s arguing about what to build where and what has priority for funds.

  13. K April 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm #

    @EngineerScotty, I’d say Australia deals with suburban sprawl badly. We have a long entrenched tradition (since the late 19th century)of speculators buying cheap land on the fringes for development.
    In Melbourne’s case this started before automobiles were common and developers curiously pushed for the train lines to be built to their new land. As a result we have an extensive radial train network.
    I’d say there is little economic and statutory encouragement of sprawl, but it hasn’t stopped it happening. State governments have created policies to discourage sprawl and encourage urban consolidation but they have been fairly toothless and developers know the political process well enough to ensure their interests are not affected.
    A rapidly growing population and housing bubble (I’d say mainly due to a debt binge similar to the US, although that’s a subject that draws much debate) have not helped. Any moves to limit urban sprawl have to take place in an environment of unaffordable housing. But there’s plenty of cheap land on the fringe, right?
    While I agree with everything Jarrett says here, I still find it interesting that despite the differences in attitudes, Australia and America have remarkably similar urban form outcomes in our cities.

  14. Matt April 15, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    @ EngineerScotty, while Australian cities do sprawl, it is moderated by state planning policies that support urban consolidation, infrastructure levies on greenfield development, and a lack of financial incentives for local governments to promote land development (local taxes only just seem to cover the marginal cost of services and infrastructure).
    @ anonymouse (@ Tim), I understand the Australian Electoral Commission redistributes the boundaries according to population changes in a public, non-partisan way (
    Some interesting issues here about the notion of working together to solve urban/metropolitan problems rather than packing up your toys and playing on the edge of town. I’d support the argument made by Tim that governance has a lot to do with the way that we identify and resolve regional transport issues. Australian local governments are generally so small and limited in responsibility that their boundaries do not feature in their residents’ identification of ‘their city’. With a metropolitan mindset, residents often support transit investments that don’t directly benefit them (as a user) but address transport equity problems on the other side of the city.
    In a similar way, the involvement of the Federal Government in urban transport issues is demonstrating that investing in efficient and sustainable cities is of value (social, economic, environmental) to the whole country.

  15. Russ April 15, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    Tim, geographically there is not a lot of difference between Australian and US cities, but socio-economic status is almost completely reversed. Australian cities are richest in the centre, and poor on the fringe (though pockets of inner-city deprivation remain), US cities are generally very poor in the centre, and richer on the fringe. This also affects transport politics: well-to-do inner-city types have no interest in promoting inner-city freeways that they increase car-traffic in their neighbourhood, but will push for increased rail services if their local service is at capacity when it reaches their station.
    Matt, that is a generous way of looking at it. I’d argue the involvement of Federal Government in urban transport is demonstrating that there is no part of state governance the federal government won’t attempt to throw money at if it means winning votes in marginal electorates or of certain key demographics. The benefits of federal “help” in urban transport are almost certainly over-stated.

  16. Ed Sanderson April 16, 2011 at 7:23 pm #

    When it comes to public transport, I can only speak from knowledge of two cities, Sydney and Chicago.
    I lived in an inner-east suburb and worked in North Sydney. I caught a train at Kings Cross, transferred at Town Hall to a train to North Sydney. Mine was a simple (and short) commute but, I suspect, not untypical of Sydney rail commuters. However “inconvenient” the commute may be, it was a single rail system that served both what we would call the inner- and outer-urban area.
    Contrast this with the Chicago region: the suburban Metra system will get you into the city but then you must use the CTA to move about the city if you cannot walk to your destination.
    Salt in the wound #1: there is no single “ticket” for your commute.
    Salt-in-the wound #2, both Metra and the CTA are controlled by a single agency, the Regional Transportation Authority!
    Why? I suggest that the suburbanites on Metra, who have other options, do not want to support “those people” who use the CTA but have no other option.

  17. Tim (in Brisbane) April 17, 2011 at 12:44 am #

    Matt, The Qld councils (especially Brisbane) are very large and quite rich but only preside over a limited range of powers. The council is so large it can redistribute internally which does keep the poorer suburbs running more smoothly than they appear to in Sydney or Melbourne.
    Russ, I’ve often found that inversion quite funny. Although it’s relative recent as up until the 80s the demography was closer to poor inner, rich middle and poor outer.
    But I do think that demography is at least partially a result of State control. There’s no benefit to setting up a gated community on the outskirts within a good middle class county council.

  18. Andrew April 17, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    Conservatives historically have not been terribly big supporters of public transit in Canada. This is probably most evident in Ontario where Conservative Premier Mike Harris cut transit funding massively upon taking office in 1995. This sort of reflects the large split between the mostly Liberal “416” city proper and the largely Conservative “905” suburbs. Toronto proper is generally relatively poor except in downtown and a few wealthy neighbourhoods mostly along the Yonge St. subway line and in parts of southern Etobicoke; the 905 suburbs are generally richer though quite varied (Halton Region, south Mississauga and most of York Region are richer while north Mississauga, Brampton and parts of Durham Region are poorer). Toronto bus service has always been relatively good while 905 bus service is poor though the gap is gradually narrowing. Though in the last 5 years, I think that Conservative support for transit has increased somewhat. I can think of several reasons for this: the 905 region has become much more diverse in recent years (high immigration in Mississauga/Brampton and Markham in particular), traffic congestion has become much worse, and Conservative support in Toronto proper has increased. This is very noticeable with the election of conservative mayor Rob Ford who has promised to revive subway proposals (the Eglinton line and Sheppard extension) which were cancelled by Harris 16 years ago. The controversy here seems to be much more now about how to build transit (subways versus light rail) rather than whether to build transit at all.

  19. Simon April 17, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    One feature of US cities which doesn’t apply in Australia is “blight”. We don’t have emptying-out inner-city areas, where buildings are vacant and any residents with the means have left for greener pastures. The idea that housing close-in to the city would be abandoned is a little inexplicable to Australian minds. The pent-up demand for close-in living in Australian cities makes “blight” impossible.

  20. Syd April 17, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    Jarrett, you’ve made the mistake of taking the Australian federal opposition leader Tony Abbott’s statement at face value.
    Most of his commentary when he (re)-announced the policy you cite was directed to the “need” for more road (including urban motorway) infrastructure, and there was absolutely no commitment at all, in either his statement or his commentary, to any public transport (transit) infrastructure.
    Further, his emphasis on enforcing a uniform threshold test for all projects costing more than A$100 million (~US$95 million), in the form of conventional cost benefit analyses of proposals using methodologies that inherently favour projects generating rapid returns over longer term investments (a well recognised failing in the analyses conducted by Infrastructure Australia), suggests he is mainly interested in preventing investments in things he has never previously supported, most notably major communications and public transport infrastructure projects.
    To put it mildly, Mr Abbott has form on this.

  21. Jarrett at April 17, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    Syd. I respect your viewpoint and am not going to referee an
    Australian political debate, but to Mr Abbott's credit he did
    specifically mention "passenger transport" as a priority.

  22. Jack Horner April 19, 2011 at 6:27 am #

    In the Australian constitution some things are carved out as Federal responsibilities (defence, customs, quarantine…). Everything else is nominally a state responsibility, including urban transit, roads and other infrastructure.
    However over the years the Feds have become involved in many state and local government responsibilities through conditional grants, driven by the fact that the Federal government has much more of the taxing power.
    What the Feds choose to get involved with depends on the politics of the time, not on any rational calculus of which functions are best done at which level of government.
    Thus, until recently, the Feds would not help fund railways or urban transit (‘sorry, state responsibility’) – however you could apply for a federal grant to help renovate your small town community hall. Work that out if you can.
    For at least the last 40 years Federal governments have mostly refused any interest in urban affairs. Right wing governments tend to be more disinterested, as they have a more rural base (hence the federal grant program for community halls).
    In the early 1970s and the early 1990s Labor (centre left) governments started some constructive urban programs, which were quickly abandoned by the Liberal (right wing) governments which followed them.
    The present three year old Labor government has shown renewed interest.
    Whether the next Liberal government will revert to type remains to be seen. Leader Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines includes typical right wing anti-public transport talking points – see
    Needless to say, this chopping and changing of urban programs (including transit infrastructure) at every change of government is disastrous for long term planning.
    By contrast, there are large, long-standing federal road funding programs. So the road engineers can set their priorities in an orderly way knowing that almost every plan in the drawer will get funded eventually.
    Long term change really needs bipartisan support.
    This left-right difference is not so strong at state level, as state governments of both colours know that they have to care about whether the trains work, as they will cop the political grief if they don’t.
    In Sydney and Melbourne at least the urban rail systems are important enough to make serious news when they break down.

  23. Nathanael August 31, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    Hate to say it but you have to factor in the fact that the US national-level Republicans are complete and utter lunatics. Both divorced from reality — which isn’t unique, as we see it in right-wingers across the globe (like Rob Ford is in Toronto), but *also* willing to cut off their noses to spite their faces, which *is* unique. Scott Walker’s deliberate sabotage of the Madison-Milwaukee rail line, which actually ended up costing the state money, is an example.
    They have repeatedly pursued policies which got them hated by their own constituents, and they just don’t care.
    If you look at the lower levels, not all the Republicans are complete lunatics (though they’re trying hard in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Minnesota…) — but anyway, if you look at a state where they haven’t been completely taken over by lunatics, like Virginia, they still support public transportation.
    However, where the lunatics are running things, hatred of trains and buses is just part of the package of clan loyalty, something you do to indicate your “Republicanness”.
    I just don’t think the “crazy factor” is as large in Australia, despite Howard.