The greatest spoiler

‘The hard-nosed realists who claim there is no need for another world have clearly not been reading the newspapers.’

– Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper (Allen Lane, 2002)


AUSTRALIA'S DEVELOPMENT HISTORY is, as the historian Geoffrey Bolton describes it, a tale of spoils and spoilers. White settlers unleashed a rough-handed growth model that saw the land as an enemy to be vanquished. Its original owners were no more than troublesome fauna. Development necessitated that they be contained and, if necessary, culled. Raymond Evans’ history of Queensland details the murderous work of the Native Police. Adults and children were shot down and babies ‘brained’ – held upside down by the ankles and clubbed on their heads until dead. Tony Roberts relates the same tale of slaughter in the Gulf Country, estimating that as many as eight hundred men, women and children and babies were killed before 1910. These are mere windows into a house of horrors.

None of this was as insane as it now appears. Development was lethal but logical – and closely sanctioned. The murderers were almost never held to account. And despoliation was praised, not condemned. This was development at work: muscular, sweaty, bloody, but necessary. The savage clearances of bush, fauna and native peoples were the pointy end of the process of naming, containing and civilising the land, rendering it productive and profitable. The first work was to make secure and potent the urban bases of the new colonies. Great spaces were then cleared and claimed for pastoralism. Mining followed, eventually catching up with agriculture.

In the cities, the ‘development game’ has been our national code. From the earliest times developers joined civic purpose to venal interest. The aptly named Thomas Bent (1838-1909), twenty-second Premier of Victoria, was emblematic. In a long corrupt innings Bent played skilfully and unlawfully. But he knew the rules of the game. As the Minister of Railways he approved a tramline that ran past his properties and thus inflated their worth. In the century following, the tradition of public office for private gain was steadfastly observed. Max Gillies’ caricature of Russ Hinze (1919-91), Queensland’s Minister for Everything – including, simultaneously, the portfolios of racing and liquor licensing – put it best. ‘In Queensland we don’t have conflicts of interests, only [gloating chuckle] convergences of interest,’ Gillies’ Hinze declared, and the fat man would have agreed: joined-up policy, Queensland style.

The Land Racket exposed by the academic Leonie Sandercock in 1979, and in her earlier Cities for Sale(1975), was a match fixed by corruption and shallow municipal politics. Frequently, land speculation was anything but speculative. The outcomes were locked in through graft and patronage. A cycle of favourable rezonings and resumptions propelled planning at the municipal level, where no structures existed to identify, let alone censure, petty corruption.

It was a system, a sport – what the German sociologist Ulrich Beck might term ‘organised irresponsibility’. Myriad seamlessly linked little systems kept the national development game safe from probity and surprise. The players of the game were also its umpires. As Hinze declared, ‘Never hold an inquiry unless you know what the outcome will be.’

Spectacular misfirings, such as the land scandals of the 1970s and the 2008 shenanigans in the Wollongong Council, have revealed the more nefarious games. Yet the newish anti-corruption machinery employed by state and federal governments cannot touch the malignant, if not illegal, civic endeavour that frequently thrives at the municipal level. Call it the Progress Association model. It’s there in the TV shows Sea Change and Grass Roots, and in the film Muriels Wedding and Porpoise Spit, P. J. Hogan’s cruelly accurate depiction of coastal dystopia. The electoral slogan of Muriel’s father, the mayor, captures the attitude: ‘Vote 1, Bill Heslop. You can’t stop progress.’ Heslop wins municipal esteem by concreting the beach.


LAND RACKETS, SPECULATION and corruption drove the urbanisation of Australia. Public endeavour joined private ambition. State power, at every political level, was generally deployed in favour of rough-handed development. It was presumed that everything would settle down and mature in time. In many ways that happened – if you ignore the mounting inventory of environmental loss, social injury and subverted democracy. Architects such as Robin Boyd thought featurist suburbia a further blight, but the point was lost on the punters, who rather liked what emerged from the development game.

In 1910, the military historian C. E. W. Bean observed, ‘Australia is a big blank map, and the whole people is constantly sitting over it like a committee, trying to work out the best way to fill it in.’ I first came across this quote etched into the promenade near Sydney’s Opera House. It dumbfounded me. It suggested a unified civic outlook running through development history. I’d been leaning, instead, towards productive chaos as an explanation. Upon reflection, Bean’s characterisation made better sense. Just like Marx’s ruling ‘committee of capital’ (which I doubt the patrician Bean had in mind), a powerful ensemble of development interests – public and private – has long been joined to a common Australian purpose: to remove all terrestrial obstacles to growth and to relieve the land of its riches. The ideals of ‘renewal’ and ‘repair’ have rarely troubled the committee.

The work of the spoilers and gamers was contested by civic interventions that sought a higher path: well-planned development that prioritised equity and the public interest over private ambition and gain. The conception and founding of Canberra is the starkest instance of this counter-urge, which has fought unsuccessfully for recognition in the years since Federation. 
As a necessary national showpiece Canberra was hard to deny, yet its progressive features – especially the absence of private land tenure – troubled the spoilers from the start. Much public rhetoric and political energy has been expended on the project of containing the Canberra Model, usually by demonising it.

The other great counter-project in our development history was the policies and programs of the Whitlam government’s Department of Urban and Regional Development between 1972 and 1975. We live in an era of policy ad hoc-ery, where a grand idea is cheap – a few advisors, a lengthening night, a bottle of single malt. The contrast with the studied conception of the DURD program couldn’t be starker. It was conceived through lengthy party deliberation and with leading input from the academy, especially the Australian National University’s Urban Research Unit. One of these scholar-designers, Patrick Troy AO, went on to lead the implementation of the DURD agenda. The principles that would guide DURD were adumbrated by Whitlam himself, prior to his election, in a public lecture in Canberra in 1968. Whitlam indicted the organised irresponsibility of the urban spoilers: ‘Australians in their cities have concentrated too much on the mere building of more and more housing units. We have devoted far too little effort and attention to building communities within the cities...No authority recognises or accepts responsibility for the creation of communities.’

When a big ship sinks it takes everything around it with it. And so it was with DURD, misunderstood and pilloried in the decades since the Dismissal. The Labor Party seemed to recoil from its most unique progeny. The urban agenda of the Hawke-Keating era, the Building Better Cities program (1991-96), was more opportunistic and less systematic. DURD had sought to repair the injuries of lop-sided urbanisation, particularly for poorer and working-class communities. Better Cities merely employed the spoiler growth model, helping largely to facilitate, not transform, the process of urban development.

The DURD program was framed conceptually, but was practical in intent. It set out to fix sewerage backlogs in under-resourced areas like western Sydney, and its Area Improvement Program sought to raise the capacity of local governments to meet social needs. Another major intervention was the Land Commission Program (1972-77), which aimed to curtail speculative suburban development, and improve the quality and affordability of housing, through the establishment of public land commissions. Three and a half decades later these land agencies continue to exercise a non-speculative influence on urban development, and have assimilated other progressive goals, such as sustainability and inclusive design.

The real limits to the DURD agenda were in regional policy, notably the decentralisation program. Here the constraints facing spatial planning in any liberal-democratic country were revealed, as nominated growth centres – Albury-Wodonga, Bathurst and Orange – struggled against the counter-courses of market-driven development, and failed to attract the envisaged population and investment. One growth centre, Monarto, never left the design book.

Many assessments discount the successes of DURD, which were remarkable given its brief existence. Others neglect the ferocious political, institutional and ideological resistance mounted against the program, and the constant frustration of its energies and ambitions. The Commonwealth Treasury and various states opposed and white-anted the program from within. Urban development industries, and their lobbies, attacked from without.

Decades later, DURD’s vision shimmers like Quasimodo’s Dream: the unlovely and unloved vision of a better Australia, conceived at too lofty an intellectual height, now relegated to the lonely spires of policy ambition. The dream was unlovable because it was progressive and it was urban. It opposed the spoiler consensus, which most of us have internalised as normal or at least unstoppable, and it addressed the urban landscape, where Australian thinking fears to tread.

National urban policy has continued to atrophy in the years since. The Rudd Government’s modest urban ambitions lack coherence and hence force, because they are not conceptually informed. The policy spanner is applied to a few squeaky wheels, but the brain that guides the hand has no discernable vision of a better society. The development game will be tightened up, but not changed.


THE DISMISSAL COINCIDED with the rise and subsequent long reign of neo-liberalism. The spoiler model had been contested and even confounded by the radicalism and ferment of the 1960s and early 1970s. It was now reaffirmed. Governments resumed their role as clearing blades for development. New shibboleths and neologisms marked the resurgence of the spoiler machine: ‘can do’ governance, policy ‘going forward’, big-build infrastructure. Its most memorable emblem was the Kennett government’s slogan ‘Victoria on the Move’, emblazoned on everything for a time in the 1990s, including number plates and those boastful signs at the exits to Tullamarine Airport. Planning, already the institutional weakling, had a limb or two removed and was made to dance a new policy limbo. Performance assessment was imposed, the better to reconcile planning to the realities and imperatives of growth.

Then the political and material contradictions of neo-liberalism and its stripped-down development models were suddenly exposed: an increasingly perturbed climate; a spectacular global recession; declining resource stocks, notably oil, water and food; and, in Australia, increasing social restiveness about freewheeling growth. In February 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd read the death notice: ‘The time has come, off the back of the current crisis, to proclaim that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past thirty years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes.’

What was the alternative? Nothing coherent has emerged, suggesting that the progressive imagination is as unclothed as neo-liberalism. The most radical recent policy – the proposed ‘super-profits’ tax on mining – was conceived technocratically, not through ideological deliberation. What now re-emerges, well attired and fiercely armoured, is the spoiler development model, which seems happy to ditch the neo-liberal drag that it found useful for a time. Its new finery includes Rudd’s Big Australia, a bulked-up populace, meaning legions of new youthful workers and consumers. But how to house and pay for a bulkier, busier Oz? The development model remains unquestioned. It remains the bedrock of wisdom in a land impatient with ideas and those that think about them.

And yet a new rough beast now slouches towards this Reich of Plain Sense, something that will spoil the spoilers without necessarily clearing the way for a better world. Of all the threats that have faced capitalist modernity in the past four hundred years, none has possessed the lethal potency of climate change.

The population boosters dominating the Big Australia debate have assumed the mantle of realism. Their heralds are the business lobbies, sensible politicians and the experts paid to cherish their perspective with misty-eyed sincerity. Contrary views are forborne with an air of patient superiority. Whatever the arguments, the realists say, we are heading inevitably towards a bigger population. The debate, in their eyes, is merely a wash cycle, helping us to spruce up for a newer, larger Australia. And what of climate change, resource insecurity and the possibility of political reaction? As the cultural critic Terry Eagleton observed, these realists have clearly not been reading the newspapers.

In this most uncertain of worlds, a western civilisation deprived of the certainties of ideology, faith and human identity, there is one thing we can be sure of: our species is already in transit to what the scientist James Lovelock calls ‘the next world’. It will be a world dominated by a global climate shift that we cannot yet describe fully, but which is inevitable and approaching fast. And it is not as unknowable as all that. The next world will be very much hotter and drier. It will be much less conducive to human existence. The contrast between the increasing alarm of climate science and the stubborn recitations of the Big Australia debate speaks volumes about the hold that the spoiler vision has over the national mindset.

We cannot know precisely how the disaster will unfold, but the southern megacities in Africa, the subcontinental states and Asia will be the first to go under, taking with them a substantial proportion of our species. This will generate enormous migratory shifts, as displaced and stressed populations flee the sea-level rise and wildly destructive weather. So much for an orderly migration program. Yet counter-currents are possible too. Australia, the desiccated continent, is already witness to record droughts, soaring average temperatures and plummeting catchment capacities for the cities. It may be a place to leave, not arrive, a place to be childless, not fertile – a withering society.

Projections of national population growth are nonsensical if we consider the time that science is giving our species to prevent runaway climate change. According to James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies: ‘We have to stabilise emissions of carbon dioxide within a decade...we cannot wait for new technologies like capturing emissions from burning coal. We have to act with what we have.’

That was four years ago. For his part, James Lovelock sees humanity, in this century, battered to the point of near extinction and, at best, re-emerging from the crises as a changed and mortified species. He thinks a temperature rise of three or four degrees is unavoidable and will reduce the liveable surface to a few ‘lifeboat’ regions, now the cooler extremes of the Earth. Australia is not on his lifeboat register.

If we have just a few years to prevent the worst and prepare for what lies ahead, there is little point in considering the many palliative measures that bog down the climate and population debates. Until growth is rethought and reframed there will be no politics to support systemic climate response. In 2007 the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, pleaded: ‘I need a political answer. This is an emergency and for emergency situations we need emergency action.’ After Copenhagen, I think he’s still waiting for his answer.

Australia’s emissions trading scheme has been deferred to the limbo of mere ambition. Against a dominant business-as-usual-but-trim-the-sails mentality, such schemes are seen for what they are: costly, ineffectual intrusions in the growth cycle. This may be the only thing we will live to thank conventional wisdom for – turning us away from the path of prolonged amelioration that ends with sudden doom.


IF THE EMERGENCY arrives and is recognised for what it is, what must be done to make the national population safe? My lead is Lovelock’s observation that ‘we have a chance of surviving and even living well. But for that to be possible we have to make our lifeboats seaworthy now.’ Where are the lifeboats? They are surely the cities, the few cities, in which most of our population resides. Nearly three-quarters of Australians live in the six largest metropolises. Cities, the source of our many problems of overproduction and overconsumption, of which climate threat is the greatest example, can be reconceived as escape rafts during the painful journey to a new climate regime. Cities are dense systems where the basic needs of a large section of our population can be managed with expertise and authority. We might hope to make them resilient and worthwhile, even for a scarifying climate.

Our species will have to work back from the new reality imposed by truculent Nature. This means a massive and carefully orchestrated cut in global consumption to cool the atmosphere, in the hope that we might eventually bring the climate system back under control. Reforms and technical solutions will be out, and rationing in. We will need a different sort of politics, nationally and then at every level, to enshrine and enact the two values that must guide action during the period of trouble: decisiveness and equity. We must have government, as in war, that manages lowered material expectations, while safeguarding the weakest and ensuring that the strongest carry their share of the burden. Many consumption liberties will need to be restrained, especially in the areas most harmful in scale and effect, including motorised and air travel, luxury and imported goods, and the tendency to over-house ourselves. But civil liberties must be retained, even strengthened. Democracy is the only sure footing for survival.

Preparing and guiding the urban lifeboats will necessitate a new form of governance, metropolitan commissions, that can steer most forms of production and consumption towards the rationing limits that must be assigned at the national level. Resource steering must occur at the metropolitan level, over the myriad municipal landscapes of our contemporary cities. The new structures must nourish democracy, recognising the ‘missing public’ in our political system, the metropolitan community.

Taking to the lifeboats means abandoning the ship of fools that was the spoiler growth model. We will have to end the development game and all its entropic speculation and self-interest. An energised common purpose will be needed to bring us through the crisis. We must think about how to manage ourselves on a long voyage to uncertain shores. Rural and regional Australia will not be abandoned, but its fortunes will come largely in the wake of our cities.

Each urban population will face the holy trinity of survival values – restraint, sacrifice and solidarity – in different ways, conditioned by the unique histories, ecologies and societies that comprise our cities and major settlements. A challenge will be to define and practise what Lovelock describes as the ‘ethics of a lifeboat world’. These are ‘wholly different from those of the cosy self-indulgence of the latter part of the twentieth century’.

If we find our salvation in the city it will mark a new landfall of human achievement. We will have survived the slaughter of value that we new as progress. We will have finally learned that reality and development are mutable and not ordained. The new Australia we inherit will be, in the words of the late David McComb, a beautiful waste.

The spoiler dream is reaching its improvident end. We wake in a time of vast possibilities. In the next world we could be monarchs of the beautiful waste. Or we could be dust. 

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