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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 3252

Senator LUDLAM (4:09 PM) —The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Sustainable Cities Index was released this morning. It provides an insightful and quite alarming snapshot of the comparative performance of Australia’s largest cities. It contains 15 different indicators which cover key social, economic and environmental factors. It shows the ability of each city to sustain its population within its environmental means and within overall parameters of amenability and liveability. I suppose the first thing to take away is that this is not simply a list of environmental indicators. This is the footprint and the impact that our cities are having on the biosphere that sustains and supports them. It goes into quite a bit of detail across 15 different indicators.

It deals with environmental performance and looks at indicators around air quality, ecological footprint and so on, and water consumption, quite critically. It looks at quality-of-life indicators using things including proxies for health, transport, unemployment, subjective wellbeing and so on. So it is quite broadly framed. A third category of indicators are around resilience—a key word which I suspect we will hear much more of: climate change steps as identified by the Cities for Climate Protection five milestone process, which we might talk about more later if there is time, public participation rate, education, local food production and so on. So it is a very well rounded set of indicators. It is by no means definitive or exhaustive, but it is to my knowledge the first time that this has ever been tried—to come up with a set of indicators of overall sustainability of our largest settlements and then try to rate Australian cities relative to each other to see how we are collectively doing.

It is based on the best datasets that are available, and in some cases I think some of the important takeaway messages are the gaps in data and information that we do not have or that the Australian Conservation Foundation and its partners did not have when they were collating the material to put this report together. I think some of the more important flow-on impacts might be taking a good look at what information we need to be collecting and doing better at.

Not a single Australian city scored well on the index. All cities are hovering in the middle range and, effectively, what we are measuring here is relative degrees of quite average performance. This is not abstract; this is not something that is academic that means that we just need to do a little bit better next year. This measures the ability of settlements in Australia to survive the challenges, the non-negotiable challenges, of the 21st century. No longer distant challenges, these are issues that are upon us right now and we are sleepwalking into them. One of the most important takeaway findings from this report is that Australian cities, despite 20 or 30 years of the kinds of debates that we have been having in here, are not ready across a very wide range of indicators.

Darwin ranked first with a score of 119. We may hear more from senators from the Territory about that. Zero was given to be the best performance. So even Darwin, which for a variety of reasons performed the best against the kind of metrics that the ACF were measuring, only scored reasonable. Not a single Australian city was good—a world leader. Three Queensland cities came next, with the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane and Townsville being placed second, third and fourth respectively. It starts to show and give credit to some of the extraordinarily good work that is being done. Not just in these cities that ranked very high but also right around Australia there have been initiatives that have been piecemeal but incredibly valuable, and we have to thank those that came from state, local and federal governments and those that came from the community sector, from the non-government sector and from the business community. These initiatives have been piecemeal and uncoordinated, but at least they have saved us from being much worse than we are.

Perth, my own hometown, came last. It came 19th out of 20 cities—because two were ranked equal 14th. That is an alarming outcome for a city that prides itself on its clean, green image and I think, when you get into the nuts and bolts of the detail, it does give credit to the extremely good work that has been done in a couple of areas. It shows overall that the capital of Western Australia is quite simply unprepared for the challenges that it faces. I will go into a little more detail. Perth scored very well on education and on employment, but it had the worst possible score on ecological footprint, which is in itself an amalgam of different indicators, and on transport and on water. We still have among the lowest mode share for public transport of any major Australian community. Despite the fact that we have a world-class heavy rail network, we are missing a vitally important link. Of course, the Australian Greens believe that that could be filled by light rail.

The ecological footprint for Perth, according to the report, is a little over seven hectares per person per year. The EPA State of the Environment report calculated it, using a slightly different methodology, at 14½ hectares per person per year. People say that if the entire world was trying to live the way we do in Australia we would need another three or four planets. That is where that kind of statistic comes from. If we took the global availability of resources—water and so on—per capita, according to some kind of principle of global justice which says every human being on this planet deserves access to the same resources, we would need to be living on less than two hectares per person. Perth, scoring the very worst on this indicator, is somewhere between seven and 14. That is just how far we have to go. That is one of the reasons that we are at the bottom of the list.

We got one of the lowest possible scores for transport. Again, this may be in part an artefact of the data that was used and it gives us some signs that we probably need to collect it better. We do have the highest rate of vehicle ownership in Australia. Australian cities are amongst the least dense and most car dependent of any on the planet. We have been getting away with it because of a long period of cheap oil, quite frankly. We had a huge fright and a near miss a couple of years back when oil prices spiked, and that seems to have been forgotten. When you ask the Commonwealth government, ‘Who is the lead agency on oil depletion and our unique oil vulnerability in Australia?’ nobody seems to know. We are still flying blind.

Western Australia also scores very poorly in water consumption because we seem to have this dependence or institutional reliance on groundwater mining projects and extremely energy intensive water desalination, and there has been very little thought given in WA—apart from some extremely good research over the last few years—to decentralising water infrastructure.

Waste and recycling is not included in this indicator, although it would be incorporated by proxy in the ecological footprint. Again, it points to initiatives like container deposit legislation, which the NT has and which South Australia led with years and years ago, but the Commonwealth government is still baulking and studying to death while a good idea goes begging.

There are ideas that we could be implementing right now so that next year we see not just that the cities change order and we are comparing each other in slightly different ways but that all Australian communities move further up the scale. This is not in order to get some gold star. This is in order to survive the very real imperatives of the 21st century—climate change, oil depletion, water depletion, food and basic expectations of quality of life. At the moment I think we are simply coasting along assuming that things are going to stay the same as they have. That is why we are still seeing budgets brought down at a state and federal level that would have served us very, very well for the 1950s and 1960s but that are grossly mismatched for the challenges that we face today.

One of the things that I would like to conclude with is the Rudd government’s promises of infrastructure spending. For the first time in a generation, we are seeing the Commonwealth getting, in a tentative way, back into the business of urban public transport. This is a subject that is very dear to my heart. But we are still seeing an overwhelming reliance on road funding, on building more roads to get more traffic onto those roads, while continuing to underfund public transport or just assuming that one day the states will get their act together and that there will be something to fund. The Commonwealth can play a role. We are hearing some of the right language but it is not being reflected in the actions, because in the last Commonwealth budget handed down here a couple of weeks ago there was not a single additional dollar for public transport spending anywhere in the country.

What we are seeing instead is this sense of infrastructure being something that mining companies ask for and get. Infrastructure is: ‘Let’s make north-west ports larger. Let’s provide railway infrastructure and expansions for coal companies.’ That is not what the Greens mean when we talk about infrastructure. When we talk about infrastructure we mean survivability, resilience and thriving into the 21st century. In the mining communities in particular that I represent in the north-west of WA, when we are talking infrastructure those communities are actually not demanding larger ports or more expensive housing. They are demanding basic health care, education, transport and telecommunications systems. These are economies that have been stretched to the brink. We are flying in and flying out people to clean schools in Karratha at the moment, and that simply cannot be maintained.

I think people need to be very aware that when the Rudd government uses the word ‘infrastructure’ it appears to mean something very different. When the Greens use that word we mean the infrastructure of sustainability, whether it be light rail in our major cities, whether it be renewable energy infrastructure and smart grids or whether it be basic community health care and education services, which people in our wealthy inner cities certainly take for granted but which the mining centres in Western Australia and other regional communities across the country simply do not take for granted. It is about time everybody were given access to the same opportunities. I commend ACF on producing this report and look forward to seeing how we do next year.