Activating Public Planning

Miniature city

Having written Being a Planner in Society and its Companion Website I ask myself, ‘what do I want planning to be’? I have an answer, but it is a question for all readers of the book. If I were still teaching urban and environmental planning, I would put that question to my students. More important than my answer is the debates which I believe should today take place around that kind of questioning. I’m hoping the theoretical exploration in my book may throw some light on the matter.

My answer is that I want planning to become a social movement again, to find again its transformative origins, to invent new ways of designing our human response to the environment for the better, and to re-join social with environmental transformation. All this is in light of the experience of planning in theory and practice that we have gained over the last hundred or so years.

However, to do that, to reinstate planning, that is public planning by the democratic state, we need to understand what has gone wrong with the so-called neoliberal model of governance. As I explain in my book, and further illustrated in the companion website, the balance of power over the detailed making and implementation of policy has been transferred from a competent, professional public service, with clear lines of accountability, depth of expertise and longstanding experience, to a political tier with an intense but shallow focus on the political cycle.

In Australia the unbalanced empowerment of political control has led to a diffusion of accountability in which ‘cabinets’ consisting of most of the senior politicians are put collectively in charge of almost everything important. The drive for privatization has diminished the permanent public service and outsourced many functions which properly belong within government to private firms with no public accountability under contracts, sub-contracts and complex but ineffective regulation.

This process has been going on now at federal and state levels for at least thirty years. Senior economists, political scientists and journalists have complained about it. Thus Laura Tingle in 2015, then political editor of the Australian Financial Review, wrote that ‘we have forgotten how to govern’. John Hewson (economist and former leader of the Liberal Party) writes, ‘The public service has been effectively denuded of essential talent by years of spending cuts and efficiency dividends – many departments are now referred to as gutted shells’. Even the former Labour Treasurer and Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who initially embraced neo-liberalisation on behalf of the Labour Party declared in 2017 that ‘liberal economics has run into a dead end and has had no answer to the contemporary malaise’[i].

Many people in leadership positions now know that neo-liberalisation has produced a failed system of governance. And it is a governance model created by ideology not an economic model. But because of the path dependence of both institutions and ideas in Australia, nothing is being done to change it. Its failure was on show in July 2020 as the State of Victoria suffered a huge (by Australian standards) second wave of coronavirus.

Through concerted and swift police action to ‘lock down’ the whole country, Australia had been initially successful in containing the spread of the virus, closing all opportunities for people to gather or even leave their homes, with few exceptions. Returning travellers from overseas were forced to isolate in designated hotels for fourteen days. So successful was this ‘suppression’ strategy that when caseloads went right down, governments started to ease the restrictions to get back to something like normality.

However in late June 2020 an outbreak of infections occurred in quarantine hotels in Melbourne. Guards contracted the virus from the confined travellers and, because restrictions on movement and gathering were by then relaxed, the infected guards went home to their families and friends, who became infected in turn. The virus then spread rapidly throughout Melbourne suburbs. The result was a second wave of coronavirus in Australia (with up to 400 cases and three or four deaths per day), centred in Melbourne, much greater than the first wave.

The piecemeal response of the government of Victoria was first to lock down certain postcodes and high-rise public housing blocks where the virus appeared. When that didn’t work to contain the spread, whole municipalities were ordered into lock down, then the whole of metropolitan Melbourne. Now (mid-July) cases are increasing outside the metropolitan region.

It’s easy to blame the Premier of Victoria for this outbreak. But, in an emergency, politicians operate within the established governance model. In keeping with the neoliberal model of outsourcing, contracts were given to private security companies to provide hotel guards. In some cases it appears that these companies further subcontracted the tasks, ending up with virtually untrained and unprotected casual workers in close contact with infected returned travellers.

Casual work has grown from about 13 per cent of the workforce in the 1980s to around 25 per cent in 2020. Casual workers, assumed to be self-employed, now form a permanent, highly exploited, tier of the labour force without the rights accorded to employees[ii]. They include aged care workers, Uber drivers, hospital and school cleaners, bar tenders, security guards, abattoir workers and even university staff (averaging 40 per cent of staff). Many have several jobs on the go.

Outsourcing plus casualization of labour is the underlying cause of the outbreak. A government without depth of policy capacity and clear lines of accountability in the public service has proved unable to manage the pandemic, adopting the stop-start approach of suppression rather than elimination, which is both feasible and in the long run less economically damaging. The government has refused to acknowledge the systemic failure, tossing the issue to a public inquiry that will not report until September.

The Covid19 event is an existential crisis. Governments around the world had been warned that a devastating pandemic was likely to occur, just as they have been warned that global heating will have catastrophic consequences. But the absence of public planning for people, planet and places has left citizens at risk of death and disability, and economies in danger of destruction.


[i] Snow, D. (2017) ‘Liberal economics hits “dead end”, says Keating’, Melbourne: The Age, 30/03/2017 p. 5.

[ii] For an intelligent and detailed account of the injustice of Australia’s governance model read Sally McManus ‘On Fairness’. McManus is Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The book should properly be titled ‘On Unfairness’ as it exposes how the neoliberal ideology has been employed to disguise unbridled class power. McManus, S. (2019) On Fairness, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Low Being
Being a Planner in Society

Nicholas Low, Professorial Fellow, The University of Melbourne, Australia

Read Chapter 1 here.

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