Q&A tackles big Australia but there was one big gap

Last night, the ABC's flagship current affairs programme, 4 Corners, devoted an entire episode to defining what a 'big Australia' really is.  Later on, another hour was dedicated to big Australia on Q&A which started to explore how we, as a nation, might do things differently but it ultimately failed due to the lack of planning/architecture/urban design academics or practitioners on the panel.

On 4 Corners, presenter Sarah Ferguson ends her opening dialogue with "[Reporter Ben Knight] explores what a big Australia might look like and whether we have a plan to get there". 

Innes Willox, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group says in the closing minutes of the programme "Not everyone wants to live in a quarter acre block, not everyone wants to live miles and miles away from where they work - which is the inevitable consequence of this."

"But what we do need to do is to give people choice, affordable realistic choice and that should be the goal of our policymakers. It's an issue of planning and planners need to get it right so that we are able to accommodate the needs of the community."

A lot of talk about planning, but very little planning voices were heard last night.

4 Corners is adept at kicking off national debates and there's no disputing they haven't done it in this instance, but the Q&A follow up degenerated right from the outset with the first question seeking an easy solution (wind back immigration) rather than asking how we might do things differently.

"Do you think our politicians understand how angry Australians are about our mass immigration programme?" the questioner asked.

Bob Carr's answer after extolling the virtues of immigration, was to call for the pace to be wound back.

This specific area of debate no doubt will have legs and many people will focus on it, but it is too easily sidetracked into an argument about yearning for a yesteryear that just doesn't exist anymore - where the only mass-market housing choices young people had were quarter acre blocks on the fringe.

Times have changed, our cities have dramatically changed and both Melbourne and Sydney are no longer twee suburban outposts at the bottom of the world.

The entire hour dedicated to big Australia on Q&A was dominated by the symptoms of high population growth in a poor, particularly transport, planning world and when it looked like panelists might start exploring how Australia might be able to do things differently, host Tony Jones would either shut down the conversation or another of the panelists would interject and take the conversation on a completely new path.

The Grattan Institute is a think-tank that's been at the forefront in prosecuting the case for a change to the way governments price access to roads and when the chief executive, John Daley, began talking about the institute's research in this area, there was an interjection and the topic stopped dead. Tony, the interjection should have been taken as a comment.

If big Australia is to be debated, then isn't it right that the audience is presented with possible solutions that address the symptoms we are all feeling?

As 4 Corners pointed out, the time in the day when people are going to notice population growth the most is when they need to transport themselves from home to their place of work, education, to the shops or during their leisure time.

Likewise, as 4 Corners further pointed out, Melbourne & Sydney are playing catch up with public transport investment with governments still willing to 'balance' infrastructure spend between road expansion and public transport expansion to chase the marginal electorate votes.

Maybe the ABC chose not to have a planning, architecture or urban design professional on the Q&A panel or on 4 Corners for fear of looking too technocratic, however, their voices were sorely missed on Monday night's coverage.

They are the professionals who are skilled at communicating the 'what could be' to audiences - much better than lobbyists & politicians - and we'll all be poorer if they don't get the airtime.

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