Australian Urban Policy: Pat Troy’s contribution

Posted by on October 28, 2018 in General, Issue 89 Oct 2018

Australian Urban Policy: Pat Troy’s contribution

Frank Stilwell

Some of the most pressing problems in Australia are urban and regional. Their redress requires deep understanding of how our cities and regions have transformed our relationship to the physical environment and generated a growing economic gulf between winners and losers. That knowledge can inform enlightened urban policies, given the political will to act. This article reflects on the important contribution that Pat Troy made to that process.

Here we are in this big, bounteous land, mostly clustered in cities that had their origins as colonial settlements. These places now feature all the problems of modern capitalist cities - unaffordable housing, long journeys to work, congestion and pollution, environmental degradation, high costs of energy, loss of public spaces, poor public transport and inadequate provision of other public services. These are the all-too-familiar characteristics of modern urban life.

Alongside these urban problems are broader regional imbalances. The deep-seated dichotomy between the cities and the ‘bush’ is a key dimension of the socio-economic inequalities embedded in Australian society. Over-development and under-development are two sides of the same coin. Economically, some areas are going gangbusters while others are going backwards.

Elizabeth in South Australia (now part of the City of Playford) is one area where the concentration of social and economic problems is particularly intense, as an article in the latest edition of The Journal of Australian Political Economy describes . Some broader and long-standing Australian regional inequalities nationwide are discussed in another recent publication by the Evatt Foundation . Recognising the problems is a necessary first step to trying to solve them.

Seeking social improvement though better urban and regional policies has been an intermittent concern among progressive social scientists. One thinks immediately of Hugh Stretton, the author of the influential book ‘Ideas for Australian Cities’, first published in 1970. Hugh was a historian, based at the University of Adelaide, also renowned for his role the SA Housing Trust when it had the best public housing policies in the nation. He sought, in effect, to convert the cherished Australian belief in the ‘fair go’ into a practical reality, using enlightened public policies to create a more equitable society.

Jack Mundey’s contribution was enormous too, shaping urban outcomes through direct action in the 1970s. The Green Bans he advocated and inspired welded urban quality of life concerns together with community activism and an expansion of trade union politics. The resulting struggles had an ongoing legacy, not only in the areas, buildings and parks they saved from destruction but in the activist tradition of Green politics confronting the rapacious interests of capital in our cities.

Patrick Troy (usually known as Pat) has been a highly significant contributor too. Creating more equitable and sustainable forms of urban and regional development was the continuous thread through his concerns as an engineer, town planner, urban studies academic, senior Federal public servant, author, mentor and activist during the last half century. His death in August of this year provokes reflection on what it takes to bring about effective change.

Pat Troy was born in Geraldton, WA, in 1936, the son of Mabel and Paddy Troy. He grew up in Fremantle where his dad, Paddy, became a waterside worker and the most well-known Communist unionist in Western Australia.

A fine biography of Paddy Troy, tireless fighter against injustice and for the rights of working people, was written by historian Stuart McIntyre . It describes how Paddy campaigned against and often outwitted the capitalists and the conservative politicians who wanted to curtail his activities and influence on the waterfront, in Fremantle and more generally throughout WA. Yet blatant victimisation was never far away. A court sentenced Paddy to 3 months hard labour in Fremantle jail, having found him guilty of the heinous crime of distributing a newspaper that was said not to have the authorising person’s name properly printed on it.

The house in Fremantle where Paddy lived with his wife and children, of whom Pat was the eldest, was a meeting place for activists and a refuge for people who needed help. To hear Pat talk about it in his later years, there was seldom a dull moment.

Young Pat was evidently a bright lad and did well at school, attended university and qualified as an engineer. The Federation of British Industry then sponsored him to undertake further study and work in the UK. Somewhat alarmingly, on arrival in London, his sponsors interrogated him closely because Australian security authorities had told them he was a potential troublemaker. True to form, ASIO had made a simple error, confusing Pat with his dad.

As it turned out, Pat did develop a notable proclivity for challenging conservative authorities: perhaps it was ‘in his genes’.

After returning from the UK to Australia, he made a quite low-key start, working as an engineer in Melbourne and subsequently for the NSW State Planning Authority. He also undertook further study of highway engineering at the University of NSW before moving to Canberra in 1966 to join the Urban Studies Unit at the Australian National University. Working together with urban economist Max Neutze and town planner Peter Harrison, he helped make ANU the go-to place for serious research on Australian urban policy issues.

Pat also established strong Labour Party links, and was influential in getting Gough Whitlam to make urban policies a major feature in his push for government in the early 1970s. Whitlam’s espousal of urban improvement had a lot of appeal, particularly in the suburbs of the big cities where the downsides of inadequately planned urban expansions were most clearly evident.

When Labor came to power in 1972, Pat left his academic job at the ANU to become Deputy Secretary of the newly established Department of Urban and Regional Development (invariably known as DURD). The redoubtable fighter Tom Uren was its Minister. Pat recruited and led the team of DURD staff that created its long-overdue policies for better cities and more balanced regional development. The intention was to make Australia’s spatial forms of housing, employment, transport, infrastructure and services more efficient, equitable and sustainable. It felt like a breath of fresh air, presaging winds of change in other aspects of Australian public policy.

Plans for a national urban and regional strategy were drawn up. Emphasis was put on developing new growth centres, one for the Bathurst-Orange region in NSW, another for Albury-Wodonga on the border with Victoria, with others such as Murray Bridge in SA mooted as future possibilities. Land Commissions were set up to release public land and make new housing more affordable. In Sydney, big parts of Glebe and Woolloomooloo were bought and public housing upgraded so that working class people could continue to live in the inner city area. The western suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney were connected to the main sewer system, becoming fully flushed for the first time.

There was much more in the pipeline too. The flurry of activity brought the Federal government into urban policy areas previously neglected by the State governments. Nothing quite like it has been seen since. Pat Troy’s guiding hand was on it all. As Michael Eyers, one of his former DURD colleagues, recently wrote to me, ‘Stretton’s Ideas for Australian Cities was the handbook and for Australian suburbs, not city centres. DURD was about the suburbs too, and Canberra in many ways the model’.

Not all the plans came to fruition, more’s the pity. Other government departments, particularly Treasury, seldom missed an opportunity to throw grit into the wheels of change, frustrating the upstart DURD. Anyway, cities and regions are seldom transformed quickly. It takes twenty years or more, and requires cross-party collaboration rarely seen in Australian politics.

When the Coalition led by Malcolm Fraser replaced the Whitlam government just three years later, following the controversial coup and the subsequent general election, it abolished DURD and business as usual resumed. The subsequent lack of progressive long-term urban policy, combined with vested economic interests that recurrently violate the public good, largely explains why our cities are so inefficient, inequitable and unsustainable today.

Although deeply disappointed, Pat did not give up after DURD’s demise. He returned to the ANU and put his energies into making the Urban Research Unit the premier place for urban policy studies in Australia. He wrote and edited numerous books and reports, organised various research projects and conferences, and continued to offer his advice to governments and to whoever would listen.

He and his colleagues made the ANU’s urban research program a magnet for researchers and a seedbed for talent. Many of its young researchers later became senior professionals and professors in their chosen fields. Pat also mentored PhD students from all around Australia who attended his residential workshops. He initiated a series of annual conferences on Australian cities for urban researchers and practitioners. Together with his research and writing, these were ongoing features of his life as a prominent public intellectual for the next couple of decades. Pat’s contributions were formally recognised by his election to the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and the award of the Order of Australia.

Meanwhile, the fad for managerial restructuring had infected universities and put his urban research program at the ANU under threat. The academic bureaucrats ‘in their wisdom’ eventually closed it down. Pat never forgave them for what he considered a vindictively destructive act. Still, he maintained his academic connection elsewhere within the ANU, becoming an Emeritus Fellow in the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. He also had honorary positions at Western Sydney University and the University of NSW where he continued to foster excellence in research.

It was not all hard yakka. His home in Canberra with Sandy was a place of renowned hospitality, with fine food and good wines that they were happy to share. Lively discussions of urban policies flowed seamlessly into commentary on other social, political, cultural and economic issues. Pat was renowned as a raconteur. Some thought him increasingly grumpy in his later years but there was a lot to be grumpy about. What had happened to cities since the DURD era was a source of much chagrin. In particular, he thought that the current fashion for urban consolidation was creating cites too dense, too inequitable and too unsustainable.

The scourge of ‘economic rationalism’ in public policy and its over-reliance on markets to solve social problems was another source of dismay. He felt passionately about this, never accepting the neoliberal claims about the self-regulating character of capitalist market economies. Rather, a good society must always have politics in command, prioritising social equity and sustainable use of precious resources, such as land and water.

He never gave up hope of making a difference, even after his diagnosis with cancer more than a decade ago. He maintained a strong physical presence until his quite sudden end from a different illness. He never stopped actively lobbying, researching and writing . Like Hugh Stretton, he was a great champion for seeking social justice through better planned and more liveable cities, suburbs and regions. All who care about the quality of urban life owe him their thanks.

What would Pat Troy want his legacy to be? Surely, it would be a new generation of researchers, activists and political leaders who understand how urban and regional policies can help to create a more equitable and sustainable society. We need that now more than ever. Having a new Federal government with policies for equity, sustainability, better cities and regions would be a significant step forward.

Frank Stilwell is Professor Emeritus in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. This article is an expanded version of an obituary previously written for the Sydney Morning Herald.

References and Further reading:
Mark Dean and Ray Broomhill, From Post-Fordism to Post-Holdenism: Responses to Deindustrialisation in the City of Playford, South Australia, The Journal of Australian Political Economy, No. 81, Winter 2108.

Frank Stilwell, Two Speed Economy or Divided Nation, H.V. Evatt NSW Parliamentary Lecture, Evatt Foundation, Sydney, 2018.

Stuart McIntyre, Militant: the life and times of Paddy Troy, George Allen and Unwin, 1984.

The titles of some of Pat’s authored or edited books are The Perils of Urban Consolidation; Australian Cities; Accommodating Australians; Serving the City; Technological Change and the City; and A Just Society.

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