Most elections are about the economy. Some are about leadership. Sometimes, they’re dominated by scandal.
This Victorian election has all of those elements. But if the 2018 poll is about one issue more than any other, it’s probably Melbourne’s exploding population growth — and who has the best plan to keep up with it.
Melbourne is growing by 125,000 people a year. That’s like adding a city the size of Ballarat.
By as early as 2028, it’s projected to be Australia’s biggest city. By 2050, it will have grown to 8 million — the size of London and New York.
“It’s the fourth-fastest growing developed city on the planet today,” demographer Bernard Salt said.
“If we don’t invest, and continue with this rate of growth, then we collapse under our own weight.
“You end up with a Bangkok situation — where you have an extraordinary level of growth and congestion, and you simply cannot move around the city.”
Protecting Melbourne’s ‘liveable’ status
Cameron Kusher, a property analyst with CoreLogic, said Melbourne was not ready to be Australia’s biggest city.
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“Melbourne has always hung its hat on the fact that it’s the world’s most liveable city, and we did see it slip from top place,” he said.
“You can’t just take these kinds of things for granted.
“If you want a lot more people coming and living in your city, you need to spend a lot more money to make the city liveable.”
In the past, Melbourne has been able to ease the pressure by continuing its sprawl.
This year, 17 new suburbs were added in the outer north and west. Greater Melbourne now includes the new neighbourhoods of Plumpton, Wollert, Lindum Vale and Cloverton.
But what worked for a city of 3 million won’t work nearly as well for a city of 5 million.
Daniel Mackertich bought a block in Cloverton, in Kalkallo, 30 kilometres north of Melbourne’s CBD, in 2016.
“The masterplan sold us. Having eight schools planned in the area, sporting facilities, that definitely helped us make the decision,” he said.
But fast forward 17 months and Mr Mackertich and his partner are still waiting.
“The houses around us are popping up extremely fast, but no facilities are even looking like starting,” he said.
“The one road into our estate is already causing traffic [problems], and I can only see that getting worse as time goes on.”
Mr Mackertich is still optimistic the promised schools and transport infrastructure will be built, but having grown up in Craigieburn, 15 minutes away, he’s seen promises broken before.
“They had a shopping centre promised from when I was in primary school — that wasn’t achieved until a good 15-plus years down the track,” he said.
Melton is now bigger than Ballarat
It’s a similar story across Melbourne’s growth areas on the urban fringe.
In Melbourne’s fastest growing municipality, the City of Melton, west of the city, a baby is born every four hours.
Seven thousand new residents move in every year.
Just 17 years ago, it had a population of just over 50,000. Today, it’s triple that size.
By 2031, it will be home to more than a quarter of a million residents.
The council said it needed two new schools every year to keep up with growth, as well as a hospital. None are in the works.
“Melton is now bigger than Ballarat, bigger than Bendigo,” National Growth Areas Alliance CEO Bronwen Clark said.
“Can you imagine those cities without a hospital?”
Larry Jarred, and sons Kane and Charlie, live in the Melton area, about 35km west of Melbourne’s CBD. (ABC News: Jessica Longbottom)
In the six years Larry Jarred has lived in the Melton area, the commute to his storeman job in Laverton has more than doubled in duration.
“It used to be half an hour there, half an hour home,” he said.
“It’s taken me up to an hour and a half just to do a half-hour trip.”
A choice between two visions
The election campaign hasn’t yet officially begun, but already, the two parties have laid out differing plans to cope with the next four years and beyond.
Labor Premier Daniel Andrews is sticking with big infrastructure projects, after reversing years of building inertia under Liberal and Labor governments.
And a promised $50-billion suburban rail loop is aimed at allowing people to move more easily around Melbourne as it becomes more densely populated.
But there’s also scepticism about whether a project of the scale — and price tag — of the suburban rail loop is the answer to easing Melbourne’s congestion.
“More small scale, nimble public transport, that reflects the reality that small numbers of people are going to dispersed locations would be a better solution to the city as it really is,” Marion Terrill from the Grattan Institute argues.
Labor also set up the Victorian School Building Authority, which opened 11 new schools this year and has another 45 in the pipeline.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, on the other hand, is going big on decentralisation.
He wants to limit development in the inner ring of suburbs, and has promised to unlock almost 300,000 more blocks of land on the suburban fringe.
To take the pressure off Melbourne, he wants people to move even further out — promising economic development of the regional cities, faster rail links to get to them, and a Population Commission to encourage people to make the move.
Mr Kusher said moving to the regions was already an option people were choosing.
“We are seeing a bit of strength coming into the housing markets like Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat,” the property analyst said.
“I think people are realising that if you buy a property in one of these towns and you commute to Melbourne maybe a couple of days a week, it’s potentially better than living in one of these new housing estates on the outskirts of the city and trying to commute into the city by driving every single day.”
But while decentralising is important, Bernard Salt said it was of limited value.
“You can’t shuffle off 120,000 people that would normally grow into Melbourne into the regions,” he said.
“Even if Ballarat’s rate of growth doubled from 3,000 people to 6,000 people, that’s not really going to make a dent in the 125,000 per year that’s being added to Melbourne.”
Where the money is being spent
Whichever party wins on November 24 — and whichever version of Melbourne and Victoria they end up building — there seems little doubt Victoria is headed for an even bigger infrastructure boom.
And so it should. For the last 14 years, Victoria has spent half as much on infrastructure as New South Wales, and barely more than Queensland, even though Brisbane had half Melbourne’s population.
At the same time, Victoria has only been getting half as much money out of the Commonwealth.
Many schools have been promised — but not yet delivered — in the outer northern suburbs. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
Marion Terrill of the Grattan Institute said the challenge for the next Victorian Government would be to demand its share of Commonwealth money.
“It does seem like those states where elections are won and lost do consistently do better out of Commonwealth money than those like Victoria, which are not that important for federal elections,” she said.
The Metro and West Gate tunnels will bump those figures up — but Mr Salt said that should be just the beginning.
“For New South Wales to be spending double the amount that the Victorians are actually spending on infrastructure would suggest that, to my mind, I think the 2020s is when Melbourne is going to cut loose,” Mr Salt said.
“I say that Victorians would be thinking, you know what? Our turn. It’s our turn, Canberra, to lift our city and to deliver the liveability that we deserve. That we demand, in fact.”