Design is both a political and cultural force for change, although most designers choose not to think about the power it has.” Jonathan Barnbrook, British Graphic Designer, signatory to the First Things First 2000 manifesto.

Design, politics and the federal election have featured several times in this column recently, even though there’s not much design evident in the parties’ policies. We might wish for more attention to the making of our cities and towns, but it's time for a reality check: federal politicians neither care about, nor have much investment in, the issues of concern in Architecture & Design.

Can that ever change?

Federal Governments can’t fund good design

In advanced social democracies one third, or more, of the economy can be run by the government, since the tax raised in those countries is 33-40% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (see all OECD economies here). This allows the government to invest in cities, infrastructure, and especially housing, as well as the usual national causes of health, education, defense, aid and so on.

Australia? Tax/GDP of 27.67%; the Morrison Government capped the federal part at 23.9%. Hence the continual ugly arguments about cutting services instead of improving investments. If you don’t have the funds for a well-designed and supported society you put money into subs not suburbs, rorts not courts and housing not homes.

Ever since federation the national government has devolved responsibility for the development of cities and housing to the states and local councils; but they are sorely under-funded and forced into ‘user pays’ for local services (rates and stamp duties) and roads (tolls and petrol excise). This has several dire consequences for design, particularly housing.

Political parties’ policies on housing are poorly designed

The states are so poorly funded that they are walking away from social housing; in NSW, the LNP is selling it, and not replacing it. Thus, the spotlight turns to the Feds who, having little experience of the field, are fumbling their policies. Last week, we looked at the housing policies of the principal parties, and it was a sorry sight.

The LNP is obsessed with housing affordability (home ownership) at the expense of affordable (social) housing. Which is both wrong and ironic: they had the levers to lower purchasing costs for first home households through taxes but have spent years supporting investment that drives up costs through taxes they control, such as negative gearing and capital gains. Explained further here.

The ALP has a sensible policy for equity in home ownership, but at a risible number. Add a nought to the 10,000 announced and you’d better closer to the mark (which the Greens advocate to their credit). The ALP policy of a ‘Council’ for fast-tracking land development (see here) has died in the shouty matches, thank heavens. More importantly the ALP wants a lasting system to invest in social housing, not to build it, but to invest in others.

Which brings us to:

Philanthropy, charities and housing design

Prior to the WW1, social housing was often provided on land owned by churches (also known as a ‘Glebe’). After WW2, it was the states through ‘Housing Commissions’, but post 2000 neither state governments, nor local councils, have the wherewithal to provide social housing. And given how little tax is raised, which constrains spending, housing has been privatised out to the community. We see charity and philanthropy filling the void. The wheel has turned full circle, churches are providing for those in dire housing need.

Just as the emergency services are outsourced to volunteers, and the provision of food and care for the homeless is from charities, so it is now with housing – the not-for-profit Community Housing Providers and faith-based organisations are soon to be the principal providers of ‘social’ housing. It should be called ‘community housing’ from now on.

Design regulation by government

Planning and design regulation is mostly done by state governments and local councils. However, there are two principal areas in which the federal government plays a key role: setting universal exemplar standards for design that apply nationally; and establishing standards for materials across the country.

A key example of the former is the DDA, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 (bought in by one Labor administration) which was extended to cover the access and entrances to all Australian buildings (by another Labor administration). By overruling state-based accessibility codes it set a higher standard for access to all new and heavily renovated buildings. Is it too much to ask that the next one address similar issues such as energy efficiency in houses for sale, or ventilation in schools, or design standards of aged care homes?

And secondly, federal governments of all stripes have always been too slow to set standards for building materials, whether it be health issues such as asbestos, or safety issues such as combustible cladding made from petroleum derived products. Too much is left to the states; or left right out.

Better national standards for the manufacture and import of building materials are needed. When China thinks 3% asbestos in plasterboard is “asbestos free”, or wrongly claims fire resistant properties in aluminium panels, we have a problem that starts at the borders.

What is shameful is that the Morrison government has been uninterested in both areas for the last nine years. When one LNP minister was approached on the issue of illegal insulation his reply was “as a Liberal my response is that less regulation is always better than more”. We won’t miss you Josh.

A Federal Government Architect

Given the federal government has so little involvement and investment in our cities and architecture, it might seem curious for the Institute of Architects to call for a ‘Federal Government Architect’. But it's an important symbol to say that we put the quality of our urban life in the hands of a ministry (with a government architect) looking after the built environment, in the same way the natural environment enjoys ministry status as a result of the exigencies of advocates in the 1970s (thanks in no small part to the recently departed Moss Cass).

Little hope though, given the recent cut in funds to the Office of the Victorian Government Architect shows that even supposedly progressive governments have little interest in the design of cities and towns. And the rumours abound in Sydney that Anthony Roberts, the Minister for Planning, or rather un-Planning by removing important codes, is looking to downgrade or destroy the NSW Government Architect. BTW, these leaders and deputies are all well-regarded women.

The Ten Femmes are bad for design

I wrote in praise of the ’Teal’ independents as The Ten Femmes, but I was wrong, at least in regard to housing. It has become clear that their policy is narrow when social meet economic issues, particularly welfare and housing. They are constrained by being voices for their electorates, but in the main they seek to represent wealthy electorates, where often more than 50% of the residents have two or more houses, and consequently they show a distinct lack of interest in providing affordable homes to rent. The LNP has underestimated them as ‘doctor’s wives’; turns out they are in fact the doctors.

The defense force has the worst design ethic

Clearly defense material and weaponry is a design issue.  But no-one is discussing the disastrous defence design decisions taken in the last nine years: subs, frigates, fighter jets, tanks and choppers. You can’t leave it solely to generals and admirals to pick the design of their equipment. In the same way that school principals don't design schools, and doctors don’t design hospitals so there are experts outside the defense department who must be consulted about the wars of the future.

The war in Ukraine has taught us that.

Oh dear

Much as I'd like to think design could be influential in federal politics, it is has become clear in this election that it plays a too small part. It may be a lack of money and interest, but that is not to deny its importance.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]