Get politics out of planning

If the Government wants to influence the ACT Planning and Land Authority, it should be done in an open way on the floor of the Assembly, says MICHAEL MOORE

THE pride Canberrans feel in their planned city is once again at risk; recent revelations about planning decisions, especially around a supermarket development in Giralang, are a cause for concern.
Opposition Leader, Zed Seselja and his team have been doing the hard, grinding work around Freedom of Information and have found an opposition’s goldmine of scathing accusations and counter-claims embroiling the former Chief Minister, the chief planner and the Department of Land and Property Services.
There have always been some developers who attempt to increase their level of profit by bending the rules and a system has been set up to provide a fair playing field that does not undermine the community interest.  Arguments are constantly put to politicians that seem plausible enough, but provide the advantage to a small number instead of the community as a whole.
This is why we have a statutory body – the ACT Planning and Land Authority  (ACTPLA) – to ensure planning decisions are at arm’s length from government.
If the Government wants to influence such a body, it should be done in an open way on the floor of the Assembly in the broad light of day.
The Legislative Assembly has deliberately appointed a planning body to remove the influence of politics over individual developments.
The separation of power should be based on the Assembly setting the parameters and ACTPLA using its statutory authority in implementing them with regard to specific developments.
This is not dissimilar to the Assembly setting laws and having the courts implement them with regard to individuals.
Documents released under Freedom of Information by Chief Minister Katy Gallagher reflect a new openness in government. However, in doing so she seems to have approved the release of cabinet-in-confidence documents that illustrate the high level of tension between the former Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, and the ACTPLA chief planner, Neil Savery.
Mr Savery argued that “this level of influence would not be tolerated by other statutory office bearers such as the auditor-general, the privacy commissioner, the chief magistrate etc.”
However, he went further – suggesting that the appropriate method for political interference was to use the Government’s “call-in powers”.
These are the powers that allow the Government to interfere in a public and accountable way if it believes the community interest is at stake.
Mr Savery’s comments were even more scathing about the then-Department of Land and Property Services (LAPS), which is now the Economic Development Directorate. He argued that it also interfered too much in his statutory role.
When the ACT solicitor-general needed to be brought in resulting in withdrawal of Mr Savery’s comments, Mr Stanhope reacted by stating: “Suffice it to say, the Government’s confidence in Mr Savery has been severely shaken.”
The irony is that, on the one hand, Stanhope was vindicated by the legal advice but, on the other, the pressure on the chief planner increased exponentially.
The Opposition has taken the first steps and Mr Seselja rightly argues that “the community has a right to expect that any political input into the planning system is conducted in an open way in accordance with proper process”.
He wants the current Government to fully investigate and such an investigation should be conducted completely independently of the players involved if it is to provide confidence in the system.
There are too many examples of where the planning of the city has gone awry in favour of developers for these revelations not to be taken seriously.  Brindabella Park should not house the office blocks that it does when such development would have enhanced Gungahlin town centre and made the area work (although this was a Federal rather than ACT decision) and there are a range of other historical examples in places such as Civic and Barton.
Just as Thomas Jefferson argued “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, it will take a similar level of vigilance to ensure that the planning and orderly development of Canberra is not forfeited to developers and investors.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.

CORRECTION
IN his political column, “Where insults and porkies fly” (CN July 7), Michael Moore asserted that former MLA Ted Quinlan, in an interjection, had used the expression “a condescending bloody woman” in the Assembly (August 9, 2001) and had been forced to withdraw the comment. This is incorrect. A censure motion was moved to force a defiant Quinlan to withdraw the comment, but it was defeated. Mr Quinlan denied at the time and continues to deny ever having used that expression.

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