Moore / Lumpy choice of rock or hard place

“With the Canberra Liberals under Alistair Coe becoming even more ideologically conservative, Andrew Barr’s Labor team simply don’t have to try too hard,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE

ACT politics leaves Canberrans between a rock and a hard place. As the ACT Labor government becomes more complacent – the Liberal opposition grows even more conservative. Complacency or ideological conservatism? What a choice!

Michael Moore

Complacency is a challenge for any long-term government. And Labor is now heading towards 20 years of incumbency. With the Canberra Liberals under Alistair Coe becoming even more ideologically conservative, Andrew Barr’s Labor team simply don’t have to try too hard.

Urban planning illustrates just one element of complacency with the loss of some of the things that make Canberra unique. “Lonely Planet” recently identified Canberra as one of the world’s three top destinations after Seville in Spain and the American motor city Detroit. It was never more important to protect what makes Canberra different – what makes our city stand out internationally.

There have been some interesting and effective changes in Canberra’s planning including bringing accommodation into the town centres and a more vibrant “café culture”. However, other aspects of what makes us one of the most liveable cities in the world are being undermined through complacency.

Billboards – a blight on urban landscapes – have reared their ugly heads. The Canberra Airport provides both static and electronic examples. What a contrast to the airport sculptures. How have these ugly blots been allowed after a hundred years of Canberra’s clean, clear lines?

A restriction on front fences has been a key feature of planning rules for a century. No longer! Cyclone fences towering over tiny little hedges now form street frontages. Complacency in urban planning is working hand-in-glove with huge homes on tiny blocks.

Newer suburbs, and redevelopments in the older ones, have land covered in buildings with precious little personal space. Whether apartments, townhouses or free-standing homes, the building envelope now allows a heavy footprint on the smaller blocks of land. There are community spaces – but parental working hours and safety concerns restrict access for many children to participate in what has been dubbed “free play”.

“Free play” was never a term in the past. It was just “go outside and play”. Current planning has resulted in a marked contrast to the Australia of the previous century. Twentieth century children were free to discover, to explore, to make mistakes, to climb trees and even to push and shove each other while they learnt the limits of social engagement.

Things change. Both parents work. There are electronic tablets and other screens that allow quiet, engaged learning. However, we are also in the era of increasing childhood obesity. Physical exercise has never been more important. And yet our planning systems mitigate against anything other than organised sport and physical recreation. Although important, this is only part of the picture.

Planning Minister, Mick Gentleman is the last in a long line of ACT planning ministers who, while being innovative in many ways, have allowed high-value Canberra advantages to slowly decline. It is this sort of complacency that needs to be checked, tested and questioned by the electorate.

How could we have got to this stage? Where are the screaming voices? Where is the opposition? The current opposition carries little threat as the Canberra Liberals become more and more conservative dealing themselves out as an alternative government.

Thumping the law-and-order drum, the Liberals are seeking more police powers to deal with bikies and recently opposed and undermined pill testing at the Spilt Milk concert. Even the police argue against them on both counts. The law community points out the dangers of their bikie legislation. The law-and-order approach means building another jail, inappropriate targeting of the socially disadvantaged and an increase in costs of the whole criminal-justice system.

A rock and a hard place. Nationally and internationally voters are looking for alternatives to the traditional parties. No wonder.

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

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