Costigan / Congratulations to the people who care

Columnist Paul Costigan’s photographic contribution to Christmas.

WHEN I began writing for “CityNews” this year I had a list of topics including architecture, heritage, travel, food, visual arts, landscape design and environmental matters. That list remains largely untouched, whereas my list of planning topics never gets shorter. It regenerates constantly.

Little had I realised how much those engaged with planning have been frustrated by how the things that matter to them are not treated seriously. The number of people who have contacted me has taken me aback.

One common topic is the frustrations with most other media reporting on planning and development matters. Another is that their voices are not being heard and local politicians are too busy.

It is now common for me to be stopped in the street, walked up to in a café or even a friendly shout “hi, great article” in the supermarket. All this is flattering, but I wonder what is missing in our democratic processes in Canberra that has led to me being a focus for people.

Shouldn’t it be the government who are supposed to be connecting with locals regularly – but obviously do not?

Once upon a time residents used to pick up a phone and talk to someone in government about the things that matter. Now that contact is those anonymous offices titled Access Canberra or Your-Say. Most local, public-sector bureaucrats with expertise in the areas of concern to residents seem to be off-line to the general public.

Residents have spoken of the frustrations of trying to contact or writing to a local member of the government. Most have given up.

This brings me to an extraordinary piece of information that was in the transcript of an ACT Assembly planning committee. An ACT minister (Rachel Stephen-Smith), the chief planner and his deputy were explaining their version of events around the proposals for the Dickson Parklands (Section 72).

One of them said: “We know that the community does not particularly trust us; that is okay. That is the reality of being an engagement officer in planning in Canberra. That is okay; we can live with that.”

I found this extraordinary because having said this – no one questioned the statement. It was taken by all present, presenters and the committee members, as being normal and acceptable. I don’t. It should not be normal.

It’s true people do not trust this government and its planning bureaucrats – but they would very much like to. It is not a healthy situation. People know that planning bureaucrats and politicians have the power. Sadly, the view is that they misuse that power on a regular basis.

People wish the planning bureaucrats to be honest, to be friendly (and mean it), to exercise their authority with respect and to be transparent about what they are doing and saying. They are looking for leadership both from the government and its bureaucracy. It has been a long time since they have experienced real leadership.

It is shocking that those in government, on all sides, now take it as normal that they are not trusted and respected. It is not something anyone should simply live with. This culture must change.

The challenge for any thinking person in the planning bureaucracy and within the Labor/Greens government is to work out how to change this culture and to make everyone’s life much better in 2019.

Before I finish. Minister Gentleman, have you over-ruled that biased advice from those bossy blokes and issued that licence to the wonderful woman in Weston who, along with many locals, wants to enjoy the company of her horses and donkeys? Why not make theirs and your Christmas a happy one.

This year I have met some wonderful, generous people; people committed to the future of Canberra and people who give an enormous amount of time to assist their fellow citizens.

I congratulate all of you. Merry Christmas and enjoy some great festive food.

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