Do our politicians keep the right company?

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The ACT Legislative Assembly building… residents remain in the pesky category except when an election rolls around. Photo: Paul Costigan

A FORTNIGHT ago, the focus for this column was on that remote universe occupied by the ACT Labor/Greens government. The puzzle remains as to how this group of otherwise sort-of-reasonable people are convinced that they are doing humane and considerate things when they allow the development of the city to happen in such a barbaric manner.

Paul Costigan.

Maybe one problem is the company they keep.

Besides spending most of their time talking to themselves and with advisers who make comforting sounds and bombard residents with gobbledygook, our politicians spend far too much time in particular company. This is the world of industry seminars and conferences, launches, professional industry body dinners – being people who know how to befriend ACT politicians.

A few years ago during a dispute over a suburban development, one resident worked through the planning directorate’s meeting minutes. What jumped out was that while 130 residents had made submissions on this contentious development, the impact was a single mention that these had been received. They were treated as a collective body – no names were mentioned.

Meanwhile the minutes were dominated by contacts with developers and industry professionals – often with positive comments about individuals. There was no doubt that a mass of residents’ submissions was of much lower importance than constant contacts with the development industry.

In that same opinion piece mentioned above there was reference to the chief minister’s address to an industry body. These sorts of events happen regularly with head planners and politicians being key speakers or being special guests. It’s not unusual for our politicians to take up the invitation to the launch of a major developer’s latest marvellous creation for the city.

There are so many of these events happening constantly. These connections and relationships are part of the work life of our politicians and it has been so for many years. It is through these events that the government is subject to well-practised influencers. These people operate inside the tent.

Residents are outside that same tent. Residents get the ad hoc consultations, they have to fill in forms, they have to make submissions, they attend round-table forums and spend far too much time on the government’s infamous HaveYourSay website. And yet – so little actually happens.

Recently there were calls for residents to attend even more forums and planning workshops. Given the track record of poor outcomes for the residents from such gatherings, one wonders why anyone still attends – except to have the planning bureaucracy record that they consulted.

While this pretence of consultations occupies residents endlessly, residents are well aware that the real outcomes are set through the regular meetings between the politicians and the development and property industries. There was the instance recently where the chief planner, despite national agreements by all states, issued contrary advice to a minister on the timing for new building regulations. That new last-minute advice was drawn from conversations at an industry meeting. It has become an outstanding case study on the power relationships at work behind the scenes.

The worrying aspect of these relationships is that the politicians and chief bureaucrats fall for it. They feel safe with these people because they need each other. They relax with these people because these industry professionals reinforce the importance of our ACT politicians. Residents remain in that pesky category except when an election rolls around. Later next year our friendly politicians will be in your face at every turn.

If there was an initiative to increase the trust in government and the way that the ACT government conducts planning and development, a first step would be to ban almost all attendances by bureaucrats and politicians at industry functions and for elected representatives to make themselves more available to spend time with residents.

There is so much wrong with this government. There’s more to come on this theme in the coming weeks.


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