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Canberra Today 18°/23° | Monday, March 4, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Steel starts bending to the forces of the market

The forlorn and empty Coombs shops… time to cancel some leases, says columnist Costigan. Photo: Paul Costigan

“It seems that ACT Labor has a view on how democracy works that no longer aligns with the view of residents,” writes Canberra Matters columnist PAUL COSTIGAN. 

ACT Labor politicians seem unable to have original thoughts. They are trained not to listen to residents. Party ideology wins out every time when the going gets tough. 

Paul Costigan.

Here’s an example of ACT Labor’s limited thinking at work.

There was a presentation by Chris Steel, Minister for City Things, at the June Weston Creek Community Council meeting. For most of the evening he did well as a local member. He was impressive. 

He knew the streets being discussed, which pedestrian crossing required upgrading, details on the parking around Cooleman Court and had information on stuff the government was doing. He even criticised the Trenerry Street park design. Maybe this is because it is not the green, sheltered space that people had clearly requested.

He was talking as a local. This was an unusual experience as presentations by politicians within the inner-north involve lectures on how good the government is – with little relevance to what the locals are looking for.

Chris Steel’s comments did not include an acknowledgment that the recent ACT Budget did little for the Molonglo suburbs. These suburbs are crying out for community facilities that should have been in place years ago. 

Sadly, this style of old-fashioned planning is not something being delivered by the Barr Labor/Greens government. The present model is to sell land and then to leave the rest to developers. So while Minister Steel listed initiatives relevant to the general area, with an emphasis on Cooleman Court, there were few signs that the government was taking Molonglo residents seriously.

Significantly, it was later in the presentation that the ideology of markets and neoliberalism kicked in as he responded to probing queries. You could see the change in his persona.

The first tricky question came about the architecture of Cooleman Court. Unfortunately, the questioner confused things with an attack on the running of the centre, which is popular and well run. 

The real question was about how the government should be doing something to make Cooleman Court’s architecture more appealing with more shops and other additions instead of the external blank walls. 

Chris Steel said he had spoken to the owners about the centre’s future but there was little more to be done. He explained that design improvements were a market thing – it was not the role of government to intervene.

The next query was about developers not providing commercial outlets in new apartment blocks when provision was there in the approved plans. Again, this is not up to government – but for the developers to decide according to the market. 

And then the third, which was about the infamous Coombs shops – where the owners have kept the centre vacant for years, resulting in no main shopping centre for the area. There is now a small convenience store but the centre remains largely unoccupied. 

Again Steel’s response was that the government cannot do much – it is up to the owner.

So during most of his presentation, Chris Steel sounded like a switched-on local member and a minister with a mission to listen and to get things done in his electorate. Whereas later he sounded like another neoliberal conservative preaching the ideological belief that market forces (Big Money) make the planning decisions that deliver social outcomes and facilities in urban areas. Really!

Given the way this government handles planning and development, it seems that ACT Labor has a view on how democracy works that no longer aligns with the view of residents. 

People still elect politicians to government to get things done, not to have them pass that responsibility to the developers. With planning disasters such as the Coombs shopping mess, the ACT government needs to act like a government and change commercial leases and demand that owners honour the purpose of those leases – or lose the lease. 

It is time the ACT government got real and honoured its contract with the electorate.


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Paul Costigan

Paul Costigan

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