Wading through the fog of ‘busy words’

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{caption}A development application notice on Northbourne Avenue. Photo: Paul Costigan{/caption}

FOR residential representatives, the last few months have been very onerous due to the simultaneous release of a load of government consultation documents as well as the usual tricky development applications (DA) that need to be consumed and feedback provided.

{caption}Paul Costigan.{/caption}

Some inner-north residents were locked away trying to get their heads around and comment on such things as (stay with me while I list these) the latest DA for the Dickson supermarket complex, the alternative facts being released for Section 72 Dickson, DAs for Northbourne towers, the Integrated Transport Strategy, the City And Gateway Urban Design Framework, the National Capital Plan Draft Amendment 91, and let’s not forget the ACT Planning Strategy 2018 (the one with an unexplained urban intensification purple bubble).

The ACT government uses a very distinctive graphic style for consultation and strategy publications and fills them with stuff to make it look as though many things are happening – whereas, in most cases, it is business as usual with a few questionable decisions tucked away hoping that people won’t notice.

Which brings me to another that was released last year, being the ACT’s Housing Strategy 2018. This was the subject of the informative Canberra Conversation Lecture last month titled ACT’s New Housing Affordability Strategy – Token Response or Will It Work? – with presentations by Prof Peter Phibbs and Professorial Fellow and former chief minister Jon Stanhope.

In short, they provided evidence on the serious shortcomings of the new strategy. Phibbs also presented humorous criticisms on the style of the publication that would apply to those mentioned above.

When compared to the earlier 2007 Affordable Housing Strategy, the new one has heaps of coloured photos and loads of “busy words”. These “busy words” were described as phrases governments use when they want to be seen as being busy whereas the reality is not much is happening or at best the bureaucrats are simply doing their day-to-day jobs.

The practice for the ACT government is to load up their publications with busy words alongside many smiling faces, “busy” graphics, happy strolling couples and others at cafes and walking through the parks (although green spaces are disappearing). Here and there they scatter a few mischievous new actions – often disguised with the use of the latest “urban-planner-speak”.

All that sums up the content of much of the ACT government’s latest scatterings of documentations. These appeared just before and during the December-January period. They required people to respond in what would be normally reasonable timeframes, except of course it was holiday time, and there were so many of the things.

The hard work being undertaken by residents was reported at community meetings across Canberra. The Dickson Residents and the Downer Association had several members who must have put in days and weeks getting their thoughts down, circulating drafts for comments and then getting final versions in on time (did they have a Christmas?).

The point being made here is that the ACT government knows what it is doing when it floods the community with so many consultation and strategy documents at the same time. It knows that residents have busy lives and that the majority of individuals would not have noticed that so many wonderfully coloured and graphic-filled documents were in the public domain awaiting community feedback. As was pointed out at a recent meeting, many families will first realise that they have been “consulted” when the four-storey apartment block starts to appear along their back fences.

The city owes a lot to the committed residential representatives who have taken the painful decision not to simply knock their heads against the nearest brick wall, but to inflict the equivalent pain by slogging away to uncover all the devilish details hidden away and then make evidence based comments.

They have chosen the more frustrating and endless task of attempting to influence the multiple ACT government bureaucratic planning juggernauts. We salute you.

Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday matters.

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