Barr gets into the weeds to stymie housing

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Kowen Forest pine trees… “Too environmentally sensitive to be bulldozed for urban development,” says Andrew Barr.

“The revised position of Labor and the Greens on the Kowen pine forest is that it is more important to protect the recreational needs of middle-class off-road bike riders than to respond to the housing needs of the working poor and young families,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.

RADIATA pine trees are, in the ACT, a declared pest plant. They have been declared as such in recognition of their status as a significant environmental weed. 

Jon Stanhope.

The establishment and maintenance of commercial radiata pine plantations in the ACT has, as a consequence, long been blasted by environmentalists. 

They are often referred to as bio-deserts. Opponents of commercial radiata forests claim that as a tree species radiata pine outcompetes native species, reduces diversity, depletes the soil and is stunningly invasive. 

It is interesting, therefore, though not a bit surprising, to see ACT Labor and the Greens attempting to justify, in part, their opposition to the provision of sufficient land to meet the housing choice or needs of working-class and lower-income Canberra families by asserting that the Kowen Forest, the ACT’s only significant remaining radiata pine forest, is in the words of the Chief Minister Andrew Barr: “Too environmentally sensitive to be bulldozed for urban development”. 

Barr made this stunning claim in a debate in the Legislative Assembly on July 30 (Hansard P1761) in an attempt to wedge Opposition Leader Alistair Coe because of the stated determination of the Liberal Party to seek to ensure that enough land was available to meet the housing choices of all Canberrans, including most particularly young families, the working class and otherwise lower-income households, and not just those residents that constitute the Labor and Greens Parties base, namely Canberra’s large and dominant middle class. 

Without wishing to digress, it is relevant to a consideration of the attitude of Labor and the Greens to housing policy that in the report on the Taxation Review, which Andrew Barr tabled in 2012, and on which, incidentally, he dubiously bases his justification for the increasingly regressive rates regime we now enjoy, it is claimed that there is sufficient developable land in the ACT, including the Kowen Plateau, to meet the anticipated housing needs of the ACT at current rates of population growth for up to 100 years. Pertinently, that assessment was made on the basis of a 50/50 split of attached and non-attached housing. 

The Chief Minister was joined in his defence of the Kowen pine plantation as too environmentally sensitive to be considered as a potential site for housing by none other than the Minister for the Environment and Minister for Planning and Land Management, Mick Gentleman. I am genuinely surprised and disappointed by how effortlessly Mick has shrugged off his working-class roots. 

On that subject, and I am sorry to digress (again), I was told a story the other day, which is possibly apocryphal but not beyond belief. The story goes that at a recent meeting of the ACT Labor Caucus one of the young, inexperienced, middle-class, professional politicians that are emblematic of the modern Labor Party interjected, during a discussion about the fact that the government was ignoring the needs of the working class and most particularly “blue-collar workers”, that while they recognised the importance of the ALP being seen to be sympathetic to the working class, they couldn’t understand why (being, apparently, unfamiliar with the expression “blue-collar workers”) the ALP would concern itself with cattle dogs. 

In his loyal support of his leader’s commitment to not bulldoze the Kowen pine forest for suburban development, Mick, the Minister for the Environment, said: “We hear those opposite talk about protecting green space, yet every time they talk about land release, they talk about building on our sensitive landscapes.” 

Struck, no doubt, by the apparent double standard of Labor and the Greens on its commitment to “environmentally sensitive landscapes” one of my “CityNews” colleagues asked a number of questions of the government on the subject.

She asked, for instance, on what basis Barr and Gentleman considered the Kowen pine forest “environmentally sensitive”. 

Minister Gentleman’s spokesperson, having no doubt recognised just how silly the claim about the environmental sensitivity of the Kowen pine forest was, ignored the question and went on to suggest that the government’s concern about the bulldozing of Kowen was in fact related to the community uses of the area. 

In other words the revised position of Labor and the Greens on the Kowen pine forest is that it is more important to protect the recreational needs of middle-class off-road bike riders than to respond to the housing needs of the working poor and young families. 

My colleague also asked the following question: “Noting your concern for protecting sensitive landscapes, why did you, in pursuance of the West Basin land deal agree to transfer an area of high-quality yellow box, red gum grassy woodland at Hughes to the Commonwealth for housing purposes.” 

The ACT Labor/Greens Government provided this intriguing answer: “The federal government has the absolute power to acquire any land in the capital for a national purpose. The federal Liberal government has determined that the North Curtin paddocks are the most suitable location of a future diplomatic estate.” 

Are Labor and the Greens seriously suggesting that they played no part in offering the NCA the land at Hughes or the decision of the NCA to acquire the Curtin horse paddocks? Is it truly the case, as suggested in this written response from the office of the Minister for Planning, that the federal government simply asserted its “absolute power” and compulsorily acquired the horse paddocks? The mind boggles.

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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.


  1. The Kowen forest is closed to any activity except walkers and mountain bikes. No four wheel drives allowed. Why? Because it is so prestigious and environmentally sensitive? This type of area would be perfect for four wheel driving.

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