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Canberra Today 3°/5° | Friday, August 19, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Who actually runs the place when pollies demur?

The Legislative Assembly… A major part of the government’s governance problems is the attitude politicians take to planning issues. Photo: Paul Costigan

“There’s the common perception that the bureaucracy lauds it over the politicians. If so, it’s a democratic problem to have unelected bureaucrats running the show,” says “Canberra Matters” columnist PAUL COSTIGAN

IN 2019, during a discussion about the preliminaries for the city’s coming planning reforms, it was suggested to the chief planner that governance needs to be central to any reforms. 

Paul Costigan.

The chief disagreed and said that governance was off the table. It was not a subject to be discussed.

To quote from the Governance Institute of Australia: “Governance encompasses the system by which an organisation is controlled and operates, and the mechanisms by which it, and its people, are held to account. Ethics, risk management, compliance and administration are all elements of governance.”

During serious debates about planning issues under this Greenslabor government, the hot topics include matters that relate to:

  • who runs the planning system, 
  • who influences the bureaucracy, 
  • what responsibility do the politicians take on planning matters, 
  • the questionable ethics involved with how the planning directorate’s processes of consultations actually exclude community input, 
  • a massive number of compliance issues, how the administration of planning lacks transparency, and 
  • how access by residents to decision making has become complicated and inaccessible. 

It is all about governance. This is the topic the chief planner said he does not want to discuss despite this being the subject of many of the debates within the community, between politicians and residents, and that aspects of governance were the hot topics in submissions for the recent first stage of the planning reforms that ended in mid-June. 

A major part of the government’s governance problems is the attitude politicians take to planning issues. They state, when challenged about taking responsibility, that they leave planning matters to the professional planners and to the independent planning authority. Utter rubbish! 

It would be a very short line of residents who do not think that everyone from the chief minister to the housing minister, the environment minister and a few others do not exert pressure on planning decisions to suit their sometimes very questionable ideological reasons. 

The Greenslabor politicians maintain the façade (that no-one takes seriously) that it is the unelected bureaucracy that controls planning. What do the ACT Liberals think on this? No-one knows.

While governance problems undermine any good planning and development in the city, a similar lack of good governance permeates other ACT government portfolios. 

The evidence points to the devastating reality that many Greenslabor politicians have little concept of what is good governance – and that the buck stops with them.

There’s an ever-growing list of events that point to a lack of good governance. Here’s a few: 

  • the CIT board and Minister Chris Steel not noticing the extraordinarily expensive and meaningless contracts, 
  • the education minister and bureaucrats having to close a school when Worksafe declared it unsafe for teachers, 
  • the on-going destruction of greenery despite announcements on tree canopy, permeable surfaces and increasing the suburban biodiversity, 
  • the revelations by Jon Stanhope and Khalid Ahmed on how Treasury (that would be Andrew Barr) have built-in financial disasters for the territory for decades, 
  • how the auditor general could not justify the tram going south, but Greenslabor stayed with their foolhardy ideological ambition, 
  • social housing in Canberra is going backwards despite the rhetoric of Yvette Berry and Rebecca Vassarotti, the same two ministers who revel in evicting housing tenants to sell the land,
  • and let’s not forget that new suburbs continue to be built as if the climate emergency is not here while ignoring that the next drought will deliver havoc to the new suburbs of heat islands and energy guzzling homes. 

It is my belief that the planning directorate is badly run and lacks good governance. The worry is that the directorate’s poor performance is a symptom of whole-of-government governance issues. 

There’s also the common perception that the bureaucracy lauds it over the politicians. If so, it’s a democratic problem to have unelected bureaucrats running the show. 

However, the dysfunctional nature of this government must remain the responsibility of the Greenslabor politicians. It is time for the electorate to consider what can be done to change this undemocratic and seriously flawed situation.

Paul Costigan is a commentator on cultural and urban matters. There are more of his columns at

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Paul Costigan

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