Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
And lo, the queen did lead them on
I was recently invited to speak from a pulpit and I think maybe it’s gone to my head, for I find myself inclining to parable. It’s about a Virgin Queen who kept promising the people an heir, but couldn’t bring herself to climb into the sack.
The name of the virgin queen was, elegantly, the NSW Government. The baby she kept promising was known variously as the Metro Plan, the Freight Plan, the Ports Growth Plan. What the Queen didn’t realise, however, was that there are some essential steps in having a baby; that just declaring her intentions, year after year, wasn’t actually enough.
It started long ago when, once upon October 5, 2003, this queen, the NSW Government, released her so-called Ports Growth Plan. Released, that is, her intention to have a Ports Growth Plan, or at least to have some port growth, probably – some amount, somewhere, sometime. Maybe Botany, maybe Wollongong, maybe Newcastle. Anywhere, really, except where the people are, in Sydney. That’s family planning.
Twelve days later Grand Vizier Carl Scully announced an Inquiry into Ports Infrastructure in NSW. One of those upper house inquiries dominated by Government MPs and chaired by the Minister – naturally – for Rural Affairs, it was charged with examining the very big-picture port-closure issues on which a decision had already been announced. The kind of inquiry you have when you already know what answer you want, and how to get it. It was, in short, a sham.
But the people, on the whole, didn’t see this. They patiently made supplication as if the inquiry were the real thing. Seven months, 98 submissions and 61 witnesses later, on May 28 last year, the specially appointed ports infrastructure inquiry tabled its interim report.
It contained a single, resounding recommendation: that the minister be sure to expand Port Botany “only … after the identification and rigorous evaluation of all viable alternatives, including the current proposal”.
In other words: do nothing. If you stay absolutely still they won’t even know you’re dead. You can see why it took them half a year to produce.
Still, it was useful advice, which the Virgin Queen applied assiduously to all her family planning tasks. In April last year, for example, she released her Blueprint for Sydney. What was it? A press release, of course, announcing a much longed-for “policy shift” that would “solve public transport”, revolutionise infrastructure funding and provide the necessary political will to plan.
By October, though, there was nothing to show. Just another press release announcing a series of “town hall-type meetings” – the fabled Futures Forums – to be held across Sydney. And even now, eight months more down-track, there’s still no plan. No metro strategy, no freight strategy, no Ports Growth Plan. Plenty of phantom pregnancies. No baby.
Throughout this period of entertaining but unfruitful foreplay, however, the various plans have been widely discussed – by ministers, bureaucrats, stakeholders and commentators – as actual existent entities. Googling the NSW Ports Growth Plan, for example, reveals a two-page summary of “core directions” – entirely as if it were a precis of some larger, way-too-technical body of work.
But the plan itself, putative basis of that summary, remains wrapped – nay, swaddled – in mystery. The Queen discusses the baby, holds Futures Forums for it, agonises over its dietary habits and teething troubles. But does the child actually exist?
If, as I did, you decide to pursue proof, to find an actual copy of the actual Ports Growth Plan, you might first call the one-stop shop of the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources – on the naive basis that a ports plan must surely involve all of those things. Infrastructure. Tick. Planning. Tick. Natural Resources. Tick.
And the nice people at the department, while you wait, will Google the Ports Growth Plan – as you will already have done yourself – before putting you on to the Department of Transport, “since it’s on their website”. Ever helpful, they’ll probably even give you the department’s number.
The Transport people, however, while accepting that the blurb is undeniably on its website, will also insist that the Ports Growth Plan has nothing to do with it. Actually, they will say, it comes under “the Maritime” – much in the way people used to talk of “the Welfare”. Again, they’ll probably give you the number.
But at the Maritime, which turns out to be the new diminutive for the Waterways Authority (the name is changed regularly to guard against the outside possibility that anyone might actually find it), you’ll be put through to a machine dealing with categories of boating regulation. If you demur, someone will patiently point out that “boating regulation, madam, is what this authority does”. And the Boating Man, if you hang on long enough to talk to him rather than his machine, will send you back, full-circle, to the Department of Infrastructure.
Now that’s what I call a whole-of-government approach.
What you discover, though – in fact, the only thing that you discover in such a search – is the one thing no one is prepared actually to say. Namely, that no plan exists.
Same with the long-promised Metro Plan. Best part of a million dollars so far in consultants and breakfasts, not to mention the cost of running the actual department that exists to plan. And yet there is no Ports Growth Plan, no Freight Plan, no Metro Plan. No baby.
Of course the Virgin Queen justifies her failure to produce the promised heir, despite 10 years of very public trying, by reference to the planning mistakes of the past. Look at all those ghastly other royal inbreds, she whimpers in defence of her own sterility.
But the inescapable fact is that, in the decade we’ve been awaiting this plan-baby, the Government has produced an entire raft – an entire bastard stable – of major but ad hoc decisions, including relocating the ports and flogging off the land so released for private development.
Which brings us to the close of our parable. What does it show? Only something that most people know but the Government, our Snow Queen, clearly does not.
It’s this: that virgin births are fine in fairytales but most times, if you want to get pregnant, sweet-talk and foreplay will not in fact suffice. You have to be prepared to do it.