Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
No miracle on this agenda
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architectural affairs for the Herald.
WHAT would Jesus make of planning NSW? This question, which may sound fanciful or even (God forbid) cheeky, is momentarily pertinent. By next week, it’ll be over. Then, ideas of the meek inheriting anything, much less the earth, will seem as risible as ever. Come Tuesday, Parliament will, barring a miracle, vote in drastic new planning laws. Until then, though, what Jesus thinks matters. For seven days all that resists the collapse of local democracy in NSW are the twin towers, the reverends Moyes and Nile.
It’s good sport, watching right-wing Christians defend grassroots democracy against the Lib-Lab development coalition, comprising a “labour” party that uses “socialist” as a term of abuse and a “liberal” party that rants against the bill but declines to vote for fear of upsetting the developer lobby. You’ve seen Christians v lions; here’s Christians v snakes.
To some extent, it’s a pecking-order thing. Every culture needs a whipping boy. In Spain’s version of Fawlty Towers the Spanish waiter, Manuel, becomes a Neapolitan. In the same way, Australia needs New Zealand (as the butt, so to speak, of all those sheep-shagging jokes) and state government needs local government. It’s why they created it, back in 1842. And just as the bullied become bullies, council-bashing is especially prevalent among state politicians themselves, in Minister Sartor’s immortal phrase, ex-“local government pissants”.
Ours is the roads, rates and rubbish model, custom-designed to fail. Underpaid, underpowered, underprotected councils were shaped for maximum cost and minimum responsibility, to attract mainly self-serving ratbags, to be deeply corruptible. Designed, that is, to be sacked.
In 2003 the then planning minister, Craig Knowles, spent vast sums to inflate Planning NSW into the mega Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources, promising “a smarter planning system which is simple, effective and efficient … [and] a huge reduction in red tape”. Two years later, the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, split it back into its component parts for precisely the same reason, “slashing red tape”, and providing “certainty” for developers. He amended the Planning Act to jettison red tapes like heritage and consultation, and build a slippery, secret sluice-gate for projects deemed – by him – “state significant”.
The latest amendment bill brings the minister three more shiny new powers: to replace councils’ planning with an administrator or “independent” panel; to control councils’ detailed development control plans; and to exact special infrastructure contributions on top or instead of the familiar “Section 94” levy, channelling yet more cash from councils to the state.
No reasons are required. No evidence produced. The arguments used are tardiness, inefficiency and waste. But these needn’t be proved. The minister can take the planning powers if he “is of the opinion that the performance of a council … is unsatisfactory”, giving them to an administrator or panel “who have, in the opinion of the minister, relevant skills”. There will be no public meetings, minutes, or even decisions unless the minister wishes it. The minister’s opinion becomes an item of cruel and unusual importance.
Good, you think. Get them, local government pissants. Some decisions are just too important for democracy. But here’s the irony. It’s still democracy, of a sort. And state politicians, bureaucrats and appointees are quite as corruptible as their local confreres. Better shredders, perhaps, but not better humans.
Never mind that it was Clover Moore who, as an independent, saved Frank Sartor from sacking, when he was Lord Mayor. Never mind that the one NSW individual empowered for the big-picture planning we so desperately need (like transport) will be too busy micro-stuffing flats into Kur-ring-gai or Westfield’s rehashed Centrepoint into Pitt Street. Sartor has a good planning mind and a strong strategic grasp. Shame to waste them on a mudslide of mini-issues.
In the Legislative Assembly, the Opposition walked out rather than vote. Even the Deputy Leader, Barry O’Farrell, whose Kur-ring-gai constituency is lined up as the bill’s first casualty, sat on his hands. Now, in the upper house, everything rests on the Twin Towers, Christians of the aptly named crossbenches. Will they crumple when the planes hit?
“I try to trust the Government,” says Nile, although Moyes’s spokesman adds: “We’re very disappointed with the abuse of planning powers so far.” The reverends are concerned about the bill’s social impact. Their plan, though, is not to oppose but to amend, dilute.
What would Jesus do in their place? Go for the moneyed, secret option? Or defend the little guys? And what’s the word for cannibalising democracy anyway? Hypocrisy? Or maybe just mockracy?