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planning 27

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 21-Mar-2007

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 877

A voter’s stark choice: protest or accept that it will be business as usual

Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald.

Dissent, says Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, is all that rescues democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors. But how to dissent, when there’s no discernible difference between the parties?

It’s ironic, and possibly catastrophic, that this cross-party blur should happen just when planning starts to bleep red as a state election issue. Both parties are overtly pro-development. Both prioritise the moneyed over the mob, offering special access at a price. Both treat the populace with an arrogance bordering on disdain. Both approach public life as a smorgasbord of private favours.

So, you might shrug, chewing contentedly. Isn’t that just business as usual in New Sarf Whiles? And yes, it is. That’s the problem. Here we are, the ruminant mob already shooed out onto the long paddock, and both parties are still driving the ute with eyes glued to the rearview, not getting how the landscape up ahead is looking mighty different from the century we’ve just come through. A lot drier, for one. A lot more hoofs on a lot less grass. And, almost certainly, a whole lot bumpier.

The issue for Saturday, then, is not red or blue, Lib or Lab. Those old, tribal divisions are so not it. The real choice is between the Lib-Lab Business-as-Usual Coalition (call it BUCK) and anyone pushing survival with that thin but priceless veneer we call civilisation roughly intact. Which means a green and clean energy future, with just a touch of altruism. Call it GRACE. Call it a small but potentially powerful admixture of dissenters: greens, indies and Patrice Newell’s Climate Change Coalition.

For the contemporary West, embarrassingly, the problem has arisen less from human numbers than from our steeply climbing impact per person. We consume more, dirty more and waste more than ever before and we believe, deep down, that this is our right. We believe, to a degree that no society before has been privileged even to contemplate, that we can have our cake and eat it; that however much we consume, there’ll always be more in the tin. We believe it because we want to believe it, and we’ve forgotten there’s a difference.

And governments kowtow to this. They have to. If they don’t, we dump them. So may democracy yet dig its own grave. Government is like parenting. And just as today’s parents are reluctant to discipline for fear of causing negative feelings in their charges, today’s governments are reluctant to govern, for fear of alienating their ever-more demanding, ever-more petulant constituents.

Right-wing lobbyists, especially in the US, present this call for discipline as a barely disguised socialist revival. Many even argue that the entire climate change scenario is a concocted leftist ruse. It’s crazy and paranoid, but it’s serious. And it rests on the assumption that anything other than pure self-interest – any call to decency, far-sightedness or even, heaven forbid, altruism – is totalitarianism in disguise.

The temptation, of course, is to point out the horrible irony that these parties, both “left” and “right”, are stacked full of so-called Christians, who see no conflict between their lip-service and unbridled self-interest. But the tragedy for NSW is more about the shameless grabbing of central power, even while pretending to revile it, disguised as “flexibility”. Part 3A of the Planning Act is an obvious instance. But not with any altruistic intent; simply to protect Business as Usual.

Remember the excitement when the Carr government was first elected? Remember the euphoria? The sense that the right thing might finally be done. That we could even end the worship of the one god, the mighty dollar, that had ruled NSW for so long. That we would stop exploiting our cities and foreshores, stop turning our strawberry fields into asphalt, our forests into toilet paper and our air into diesel soup.

But we didn’t. Apart from a few national parks, we didn’t stop doing it. We just stopped talking about it.

We talked public transport, and built roads. Talked urban consolidation, and kept releasing farmland for sprawl. Talked public access, and corsetted the city’s streets to profit the Cross City Tunnel. Talked vibrant urban culture, and bent over backwards so the hotel lobby could keep small city bars out of town. Talked heritage, and killed the working harbour. Talked best practice and turned East Darling Harbour into just another car-based office park. Talked apology, and did our best to run the blacks out of Redfern. Talked BASIX, and loosened it for the larger, more profitable developments. Talked green, then chose desalination which guzzles energy, belches CO2 and pollutes the bay. Talked transparency, and instituted government by private whispers in closed rooms and narrow corridors. Talked consultation and based planning on moneyed access and the privileges of power.

They’re calling this one the water referendum: desalinate or recycle. But if it comes to a choice between water with the salt removed and water with the poo removed – a choice between absences – you’d have to say, as we drove on to the next dry waterhole, what matters most is that they stop talking shite.


ADDENDUM: Lewis Lapham ceased to be Harper’s editor in March 2006. Source: Readerlink 21-03-2007


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