Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Pistol-packing pachyderms have other plans for O’Farrell
Barry O’Farrell says he believes in redemption. Better hang on to that. He may need it as he struggles and sweats through the NSW planning jungle, especially when he fronts the man with the elephant gun.
For the first time, planning has been an election issue. This must be a good thing. But only by raising the IQ of the debate and lowering its emotion levels do we stand any chance of getting the cities we deserve out the other end.
For months, O’Farrell has promised to scrap Part 3A, the much-loathed horse-and-cart amendment to the 1976 Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. Myself, I always thought the old act wet, weak and wordy, like an old dear on the ducking stool. But many regard it as world class, and I must say now, compared to the biddable glove-puppet we have after 16 years of Labor depredations, the old act sounds like the voice of Solomon. O’Farrell has vowed not only to rescind 3A but to “take the politics out of planning”, end the whiff of corruption, rein in developer donations and “re-empower the community”. Big words. Will he do it? Can he, actually?
He may find losing 3A more difficult than losing pre-election kilos. He can’t blame it on a black hole or Labor landmine; 3A is something O’Farrell himself voted into existence. Widely seen as Frank Sartor’s mis-conceived baby, 3A actually predated Sartor by several weeks. The former planning minister Craig Knowles (best remembered for the Orange Grove affair and for being the only NSW planning minister to live at home with mum and dad) knocked the first gaping, 82-page hole in the old act. Sartor just kept widening it until a fat inebriate on a moonless night could drive a bullock team through, backwards.
In June ’05, O’Farrell sat silent through the Part 3A parliamentary debate. He was vocal enough in question time, especially when defending his Ku-ring-gai electorate against the state-imposed tolerance of density. But when it came to 3A, only the six independents voted against. Deputy leader O’Farrell could have aborted 3A then and there, but with colleagues in tow, he voted it into law.
There was no excuse. Part 3A was bad law from the start. Giving the minister much-reviled “call-in” powers was really the least of its sins. In NSW, where state governments pre-date local councils, there was always provision for the minister to own particular developments, and rightly so. Some proposals – port facilities, desalination plants, power stations – are genuinely state significant.
What made Part 3A so sinister was the near-limitless discretion it concentrated in the minister’s hands. It mandated no criteria either for the calling-in or for the decision itself; required no written rationale or judgment, even after the event; and suspended almost all associated environmental protection legislation, as well as requirements for consultation, that would otherwise apply.
The developer only had to inflate his claim outrageously and he was pretty much home and hosed. I give you Catherine Hill Bay, Gwandalan, Sandon Point, marinas up and down the coast, high-rise apartments, Redfern-Waterloo, Luna Park, the Caritas redevelopment, Barangaroo, Wallarah Peninsula, Vincentia Village, spot-zoned shopping centres and the entire rash of Hunter Valley coalmines approved by minister Keneally.
This gave the minister close to a free hand; far closer than those anything-goes US cities such as Phoenix, Houston and Chicago would countenance. Far closer than ICAC considered prudent when, in its leisurely way, it finally got around to the issue last December. Said ICAC: “It is the loose criteria and the broad discretion that potentially give rise to perceptions of undue influence.” Said planner John Mant: Part 3A “institutionalised undue influence”. Or, as this column put it three years earlier, “the effect has been to paint a big red ‘press here’ sign on … [the minister’s] double sartorial breast”.
But in trying to shed Part 3A O’Farrell will find himself conflicted. Partly because governments love discretion in ways that oppositions do not, especially when it buys them a snuggle at the big end of town. Partly because, although O’Farrell’s role as Premier is to promote the statewide planning picture, his habitual view is through a very small Ku-ring-gai prism. And partly because of the man with the elephant gun.
Barry O’Farrell’s own electorate would signify less if it weren’t Ku-ring-gai. Then again, if Ku-ring-gai weren’t his electorate it wouldn’t have been targeted for quite so much NSW Right bastardry over recent years. There was payback in the targeting, and there’ll be payback now. But even there, O’Farrell’s no-doubt heartfelt promises to return councils’ planning powers will war with that to establish a planning commission to keep decisions at arm’s length from politics. Councils, especially Ku-ring-gai, are anything but apolitical.
In truth, planning in NSW has never been about planning. I doubt that a single decision has ever been made, since Pat Hills dudded the Cumberland County green belt in the 1950s, that genuinely had the city’s overall future at heart. Planning here has always been principally an exchange of favours; long lunches, special pleadings, spot rezonings, windfall gains.
And it’s here, in the favour department, that the man with the elephant gun becomes the pachyderm in the room. New government, same old favours, for Fred Nile, Robert “Elephant Killer” Borsak and, if we’ve been really bad, Pauline Hanson. The narrowed eye through which all new legislation must pass, they’re the real new government.
So it’s bye bye ethics classes, bye bye women’s right-to-choose, hello hunting in national parks. The Premier is in their sights even now. I reckon he’ll make easy prey, like shooting fish in an O’Barrell.
Postscript: last week I wrote about swags for the homeless. Go to www.swag.org.au or contact Swags for Homeless, Melbourne if you are interested in contributing.