29 May 2008

Community Consultation?

| AG Canberra
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CT is reporting that the fearless leader of our toy parliament is doing a bit of navel gazing regarding “community consultation”. They are obviously getting the vibe that we think they make decisions in isolation etc.

But what sort of consultation do we as residents, workers, business owners, parents, ratepayers, drivers etc expect?

When they want to close some schools – how do we expect to be consulted?

When they are keen for a data centre and power plant – what do we want to know and how do we want to find out (and when)?

Often the easiest way is to make the decision then consult. All that does is put the the consultees off side.

Should we seek out the info – websites etc or do we expect letterbox drops with info on anything that may affect us….

Whadya reckon?

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Cap’n, as Stanhope=hero to zero, a bit of both kinds of ‘straw’ I guess. I am checking out the new CAP party, and/or independents and Greens.

captainwhorebags11:27 am 31 May 08

miz: is it a “vote them out next election” last straw, or a “storm the barricades” last straw?

Woody Mann-Caruso10:31 pm 30 May 08

Need I go on?

No, you’ve suffered enough. Move. Please.

and while we’re at it remember the fuss when Black Mountain Tower was first proposed, life as we knew it was about to end if we listened to the opponents. They even had a high court challenge. More recently of course was the GDE debarcle with the save the ridge group and their delaying tactics, the anti-dragway protestors and their recent success, and lets not forget the ever increasing restrictions on fireworks now there’s a classic result of community consultation, complain each and every year about an activity and each time the spineless moron who calls himself/herself the responsible minsiter will impose harsher and harsher restrictions on the use of said fireworks, its death by a thousand cuts. Ultiately a minority of the population (killjoys) get their way and everyone else misses out. At a larger scale we see it with the Tassie pulp mill, the Syney desalination plant and local residents.

…..and who says the community and community councils get it right? Remember back in 1992 when the Weston Creek community council opposed the harvesting of the pine forest in Eucumbene Drive, Warragamba Avenue and surrounds. They organised rally’s and provoked an outcry from the local “community”, some old biddy even wrote to the Canberra Times calling for “our native pine forest to be left intact”.

Lets face it the community is a pretty fluid sort of thing, “if you agree with me you’re a part of the communtiy, heaven help you if you’re not”. Have you ever wondered every single group that claims to represent the community has an instant maifesto that “everyone” somehow agrees with regardless of how much of a nutter the speokesperson is?

Whatsup said :

Deano, got an update for you on that one. The preschool was close to full capacity (24 our of 25 places) but the government distributed incorrect information about the enrollment numbers in their glossy brochure.

Fair enough – I stand corrected.

deezagood said :

Quite honestly Deano – are you really saying that ACTEWAGL couldn’t have managed the consultation process just a wee bit better?

I don’t disagree with you there and this thread is intended to ascertain just what good consultation is. To summarise the response so far – good consultation involves:

* Personally advising everyone with even a remote possibility of being affected (and, as one poster wanted, within at least a 20km radius). This also includes unrelated government departments, kangaroos, earless lizards etc.

* Provide detailed plans, costings, studies, research papers etc. But they have to be ‘independent’ because nobody will believe them otherwise. This means they can’t be paid for by the developer, or the government because we don’t trust them either. And don’t dare use the regulatory standards as parameters for your design because they aren’t good enough for everybody.

* Do the above before actually developing any plans.

* Take on board any concerns, criticisms, or suggestions by anyone no matter how little it affects them. Failure to do so is an automatic indication of failure to consult.

* Repeat the above steps until everyone is happy.

* And once you get everyone’s agreement, you can go ahead but only on the proviso that you understand that anyone can mount a legal challenge at the last minute and hold up your project for years.

Simply really. I can’t imagine why we don’t have more investment here.

Sorry if this sounds cynical but I haven’t seen any suggestions that would actually make the process workable and constructive. At the end of the day we live in a free democratic capitalist society – a society that infers certain rights for property owners to do as they wish on their property as long as it conforms to the requirements defined by the government of the day. As I’ve said before, town planning by angry mob is no way to run a modern society.

Deano said :

… the closure of the Macarthur preschool which deprived a total of nine of Macarthur’s kiddies the opportunity to a decent education.

Deano, got an update for you on that one. The preschool was close to full capacity (24 our of 25 places) but the government distributed incorrect information about the enrollment numbers in their glossy brochure. I am sorry you didn’t get the full story but its helped the government justify the closure as a part of their “consultation process.” A fine example of not letting the facts get in the way of a government funded story, thank you for raising it.

Look; Canberra is my temporary work location and I’ll probably be transferred back to Melbourne in the few years. I do live in Macarthur, so I view this power-plant saga through my NIMBY lense – although my backyard is but a temporary one.

I have some understanding of project management and consultation processes for new projects. Good consultation is a two-way process, involving dialogue, discussion, appeasement and, sometimes, negotiation/compromise to ensure the needs of both parties are met. Other development applications for power plants of this type have chapters/sections dedicated to the consultaion process; detailing steps taken, concerns raised, and discussion about measures undertaken to mitigate those concerns where necessary. If you would like to see an example of active and comprehensive community consultation, check out the lengthy paper dedicated to community consultation on the proposed Majura dragway.That project was in Mr Barr’s electorate though … so I guess they made more of an effort in that particular case. An article or two in the CT, entitled ‘Datacentre in Hume’ hardly consitutes active community consultation.

What didn’t ACTEW do:

Rosemary Lissamore, the President of Tuggeranong’s community council, had absolutely no idea about this developmnent; she found out through the same horse-riding lady that told the rest of the community. One of the Community Council’s main roles is to work with government in the community planning process.

The residents most affected by the proposal (who, as stated in the report, would have been exposed to excessive noise levels) were not afforded the courtesy of an explanation – either in person or in writing.

The staff and patients of the mental health facility were not advised of this project – and apparently they were going to be MOVED (they just found this out this week).

The Dump/revolve workers, right next to the power plant, (and who’s daily emission exposure levels were likely to be far in excess of the WHO standards) were not informed.

CASA, the EPA, the BOM etc… were not consulted about this project. The health Minister admits that she wasn’t consulted about this project. The horse owners, forced to find new homes for their horses, were not consulted about this project.

Quite honestly Deano – are you really saying that ACTEWAGL couldn’t have managed the consultation process just a wee bit better?

I have always found that government departments are pretty good at getting in touch with the community councils to get the word out about any projects they are running, or developments they are planning.

Issues are far more likely to occur with private developers, who after all have a financial incentive to avoid consultation. This is due both to the upfront costs of consultation, and costs if they are asked to make (less profitable) design changes from community objections lodged about the Development Application.

That said, the smarter private developers still *do* actively consult, because they recognise the PR and litigation problems that will inevitably arise if they don’t.

Anyone who wants to know about all development activities in Canberra should bookmark the ACTPLA DA site: http://apps.actpla.act.gov.au/pubnote/index.asp. Plans for virtually *every* building development will appear here at some point.

And if you see something that you don’t like — call or email your local Community Council! Ask them to set up a meeting about the issue. We are here to promote discussion and debate about these kinds of issues, after all.

Stephen Bounds
Belconnen Community Council

So this power station is totally the last straw.

I seem to have spent the last few years fighting this govt. They have closed Tharwa Bridge. I spent a year freaking out and sweating over trying to keep my kid’s school open. I have lost my security of tenure on my govt home (broken election promise, and the most unconsultative consultation I have seen so far, and that’s saying something!). They fecked up the buses, then tried to totally delete my work bus run with the new timetable. They want to put loo water in my latte. They have closed one library (griffith) and put another one in a stupid, out-of-the-way place (Civic). The GDE is a joke and I still take the Monaro home from UC as the traffic is ridiculous south of spaghetti junction (but probably worse north, I acknowledge). They have killed lots of rare trees because they planted them in a drought, spending thousands on them when they were closing schools. They have wasted $$$ on post fire court proceedings. Need I go on?

Sepi is correct. Data storage is simly a warehouse. Hume is full of these warehouses, so no one cared. BUT this is not simply a warehouse.

Power plants similar to this one (even the smaller ‘aren’t we nice we are reducing it’ version) elsewhere in australia, eg Alice Springs, have caused such outrage (and class actions)due to noise and filthy fumes 24/7 that it was moved to 20 kms out of town.

THis is not a numby issue it is a Canberra wide issue. These kinds of developments should be NOWHERE NEAR homes. We have always had good clean water and good clean air in Canberra. Seems ACTEW want to feck Canberra up for the sake of the holy dollar.

sepi said :

How many people have to say that a newspaper article does not make for consultation? Less than half of Canberra reads the paper. And a single article about a completely different suburb is not going to make anyone sit up and take notice.

There were three major articles in the paper, as well as stories on television news and radio. Even the ABC website has the story. If you expect to have a say in things happening in your area you have a responsibility to keep yourself informed. Obviously the half of Canberrans that don’t read the paper live in Macarthur!

And redback, you forgot to mention the closure of the Macarthur preschool which deprived a total of nine of Macarthur’s kiddies the opportunity to a decent education. Life is tough up on the hill.

It gives me the shits when legitimate lobbying against poor decisions by the Government is automatically labelled “whinging” and “special interest pleading”. I am referring specifically to the Towards 2020 schools debacle. Christ on a bike that was a shit bit of policy. No planning, no research, no consultation with teachers or the Education bureaucracy, just throwing some darts at a map and whipping up a spiffy pdf to try and sell it. NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

(see http://towards2020.wordpress.com/2006/07/07/tuggeranong-figures-a-shambles/ and http://towards2020.wordpress.com/2006/08/09/tuggeranong-a-shambles-belconnen-a-farce/ for examples)

In that case it wasn’t possible to shrug your shoulders and wait until the next election, the Government would (did) close the schools by then.

I used to think Governments did their best in good faith. Not. Any. More.

How many people hae to say that a newspaper article does not make for consultation? Less than half of Canberra reads the paper. And a single article about a completely different suburb is not going to make anyone sit up and take notice.

It really isn’t up to the community to scour the paper for any developments in nearby areas, in case the govt is being a bit disingenous.

And teh ‘refurb’ of the rehab centre is ancient news now. But again, it was the development by stealth that angered people.

Simon Corbell called it a minor refurb, and it turned out to mean it was so big it would block access across the entire reserve walking track, turning a small house sized thing into a small hospital (was it 3 stories?) complete with a carpark espcially for busses.

sepi said :

For the macarthur thing they ran a couple of newspaper articles about a data centre in Hume. Then opened a consultation period. Noone paid any attention, cos industrial development belongs in Hume.

The newspaper articles were the start of the consultation process. If you can’t be bothered to take notice and start participating in the process then I can’t see what you have to complain about.

redback said :

To the people who characterise Macarthur residents as NIMBY whingers, I’d say that when you have a rubbish tip, a prison, a helicopter landing area and a drug rehab centre all within a few kilometers of your home – your backyard is full.

redback, your comment is well beyond Nimbyism and into cave people territory. Are you honestly suggesting that everyone in Macarthur should be consulted on any development within a 20km radius? Please explain how any of these facilities adversely affects your little piece of nirvana in any way? I live not far from the drug rehab centre and in 20 years there has never been an adverse incident involving the centre. Most people didn’t even know what it was until the Macarthur nimbies kick up a fuss about it.

You’d have think that some lessons would have been learned after the Karalika (rehab centre) expansion debacle. But it was almost the same story; limited information distributed in a general way so nobody understood the implications of what was being proposed til late in the day. At least with Karalika the immediate neighbours were told – in detail – what was proposed. They alerted the rest of the community and the balloon went up from there.

The one thing that has resulted from the various proposals for the area (Dragstrip, Karalika expansion, power plant) is that the residents are now more effective in stopping them. Practice makes perfect.

To the people who characterise Macarthur residents as NIMBY whingers, I’d say that when you have a rubbish tip, a prison, a helicopter landing area and a drug rehab centre all within a few kilometers of your home – your backyard is full.

Put the power station on the fairway at Gold Creek Country Club.


For the macarthur thing they ran a couple of newspaper articles about a data centre in Hume. Then opened a consultation period. Noone paid any attention, cos industrial development belongs in Hume.

People responded at the last minute when it became clear the project was actually a massive gas plant, and it was in (or almost in) Macarthur.

I suggested letterbox drops and notices at the local shops. This would have alerted people earlier, and more slow paced, thoughtful consultation could have begun, instead of residents starting off by feeling tricked and ignored.

they’d do better to be more open about all development ideas at the earliest stages. Before they’ve earmarked land, before they’ve got into bed with the money people… when something’s at the proposal stage. Get it out there, and keep developments public.

That way, people can be informed and comment before it’s too far down teh track. This debacle was an utter mess because they proceeded so quietly, effectively in league with the developers vs the residents.

Sepi – there was an invitation to consult. Most people didn’t take it until (as Deano pointed out) the last minute, and then they started screaming like babies who’ve lost their dummies.

Ultimately, the ACT will need the capacity. The Macarthur/Hume site was considered probably the best available spot. The locals got stinky about it, and so the thing was downsized. But the extra capacity will have to come from somewhere – and wherever is chosen, the residents will, no doubt, have every right to spit the dummy too.

There’s a bit of me that would like it in sight of Jerrambombera.

As I said before – a couple of articles in the CT is not consultation. And letting the Gov do whatever it thinks is a good thing then voting them out after the fact is also useless. If that happened we could have a very dodgy power plant up and running before we have the chance to vote out the idiots that approved it…

How is it that ACTEW can send me a letter telling me that they might need to access my backyard to inspect power poles – but can’t send me one spelling out their plans to build a power station 1200m from my home? I would be much more accepting having read all their information and then able to seek out anything welse I needed to know. Me finding out about the plans from a wooden board advertising an anti powerstation website means they have already lost the information (and consultation) battle….

sepi said :

Consultation – the word itself implies a two way discussion

Yes, and when ActewAGL initiated the process by informing the community about what they were planning, the community failed to respond until the last moment. Consultation is a two way street and people need to proactively engage in it.

sepi, could you please explain how what actually happened with the power station is any different to what you are suggesting should have happen?

captainwhorebags11:12 am 30 May 08

For development application, let the government consult people on the planning legislation. Have a considered debate, take in views, explain concepts. Draft the legislation that is reflected of government objectives, community views and economic realities. Submit to the Assembly for the democratic process to take place.

Then, for every development that comes along, the test is: does it meet the requirements of the planning legislation?

Yes? Approved. Notify residents/affected parties. Build.

VP – in macarthur there was essentially no consultation. And you start off saying you support consultation, but the rest of your post reads like you believe there should be none at all? Sounds dangerous to me. If serious nutters got in to power, they could do a.lot of damage in 3 years before the next election.

I agree with anyone who says that consultation is a Good Thing, but there has to be an end to it – at some point, governments have to get on with governing. It’s what we elect them for, and we elect them as our delegates (to do what they think best) rather than as our agents (to do as we direct). A limited and structured process works for the courts – everyone who’s a party can have his or her two cents worth, but it does not go on until everyone is happy (because mostly that’s impossible). When the judge has enough, he or she decides; if people don’t like the result, they can appeal – they can’t go back and argue with the judge.

In this town, anyone who does not like the result screams that there has not been enough consultation – “They couldn’t have done it properly, because they didn’t agree with me”. That attitude (most recently displayed in Macarthur, but my memory goes back through various schools debates to the coining of the term “Maxworthyite” by Ian Warden) is infantile in its arrogance.

Let government govern. Then, at an election, let everyone decide whether, on the whole, taking into account the successes and failures, they would elect the same government or an opposition.

Consultation – the word itself implies a two way discussion.

Thus, simply putting an ad in the paper or issuing a press release is not Consultation, it is just Notification.

In the case of the Macarthur gas plant the single press release was all they were planning to do. They only cobbled together some info sessions in response to the huge outcry once people found out by chance where the plant was going to be. And by all accounts the info sessions were run by very junior stooges from ACTEW who didn’t really have any answers about things like the emission content.

Consultation should involve:

Informing people what is happening – notices at the local shops and letterbox drops for those most affected.

giving them a chance to respond – via letters or info sessions.

taking on board their concerns and changing the plan if there are major concerns.


Change management theory concerning the psychological response to change gives some insight into why the consultation process will never work.

Faced with an adverse change people go through a sequence of emotional responses: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. The problem is that consultation usually starts in the Denial phase and results in the lack of initial engagement by those affected. Things become heated during the Anger phase and if you are lucky you can make it onto the Bargaining phase where constructive consultation can actually take place, but usually things fall apart before then.

I would like to see them use the community councils more engage with the community. And put notices on the notice boards at community shops about local development etc BEFORE the deadline is reached on community input. And allow reasonable time for people to hear that consultation is happening, and respond to the request for public input.

I’ve been disappointed so far in the lack of response when community groups ask for the decision to be explained. If a community group points out a problem with a proposed government decision, the appropriate response is to address the specific community concerns when explaining the decision. It is not enough to gloss over the problem, hoping the community group will have forgotten about it or accept that they cannot change it. That just pisses us off.

Most people hate being lied to, or treated as if they are stupid. If the government are not going to consider or respond to residents views, then stop wasting money on consultants to manage a process that has no point to it. If they want to consult the community, do it genuinely.

Woody Mann-Caruso9:43 am 30 May 08

Having said all that, of course, you’re entitled to procedural fairness _before_ a decision is made that will directly and adversely affect your rights and interests. This includes an expectation of adequate notice and the right to be heard, and that the decision-maker will be free from bias.

Woody Mann-Caruso9:40 am 30 May 08

There was a similar post to this when the school closures were all the rage. The ladder / hierarchy / levels of citizen participation were presented as:

(more participation)
* Citizen control
* Delegated power
* Partnership
* Placation
* Consultation
* Informing
* Therapy
* Manipulation
(less partipation)

I stand by my comments at the time:

“…our pluralist society makes it infeasible for government to offer participatory democracy to everybody, or even to signficant minorities. Even where it is feasible, it isn’t necessarily wise to allow a small number of affected parties to steer broad policy directions for the whole community. Suppose for a moment that the Stanhope government had allowed parents from affected schools to shape policy – the schools would simply never be closed, regardless of whether they were economically sustainable or equitable or not (until, at least, the little darlings had moved on to high school or uni, after which I suspect nobody would give a toss).

When there are diverse views about an emotional issue, and when there is a clear loser, governing at the top end of the participative ladder makes no sense, because there are too many voices and too much subjectivity. The government must undertake an independent, objective analysis and make a decision that is in the best interests of the society as a whole, and of future societies – not a decision that will placate a vocal or well-organised minority, or guarantee re-election by offending nobody while policy challenges remain unaddressed.

IMHO, their biggest mistake was “consulting” at all. Just hold information sessions, and leave it at that. “We’re here to explain why we made the decision we made, so that we are transparent and accountable. We’re not changing our minds, because we think it’s the right decision, and that we made it the right way – we’re just telling you about the decision, why we made it, and how it will affect you. See you at the polls.””

This quote by Michael Costello is gold:

“There’s nothing anyone can do, there’s no proposal anyone can make on pretty well anything that doesn’t elicit an outcry, ‘Lack of consultation, lack of communication, we’re outraged, this is a disgrace, there’s an obvious conspiracy here’. It’s very strange to me, particularly as we have such elaborate, time-consuming and very expensive mechanisms for doing just that,” he said.

Well said that man.

“There is a lack of consultation” = “[I’m a whinging NIMBY and] I don’t want this” [subtext perhaps “if they asked I’d tell them why its bad, but remember I don’t want it and I’ll make a lot of noise until I get my way”].

Meanwhile: It seems strange that ACTEW wasn’t willing to move the power plant to another site…surely there are other sites away from Burbia that would have been suitable, and I’m sure gas piping and electricity cables aren’t that expensive. Maybe build the Muslim school there and the plant in Camden :p

captainwhorebags8:38 am 30 May 08

One thing that irks me about community consultation is that interest groups say “They consulted us, but then went ahead and did what they want”. Consultation does not bind the organisation/government to the views of the community. People need to realise this.

It’s perfectly legal for a government to legislate, and act within that legislation, without any form of community consultation. I’d expect (and hope) that any government acting in this fashion was shown the door at the next election.

I’d like to see a well designed website for all ACT government proposals, planning variations, law reform, major legislation etc. Organise it so you can navigate by district or topic. Proposals having a major impact or expected to cause a stir (school closures) etc, should have plenty of media exposure, even if it is just “New plutonium enrichment plant for Macarthur – see the proposal at consultation.act.gov.au”.

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