15 June 2021

As the AWM expansion shows, community consultation may be nothing more than lip service

| Zoya Patel
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An artist’s impression of how the redeveloped War Memorial will look

An artist’s impression of how the redeveloped War Memorial will look. Image: AWM

When did the word ‘consultation’ become the beginning and end of a genuine voice from the community on major policy and infrastructure decisions?

It seems like there’s no end to websites with ‘your say’ in their title, administered by governments to provide a platform for feedback from their constituents on everything from planning strategies, major works, or even policy proposals in contentious areas.

Yet, when the period for consultation passes, it seems like no real weight is given to the feedback received unless it aligns with the proposed approach that was offered in the first place.

Take the Australian War Memorial expansion, for example.

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Over 600 submissions were received (the most ever received in the Memorial’s history), and it has been reported that less than 10 of these were in favour of the proposed expansion,* which includes demolishing Anzac Hall and cutting down over 100 trees.

And yet, the National Capital Authority has given the green light for early works to commence.

Over 600 people felt moved enough by the proposal to make a submission. That’s no insignificant number.

While some would argue that people only bother responding to these types of processes if they’re anti the proposal and that the silent majority are likely to be in favour, I would argue that if a consultation process is being offered as part of our democratic system, those in charge are obliged to take every single submission seriously.

And yet it feels like, despite there being more and more opportunities to ‘have our say’, what we actually say is rarely seen as important enough to impact the outcomes. The public impression of having consulted is more important than meaningfully responding to the feedback received.

I’ve worked at a number of places that deliver advice to government on contentious issues based on community views and actions. For example, I worked for one place where we would get thousands of people speaking out against certain government policies, contributing their views via official submission processes, and yet there was never a corresponding reaction to this wave of community action.

Instead, we would watch as much smaller groups of powerful industry stakeholders would consistently have more influence and sway than the thousands of individual Australians who came together as a community to register their opposition.

This pattern is seen across consultative processes. In planning and development, for example, people speak out against major new works or developments, but the project proceeds anyway. People rail against government policy that is open for public and expert comment, but nothing changes.

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The argument is that we exercise our democratic voice in voting our leaders into government – but what kind of true democracy limits the voice of citizens to one decision every three-to-four years, especially when the choice we’re presented with is already narrowed to those who have access to education, wealth and ability to stand in elections in the first place?

If consultation processes are going to be open for public comment, where is the accountability on government institutions and agencies to actually act and report on the feedback they received?

How are we ensuring that the process is driven by a genuine, transparent and accountable commitment to the best possible outcome based on community views and not just driven by budgets and timelines devised and implemented by those in power?

Is it naïve to expect the community to have a genuine influence when responding to consultative processes that affect our public institutions, land and policies? Or is it time we added some teeth to these processes to ensure that our democratic power is real?

CORRECTION: Region Media has been informed that over 600 submissions were received by the NCA (not the AWM) and this was the most in the NCA’s history. A total of three submissions were in favour of the proposed expansion.

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Gerald Lynch6:14 pm 15 Jun 21

The title is the “Australian War Memorial” nothing more, nothing less. Not an educational institution, not a fun park for military artifact fans, not a museum, not a tourist attraction per se. It’s a place for simple and solemn remembrance.

Perhaps you should actually read up on the history of the place, almost all of what you’ve just said is incorrect.

If it’s not a museum then why have so many artefacts on display? Surely a very somber and minimal display of artefacts would convey the story in a nicer way?

Yes, despite the efforts of the usual suspects to invoke the big bad local Labor/Greens bogey, the consultation sham happens else – and probably – everywhere – eg NSW has its so-called State Significant Development override which can, for example, even ignore local Council-mandated setbacks between sections of buildings, at least one of which is residential, because the wealthy private school’s project next door which includes two indoor pools (for a student cohort that probably has the highest home pool ownership on the planet) apparently would be unable to go ahead otherwise.

HiddenDragon7:53 pm 10 Jun 21

Sham consultation is by no means unique to Canberra, but it is that much more likely to happen here because this is a one-party town.

Locally, Labor/Green know that they can do (or not do) pretty much whatever they like, because the majority of Canberrans will vote for them anyway.

Federally, both major parties know that the only thing which is even remotely likely to be in play is the second Senate seat, so the views of the locals matter little to them, too.

At both levels (and again, this is by no means unique to Canberra) big money gets its way far more often than not. If the Canberrans against the AWM expansion pooled their funds, ran a wildly successful Go Fund Me campaign, and bought a major national media network which promised to be a reliable supporter of the Morrison government on condition that the AWM expansion was stopped, they might have a chance.

ChrisinTurner1:43 pm 10 Jun 21

The consultation on the replacement of the ABC Flats was the same. The developers wanted 12 storeys, locals wanted 8 but compromised on 10, the developers came back with 15 storeys.

Stephen Saunders12:12 pm 10 Jun 21

Chewy, don’t hide behind “process”. There was a high level of informed opposition, including plenty of military types, and there was simply no good or logical reason to treat it with contempt.

In paraphrase, you imply we had full rein to comment, as long as we accepted at face value what the government had already decided in advance. Some “democracy” that is.

The process is the issue and all that matters. With regards to the AWM proposal, that’s what the NCA is mandated to look at and how the proposal fits in with the NCP.

Your apparently “informed” opposition is meaningless in that forum because that’s not what it’s for.

Whether you like it or not, the government went to the election with the upgrade as part of their platform. They were duly elected.

What part of that isn’t a reflection of democracy?

It seems strange that you claim to be a defender of democracy whilst at the same time wanting minority groups to be able to control the outcome of decisions like this.

Interesting comments. For example, did the ACT Government take any notice of community views when proceeding apace with its white elephant tram – either stage 1 or 2? It seemed it placed far greater weight on the deal it cut with the Greens (and continues to enforce) to enable it to stay in power.

There is lots of noisy coming from the anti-tram brigade, but that doesn’t mean it’s the majority view. The danger at one of the meetings, is that the anti-tram brigade will be the ones who will be more motivated to attend, on mass, even if they don’t match the majority view.
If not for the tram, I suspect many of those people would be anti-bus. Waste of money public transport, spend the money on the roads; they don’t, or rarely use public transport, therefore why does anyone else need to. Their friends feel the same way.

Richard Windsor2:02 pm 10 Jun 21

There is a difference between a highly efficient bus service which is flexible, can be upgraded as technology changes and requires minimal added capital cost (and provides the majority of travellers with comfortable padded seating) and a high capital cost inflexible tram where the majority of passengers must stand.

There is a difference between a tram which is stable and won’t be taken away and rerouted leaving you without public transport, and bus which can be, and has been rerouted and taken away. Trams give certainly that if you buy a home near one it is likely to stay there. That is one reason why they are so popular. There is no guarantee with a bus, as they are too flexible. Buses flexibility is their weakness, when people decide where to buy a home. You buy a home near a convenient bus rout that takes you where you want to go, and a few years later it is rerouted and now you don’t have that bus route. Sound familiar!

I think you’ve just summarised the Labor/Greens strategy re promoting light rail by derailing, as they did, the bus system in Canberra.

The government has known for over twenty years that a successful bus system depends on regular, consistent and frequent service. It knows this because it commissioned a report that contained exactly that advice. I know this because I attended a presentation at the Belconnen Library given by the reports author back in the late ’90s. The authors credentials on the subject were impeccable as he was the same person that had “fixed” Sydney’s bus system, to great public acclaim at the time.

It should be obvious to you that only a very small fraction of the population can buy a home (more likely a unit) near a tram line, so the stability of trams argument is completely bogus as it leaves the bay majority of people out altogether. If you live more than a kilometre away from a tram stop you will need to find a bus service to get there, and thus you’re back at square one with that argument.

The problem here is often that the feedback is not useful in attempting to point out actual technical flaws in a proposal or give constructive feedback to improve it. People use it to have a whinge, act like NIMBY’s or even worse as part of an organised agenda or campaign to create an illusion of wider community opposition.

How does giving more power to ignorant, uninformed or agenda driven voices add to the process?

Consultation needs to deal with real issues that get raised fitting in with the agreed decision making process. But it shouldn’t be allowed to be dominated by a noisy minority.

Even constructive feedback, working in with their changes are dismissed. You never hear from the actual people; at best from only the go-between who answered the phone. I am thinking of a constructive comment on a bus route change I made. I never suggested they change that route, or reverse the decision on their changes. I suggested an add on, a place for a bus stop, and gave reasons, such as pedestrian flow and access to this spot, how far this connecting path connected into the suburb, etc. To have taken this aboard would not have altered their changes, but would have demonstrated they could take aboard feedback. The bus stop they were planning didn’t have any direct connecting paths, but a longer route to get around built up areas. Terrible pedestrian access from the suburb.

In an earlier public meeting, where some good feedback was made about access (or rather now about the no access) to the bus route for aged care residents, not one suggestion was accepted. The meeting was nothing more than, attended, ticked the public consultation box, done.

For my later suggestion, the go between appeared to get the logic, but as far as those who made the decision, there was no feedback and nothing happened. I was completely ignored. Or appeared to be, as no feedback.

You’re assuming that you have all the information though and that your idea was inherently a good one.

Things like additional cost, fitting in with wider plans, operational reasons, safety, service clashes etc. can all be big issues that individuals don’t know or don’t care about.

I do agree with you about providing feedback or the reasoning behind decisions though. It should be done much better by those managing the individual issues or process.

All those things I gave consideration to and covered them in my comments. I looked at other bus stops on the routes with the timetable in mind. I considered safety too, etc. I don’t make suggestions without considering factors.

So far though, although my suggestion seemingly has been ignored, they haven’t gone ahead with their idea for where they were planning to put their bus stop either. For time being there seems a delay on that idea too.

Jenny Graves3:17 pm 10 Jun 21

Let me guess, you work for the planning department! Public consultation is just a joke in this town.

No sorry, not involved directly, I just understand the process and the legislation.

But you do highlight an important issue where many people in the public believe that the consultation process gives them far more power than it does in reality and under the legislated planning frameworks.

There are many other avenues to be heard on these issues, but people don’t generally understand how the system works (Or doesn’t work as is often the case).

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