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

Zoya Patel 15 June 2021 56
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.


READ MORE: NCA blasted for approving War Memorial works


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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56 Responses to As the AWM expansion shows, community consultation may be nothing more than lip service
Diana Napier Diana Napier 10:16 am 28 Jun 21

They are ripping the guts out of the place and turning it into a ballroom big enough to host dinners and balls for armaments dealers. Its nothing to do with a space for veterans healing. HEALING Is meant to be DVAs job and that minister has just got the chop.

Gerald Lynch Gerald Lynch 6:14 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.

    chewy14 chewy14 7:46 pm 15 Jun 21

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

Ol L Ol L 9:40 am 14 Jun 21

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?

Rob Long Rob Long 8:33 pm 13 Jun 21

The Nelson legacy, the liberal wrecking of the AWM. He systematically wrecked the joint.

Martin Bonsey Martin Bonsey 11:20 pm 12 Jun 21

This outcome isn't as surprising as the NCA's West Basin decision: having concluded the Curtin horse paddock - lakebed land swap, I was SO expecting the NCA to refuse the Territory's wish to fill in said lakebed prior to commercial development of the area. (Not!)

whatwik whatwik 10:46 am 11 Jun 21

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.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:53 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.

Ray Ez Ray Ez 7:17 pm 10 Jun 21

Great outcome!

    Carrie Wright Carrie Wright 12:19 am 11 Jun 21

    Ray Ez are you kidding me!!!

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 1:54 pm 11 Jun 21

    Carrie Wright can’t wait to see the new development in person! Looks like a great tribute to those that served in more recent conflicts. Well done to the AWM!

    Tiger Fit Tiger Fit 10:36 pm 13 Jun 21

    Ray Ez to honour those that served in recent conflicts, how about looking after them instead .What an opportunity missed they have grandiose plans but have forgotten what and who this memorial stands for solemnly on the hill .

    Ian Pearson Ian Pearson 12:32 pm 15 Jun 21

    Concur - while Stalin might have said that numbers have a quality of their own, presumably the NCA did not agree.

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 12:47 pm 15 Jun 21

    Ian Pearson you do understand the consultation was not a vote? They asked for people’s opinions. They are under no obligation to do anything with them….consultation.

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 12:48 pm 15 Jun 21

    Tiger Fit so no memorials for anyone?? Did you think that maybe this sort of thing helps a lot of veterans?

Richard Orchard Richard Orchard 4:55 pm 10 Jun 21

600 submissions out of a nation of 25 million sounds like it’s a sample that is meaningless anyway. However, as a seasoned traveller and visitor of museums worldwide, the AWM is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen. Obviously they know a thing or two. Perhaps being trained professionals in curating museums is part of this? The proof is in the product- it’s excellent. It’s exciting to look forward to improvements. Perhaps that’s the reason that most people would just want them to do their thing and keep doing it well.

But, I’ve worked in many organisations where professionals are driven out of the workplace by average Joes, or Zoyas, who think they know a lot about everything but in fact dont.

    Nick Savino Nick Savino 5:27 pm 10 Jun 21

    Richard Orchard ripping down a building after only20 years seems a waste of resources . Plus it’s meant to be a memorial not a museum . It’s my tax money and they could justify that in say 50 years time ,,,

    Leigh Hoskin Leigh Hoskin 5:34 pm 10 Jun 21

    Nick Savino not ripping it down mate. She’s a extension. Just like putting WIFI on a BBJ. Improvements😎

    Richard Orchard Richard Orchard 9:33 pm 10 Jun 21

    Nick Savino did you make a submission?

    Carrie Wright Carrie Wright 12:05 am 11 Jun 21

    They are taking out 140 trees!! It's a travesty to be spending this money when there are Returned Service Personnel in need of financial support

    Carrie Wright Carrie Wright 12:07 am 11 Jun 21

    Richard Orchard as far as I know the submissions were to the ACT Gov not a Federal Poll

    Richard Orchard Richard Orchard 8:23 am 11 Jun 21

    Carrie that could be an interesting part of the story left out- Commonwealth Government is responsible for the AWM, but Labor/Greens ACT government runs a consultation on something that isn’t their project, and Zoya Patel mis reports the story. Maybe that’s what happened.

    Anyway there’s heaps of trees on the hill behind it, so don’t worry.

    Kerry Apted Kerry Apted 8:18 pm 11 Jun 21

    Carrie Wright and putting in 250. Missed that bit?

    Kerry Apted Kerry Apted 8:19 pm 11 Jun 21

    Nick Savino it always been a museum. Most of the existing building is museum.

    Tiger Fit Tiger Fit 10:27 pm 13 Jun 21

    Kerry Apted they are taking healthy mature native trees out that are habitats for native birds and insects, but keeping the introduced species and likely to plant more. It is the War Memorial not a museum. The money would have been better spent on a support unit for service personnel with ptsd .

    Tiger Fit Tiger Fit 10:31 pm 13 Jun 21

    Richard Orchard it is a Memorial not a museum, the trees they are removing are habitats for native birds , they are healthy trees that should stay.

    Kerry Apted Kerry Apted 10:33 pm 13 Jun 21

    Tiger Fit can't comment re trees. I have no opinion re spending the money elsewhere.

    It is not just "the War Memorial". It has always been a museum as well. I'd guess 85%of the building is museum.

    Tiger Fit Tiger Fit 10:41 pm 13 Jun 21

    Kerry Apted I have always seen it as a memorial, they are trying to turn it into a museum which is disrespectful.

    Tiger Fit Tiger Fit 10:49 pm 13 Jun 21

    Kerry Apted well being an ex serviceman it is relevant how I see it.

    Kerry Apted Kerry Apted 10:49 pm 13 Jun 21

    Tiger Fit again it IS and always has been a museum.

    Tiger Fit Tiger Fit 10:52 pm 13 Jun 21

    Kerry Apted that's not how I see it

    Kerry Apted Kerry Apted 10:57 pm 13 Jun 21

    Tiger Fit it's irrelevant what you see it as unfortunately.

    They're not "trying to turn it into a museum", it's already a museum and has been since day one ... in it's original concept.

    As I said I reckon 85% of the current building is museum.

    Gerald Lynch Gerald Lynch 6:20 pm 15 Jun 21

    Not a “museum”; it’s a memorial. The Imperial War Museum doesn’t hide its purpose under any other name. If we want a museum we should build one on a separate site with space for the “big things” currently stored in the Mitchell warehouse with no public access.

ChrisinTurner ChrisinTurner 1:43 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 Saunders Stephen Saunders 12:12 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.

    chewy14 chewy14 1:03 pm 10 Jun 21

    Stephen,
    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.

Alex Washere Alex Washere 10:45 am 10 Jun 21

Timbo thoughts?

    Timbo MacEnerdy Timbo MacEnerdy 10:51 am 10 Jun 21

    Alex Washere was gonna happen regardless. Shame about tearing down ANZAC Hall

    Carrie Wright Carrie Wright 12:20 am 11 Jun 21

    like most of the community consultations "A Sham"

    Timothy Bailey Timothy Bailey 3:01 pm 13 Jun 21

    The AWM and "ANZAC" are very powerful icons. Difficult to argue with or question. The whole 'Beersheba - last great cavalry charge of all' thing, is a good example. 😉😟😅?

    They weren't cavalry, and it was desparation for water, not tactical.

    Around eighty thousand Polish and Russian cavalry fought the Battle of Warsaw, in 1920!

    In 1939 Polish cavalry bravely, desparately & hoplessly charged German Pzkfw Is, and IIs (and IIIs?).

    Diana Napier Diana Napier 10:18 am 28 Jun 21

    Was the way it was pushed past NC A undue pressure by AWM boards chair?

TR TR 10:38 am 10 Jun 21

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.

    Maya123 Maya123 11:15 am 10 Jun 21

    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 Windsor Richard Windsor 2:02 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.

    Maya123 Maya123 2:25 pm 10 Jun 21

    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!

    BlowMeDown BlowMeDown 9:25 am 13 Jun 21

    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.

    carriew carriew 12:21 am 11 Jun 21

    Spot on

Trish Roberts Trish Roberts 9:23 am 10 Jun 21

No wonder there’s cynicism about “community consultation” generally. Hundreds of people put time and thought into their submissions, and were the vast majority, but it has all come to naught.

chewy14 chewy14 8:50 am 10 Jun 21

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.

    Maya123 Maya123 11:08 am 10 Jun 21

    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.

    chewy14 chewy14 12:07 pm 10 Jun 21

    Maya,
    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.

    Maya123 Maya123 12:53 pm 10 Jun 21

    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 Graves Jenny Graves 3:17 pm 10 Jun 21

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

    chewy14 chewy14 4:15 pm 10 Jun 21

    Jenny,
    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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