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“Community” consultation – what a joke!

By John Hargreaves - 24 April 2017 14

Community consultation

When the NIMBYs are in full flight, they scream “lack of consultation!” What they really mean is that they were not given an opportunity to veto any development in and around their area. A respectful conversation with “the community” in the contemplative stage has been tried occasionally but not often.

Most of the time, Governments go to “the community” when an idea has been fleshed out by “experts’ and is in a form which has some detail about it, like actual location, reasons for such developments, sometimes a rough costing and sometimes paper and electronic paperwork such as layout plans, planning overlays and the like.

Sometimes Governments have fully decided to implement an idea and just want to soften the political fall-out or control the timing of the outcry, to their advantage.

My copy of the Oxford dictionary defines consultation as “Act of consulting, deliberation, conference”. It defines “consult” as “take counsel, seek information, take into consideration”.

It does suggest that consultation is a concept of involvement in the decision-making process; that one takes counsel before or during but not after a decision has been made.

In all my time in public discourse, before and during and after public life, I have rarely seen the process of consultation in the contemplative stage being embraced by both sides in a process. Let me expand.

When I was minister for lots of things, I was advised that the Tharwa Bridge, a heritage four span Allen bridge, almost unique in Australia, had a white ant and wood rot problem and was in danger of falling down. The infestation was where the wooden supports hit the concrete supports and were masked by metal sleeves. I closed the bridge on advice that the Territory would be liable if anyone was killed or hurt because it fell down. This meant great disadvantage to Tharwa residents and those visiting the hamlet because they had another four kilometre round trip via Point Hut Crossing while a solution was found.

So the experts came up with a range of solutions with costings. The dearest was to find timber as close to the original species and replace the bridge exactly as it had been for the previous 100 hundred years. One of the problems with this was that the timber, only sourced in Queensland from old growth trees, needed to age and this would mean at least a twelve to twenty-four-month delay. It also carried a maintenance bill of potentially around $400,000 a year in inspection, pest control, paint, and the like. The next was to knock the bridge down and build a replica in steel and concrete, painted so that the casual observer wouldn’t know the difference. The maintenance bill was only painting and this was about the $40,000 per annum cost.

The last option was to knock it down, say a prayer over its remains, put up an interpretive sign and just use the Point Hut and Tidbinbilla Road as access to the hamlet.

So, armed with these options, the engineers and I went to Tharwa and had a public meeting to discuss the options. Detailed discussions were had and I left thinking that the burghers of Tharwa were happy with being involved at the contemplative stage even though they were, rightly, unhappy about the delay to reopen the bridge.

I visited the village another twice before taking a paper to Cabinet.

There was massive outrage about our inability to re-open the bridge, about our intention to just give them a replica bridge. This went on for months from a campaign of disinformation. I was accused of “lack of consultation” even though they were vitally involved in the formation of the paper to go to Cabinet. They were critical to my understanding of the impact of picking an option.

They brought to the “consultation” a closed mindset. They were not prepared to countenance anything other than what they thought was the go. In the face of massive expense to the taxpayer, they wanted the expensive option and they wanted it in a hurry. Consultation in this example was a one-way street.

The second example I know of relates to the suggestion from the Government that we could build another suburb in Tuggeranong next to Greenway. The experts came to town and held community meetings replete with pretty diagrams and demographic data. But, ”the community” was having none of it. Again, “lack of consultation” was trotted out. Actually, whilst the idea was not going to fly, the consultation was OK. A social media campaign was mounted, submissions sent in, the majority of which were against the proposal on environmental grounds around habitat protection and river life; and the Government dropped the idea. In this instance, an idea, not fully formed, was floated, “the community” asked for input, “the community’s” involvement respected and taken into account and the experts and pollies listened.

Back in about 1998 or 1999 or so, the Government decided to build a prison. It was going to go into partnership in a public-private partnership with a tenderer to build a privately operated prison in the ACT. Whilst the consultation around this philosophy was not bad, driven by a committee of the Assembly, the choice of location was not. It was a decision of Government that it be built next to the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Symonston. The decision had been made and the consultation was about telling “the community” where it was going and why. It was only after much angst that his decision was changed. I know because I was integrally involved in the campaign and orchestrated a lot of it.

Genuine consultation in the contemplative stage is a rare event. Genuine involvement is rarer. Self-interest is always the horse to back if you want a winner. More often than not, a consultation process of information sharing is really a forum to belt the bureaucrats or consultants charged with running the consultation process. Usually, it is the “No Way José” merchants who, blinded by their own self-interest are so narrow-minded and closed eyed, that they can’t look at a proposal and see if it can be made to work. The just say NO! and frequently, the pollies decide that they know there will be pushback but push on regardless.

Finally, this notion of “community” is a lot of rot as well. A city like Canberra with its hundreds of suburbs is not like a country village. It is not a collective of common ideals and visions and hopes and expectations. It is a collection of individuals who live out their lives with little or no involvement around them. Just look at the attendance of a Community Council? Thirty people is a good roll up at their monthly meetings. In the case of Tuggeranong, this thirty is out of a population of 95,000 people! And this idea of a “community” opposing residential developments in the suburbs is garbage as well. Most of the agitators have never met each other until the spectre of public housing bogans invading their precious suburbs emerges.

Communities gather around a common interest. There are real “communities” in sporting activities, hobbies, activities such as theatre and music but not around everyday suburban life. It’s just a furphy and it irritates me that this sense of “community” is trotted out whenever people are wanting to oppose something. How about looking at the evidence and then giving a reasoned response. It is incumbent on the Government to lead in this regard but it is also incumbent on the good burghers of Canberra to go into this process honestly.

Sadly, neither has occurred often enough!

What’s Your opinion?


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14 Responses to
“Community” consultation – what a joke!
1
dungfungus 9:05 am
24 Apr 17
#

So, I gather you support the establishment of the Foy plastic to fuel factory at Hume?

PS: Why didn’t your government put in a pop-up bridge at Tharwa?

2
PMB 10:43 am
24 Apr 17
#

Brilliant article, it’s awesome to hear the truth of consultation spoken by an ex-politician, but further than that, spoken from the heart with no placation involved to ensure the message is absolutely clear. Well done Mr Hargreaves, you should get back in the game.

3
HiddenDragon 6:05 pm
24 Apr 17
#

“Community” consultation – what a joke! – all too true, including when governments consult with people who agree with them and then claim “community” and/or “stakeholder” (a term which covers a multitude of sins) support for what they are planning to do

4
RobS 6:33 pm
24 Apr 17
#

It sure is hard to develop a sense of community when there’s no facilities for communities to grow around!

Thanks John for the offhanded cynicism. We’re not all NIMBYs, even if it is politically convenient to label those who oppose decisions made from on high. Your article reeks of condescension. Believe it or not, there are smart community minded people who live in this city. People with legitimate concerns and interests that you seem happy to sweep aside.

I’m really glad you’re not in office anymore, I’d hate for you to have to pretend to listen to the people you’re supposed to work for. Good show, old chap. Enjoy retirement.

5
chewy14 10:14 pm
24 Apr 17
#

Finally an article I agree with written by John Hargreaves.

People too often let their own personal feelings and beliefs get in the way of understanding different points of view and consultation often seems to fail because of preconceived notions, decisions already made and a stubbornness to listen on both the government and “community” side.

The author has provided great first hand knowledge into the process, although he probably should have mentioned the fireworks ban as another great example of which he was intimately involved……

6
housebound 8:21 am
25 Apr 17
#

Community consultation is no joke in Canberra.

Mr Hargreaves seems to have changed little from his days of telling people that he didn’t consult with them because he knew what they would say.

Lets look at his idea that there is no ‘community’. This is a surprise, since it was his government that removed the ‘neighbourhood’ as the basis for urban planning and replaced it with ‘community’ when they released the final ACT Spatial Plan in about 2005/2006. This change paved the way for the loss of facilities that served the neighbourhood, starting with a library, then moving on to schools, bridges, green spaces, open spaces, shops and more.

And now Mr Hargreaves is telling us that his government never believed in community after all.

No wonder they treated Tharwa so badly: close the school, close the bridge (after pushing to demolish it – an engineer’s report ‘released’ to the community saved it), vilify the community-that-isn’t-real, especially when they dare to engage with a bushfire inquiry.

If there is no neighbourhood, and now no community, who needs community facilities? No one will use them. People don’t have friends to have a need for them. The only opposition, by definition, must come from so-called nimbys – usually these are the people with time on their hands to do stuff, so they take a public stand then take the vilification that usually comes next.

So why would the government consult? We’ve all been conned already.

7
wildturkeycanoe 8:27 am
25 Apr 17
#

John said: “How about looking at the evidence and then giving a reasoned response. It is incumbent on the Government to lead in this regard but it is also incumbent on the good burghers of Canberra to go into this process honestly.”

A reasoned response is exactly what the community has been doing with some of the proposals of late. Unfortunately the government is the one who is “blinded by their own self-interest” and “narrow-minded and closed eyed”.

First example, the FOY plastics recycling proposal. Even before the public was informed of this new idea there had been some serious steps taken to ensure the project would go ahead. A $3 million land sale with no bail out clause. Nobody would spend this much if there was even a chance of the D.A. being knocked back, not even a startup like FOY. There is no rush to purchase a block before they sell out, as plenty of land is available. Is it not self interest for a government to sell land to a developer for a proposal that has not yet begun to show signs of being able to pass an environmental impact study, or of a plan that flies in the face of the ACT’s environmental policies and targets?
“Consultation” only began occurring after complaints from nearby residents and interested parties who found out about the proposal through the grape vine. Public meetings were hastily ushered in because of the backlash from the community who were previously unaware of this project and felt as though it was being snuck in under the radar. Then the government had to be seen to be doing something about the residents’ concerns, so an “inquiry panel” was formed. This panel must make a recommendation based on evidence which may not exist because of the proposal’s “unprecedented nature of the facility within Australia”. As this is basically a prototype model in Australia, how can a panel take any kind of view when historical data simply doesn’t exist?

Now another recent example is the controversial public housing developments being “salt & peppered” across the city. How convenient for the government that they can modify the Territory Master Plan to allow these kind of structures to be built, when previously they were prohibited. How worried were the government about a public outcry that the head of the Public Housing Taskforce withheld the locations of the new developments under the guise of protecting the tenants’ interests? How self righteous is the government to call off public consultative meetings concerned with the project, because they are “scared” by the sheer number of people who are taking an interest? What has happened to communication now that questions are being asked? There is an eerie silence from all the departments, who I think have dug themselves into a hole they cannot climb out of.

John said: “How about looking at the evidence and then giving a reasoned response.”
For the FOY project, there are 65 submissions online, of which I have read quite numerous reasoned responses. Some of them are quite well grounded concerns, not opposition just for the sake of it.
In the case of FOY’s “recycling plant”, the glaringly obvious is that the carbon which has been captured in these plastics is now inert. The conversion of it into diesel is simply going to release that carbon into the environment through the combustion of the resultant fuels. The collection and transportation of the waste to Canberra produces pollution. This is not in line with the ACT government’s environmental policies.
There are plenty of reasons why the public housing proposals are poorly though out and should be reconsidered. As emotive as the issue might be perceived to be, there are valid and legitimate concerns that the government is not listening to. Why? Why not hear what residents have to say? Is it because the planners have legislated themselves into a corner by creating a solution to one problem without any having any alternative options should issues arise?

The government, whilst being elected to represent the electorate, needs to involve the community from earlier in the planning process to avoid confrontation. To do otherwise is sending the message that they really don’t care what the public thinks. That is a policy which will eventually backfire and see them lose their privileged position at the next election.

8
4Seasons 8:33 am
25 Apr 17
#

So John, why did you and your Government mouth the words “Open Government” all the time, while you privately held such contempt for citizens who might not agree with your “expert” plans. Your attack on residents, shows that you are bereft of real argument, so no wonder you couldn’t persuade people. Government of the people, by the Government, for the Government. Such arrogance!

9
chewy14 1:20 pm
25 Apr 17
#

wildturkeycanoe said :

John said: “How about looking at the evidence and then giving a reasoned response. It is incumbent on the Government to lead in this regard but it is also incumbent on the good burghers of Canberra to go into this process honestly.”

A reasoned response is exactly what the community has been doing with some of the proposals of late. Unfortunately the government is the one who is “blinded by their own self-interest” and “narrow-minded and closed eyed”.

First example, the FOY plastics recycling proposal. Even before the public was informed of this new idea there had been some serious steps taken to ensure the project would go ahead. A $3 million land sale with no bail out clause. Nobody would spend this much if there was even a chance of the D.A. being knocked back, not even a startup like FOY. There is no rush to purchase a block before they sell out, as plenty of land is available. Is it not self interest for a government to sell land to a developer for a proposal that has not yet begun to show signs of being able to pass an environmental impact study, or of a plan that flies in the face of the ACT’s environmental policies and targets?
“Consultation” only began occurring after complaints from nearby residents and interested parties who found out about the proposal through the grape vine. Public meetings were hastily ushered in because of the backlash from the community who were previously unaware of this project and felt as though it was being snuck in under the radar. Then the government had to be seen to be doing something about the residents’ concerns, so an “inquiry panel” was formed. This panel must make a recommendation based on evidence which may not exist because of the proposal’s “unprecedented nature of the facility within Australia”. As this is basically a prototype model in Australia, how can a panel take any kind of view when historical data simply doesn’t exist?

Now another recent example is the controversial public housing developments being “salt & peppered” across the city. How convenient for the government that they can modify the Territory Master Plan to allow these kind of structures to be built, when previously they were prohibited. How worried were the government about a public outcry that the head of the Public Housing Taskforce withheld the locations of the new developments under the guise of protecting the tenants’ interests? How self righteous is the government to call off public consultative meetings concerned with the project, because they are “scared” by the sheer number of people who are taking an interest? What has happened to communication now that questions are being asked? There is an eerie silence from all the departments, who I think have dug themselves into a hole they cannot climb out of.

John said: “How about looking at the evidence and then giving a reasoned response.”
For the FOY project, there are 65 submissions online, of which I have read quite numerous reasoned responses. Some of them are quite well grounded concerns, not opposition just for the sake of it.
In the case of FOY’s “recycling plant”, the glaringly obvious is that the carbon which has been captured in these plastics is now inert. The conversion of it into diesel is simply going to release that carbon into the environment through the combustion of the resultant fuels. The collection and transportation of the waste to Canberra produces pollution. This is not in line with the ACT government’s environmental policies.
There are plenty of reasons why the public housing proposals are poorly though out and should be reconsidered. As emotive as the issue might be perceived to be, there are valid and legitimate concerns that the government is not listening to. Why? Why not hear what residents have to say? Is it because the planners have legislated themselves into a corner by creating a solution to one problem without any having any alternative options should issues arise?

The government, whilst being elected to represent the electorate, needs to involve the community from earlier in the planning process to avoid confrontation. To do otherwise is sending the message that they really don’t care what the public thinks. That is a policy which will eventually backfire and see them lose their privileged position at the next election.

Funnily enough, I think the two examples you’ve given on consultation failure are the exact types of issues that prove John’s point.

The FOY plant is progressing through a rigorous assessment process, yet people like yourself have already made up their mind on the issue without any evidence and no amount of opposing evidence would suffice to change your mind as you’ve freely admitted here previously. Unless the decision goes your way, you believe it’s tainted.

Similarly for the public housing issue which only seems to be an issue for residents now that these developments are coming to “their” neighborhood despite being permissible under planning rules.

Seems that to these types of “community” members, consultation means the government doing whatever you personally want them too.

10
Instant 8:38 pm
25 Apr 17
#

A lot of frustration and impatience expressed in this article. Unfortunately the public do have opinions and expect that their elected representatives will take them into account. Cheers.

11
bigred 9:01 pm
25 Apr 17
#

I think John is on the money here, in particular his comments about those wretched community councils. My observations about community councils is they are far from consultative and are inhabited by ageing dodderers with a agenda of very little change and to exclude any newcomers. Why they get an annual grant I cannot fathom – it could be redirected to the local senior citizens and get the same outcome.

12
dungfungus 5:14 pm
27 Apr 17
#

Instant said :

A lot of frustration and impatience expressed in this article. Unfortunately the public do have opinions and expect that their elected representatives will take them into account. Cheers.

Well, here is an objection letter to the enquiry committee from an elected Labor MP:

http://www.planning.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/1054562/87-20170227-Further-submission-Inquiry-Panel-Foy-proposal-in-Hume-01.pdf

13
chewy14 11:48 am
28 Apr 17
#

dungfungus said :

Instant said :

A lot of frustration and impatience expressed in this article. Unfortunately the public do have opinions and expect that their elected representatives will take them into account. Cheers.

Well, here is an objection letter to the enquiry committee from an elected Labor MP:

http://www.planning.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/1054562/87-20170227-Further-submission-Inquiry-Panel-Foy-proposal-in-Hume-01.pdf

How is that submission in any way an “objection” letter?

It’s simply a local member passing on “concerns” that she’s been given from local residents.

14
aussie2 2:47 pm
01 May 17
#

Community consultation-there’s another side to this, hiding under the surface. Let me explain. Recently I was told by a professional association that I had paid way too much for an urgent job at my home, and that a number of others suffered similarly at the hands of said company-basically we were ripped off.

I offered the association my contact details-am prepared to run a class action, via ACAT, to bring this company to justice. This seems to have fallen on fallen on deaf ears, as none of those so offended have put their hands up. Too hard perhaps. Lack of faith in our legal system and justice. The current laws allow contractors to charge whatever they like anyway!

As one of John H’s old f…ts, many Council members are retired but busier than when they were working. Our residents have families, jobs, etc and no time for getting involved in community issues. Therefore someone has to do it. Yes, we need to get the word out as to what the government is doing, though we have seen too many cases of local government not knowing what is happening themselves. I also understand lack of faith in the system. Several years ago, I took a contractor to ACAT for failure to complete an insurer contracted trade job. Sale of land to Foys is one such example.

If you don’t know what is happening in the community, how can our individual residents even exercise their democratic right to vote, if they have no real understanding of the issues? When you host a community stall, giving out information, talking about issues-you get side stepped-like you have a disease or something. We have only ourselves to blame for not tackling the government. We have the government to blame for not allowing citizens initiated referendums which might help matters. Hopefully these Citizens Juries may go some way to promoting community engagement. Don’t hold your breath!

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