Is planning an issue for the ACT elections?

Paul Costigan 7 August 2016 6

When the ACT Government made its announcement that the DA for the supermarket complex in Dickson had been approved, it set off a curious chain of events.

The manner in which the announcement was handled by the government has increased the evidence of the growing gap between our elected politicians and the issues and aspirations of the voters.

I first became aware of this planning announcement through an online article. Soon the phones started to ring – there were newspapers, radio and TV stations looking for residents to make a comment on the decision.

What struck me as curious was that the announcement made by the ACT Government’s Environment and Planning Directorate was not giving much away. It was more of a pre-announcement. There was something missing in all this. In the past if you had lodged an objection to such a DA, you received a formal detailed notice on the decision.


As the calls came in, locals soon found that they were unable to respond fully as the formal announcement and all the important details were yet to be made public. Crucially, one major objection last time was that the building itself was a monster and would set a low standard for future developments around Dickson.

Last time there were images of what was being proposed. This time there was nothing. No plans, no traffic stuff, no landscape stuff – nothing. Curious again.

We were very suspicious that the Directorate chiefs had carefully planned it this way. Namely, to drop limited information into the media so that there was not enough information for the residents to respond properly to media queries.

A couple of weeks ago we had heard that this announcement was due. But the weeks went by and nothing happened. Being experienced in dealing with planning matters, we had predicted that they would announce it the day before the federal election to ensure that it did not last too long in the media. We were wrong – by a day – as they announced it just two days before the election.

There are many examples of how games have been played in releasing information to the public. From the residents’ point of view – sadly it is now normal – it is what they do.


For example, there was a very serious case last year whereby the bureaucracy had agreed to meet several local groups to discuss the future of the Dickson Parklands. The round-table discussions were friendly. Residents proposed changes and the bureaucrats seemed to accept at least some of our arguments.

To our amazement, we later discovered that the decisions had been finalised previous to the meeting and that a media release announcing them was released as we left the building. Not good.

So the meeting was simply a token exercise. Those who attended expressed a load of anger about the blatant deception that they had witnessed.

All this is happening despite the Government’s Environment and Planning Directorate stating online that it is ‘committed to strong and inclusive consultation with community’.

Let’s return to this recent episode.

In between interviews that afternoon I called by home to discover that the formal notice had arrived about 1pm. Unfortunately, it was very badly written and was not clear on the reasons for the approval, especially given how strongly the former had been rejected. Some of the statements in the approval notice were laughable, were vague and were not evidence-based.

There were still no images, plans or any real useful stuff offered or seemingly available anywhere.

The next day, Friday, I fronted up for an ABC radio interview on the topic. I was asked to respond to recorded statements made by the same Directorate’s Deputy Director General and Chief Operating Officer*. Again, I had to do so without the detailed information and still without any images of the new proposed building.

The interview was friendly enough. But what was obvious was the success of the directorate’s strategy whereby their Deputy Generalissimo had spoken to the media using very carefully crafted statements without informing the public of the details of the announcement.

Such is the state of the modern media whereby they have little resources, or time, or in some cases, the inclination to ascertain what the issues are before they conduct such interviews. In this case they were working solely from the script provided by the Directorate’s Deputy Generalissimo.

One of the questions asked on air was whether planning could be an issue for the 2016 ACT elections. At the time I quickly answered that it should be. Later I reconsidered this question. If given the opportunity again – I would probably answer a little differently.


This chain of events reinforces the perception that much of contemporary government and their planning and development bureaucrats conduct their business with no real focus on the issues and aspiration of the electorate.

The current ACT Government has adopted an adversarial attitude towards the residents. They seem to be blind to the much talked about situation whereby communities are witnessing a government that is working against them on so many levels. Such unpleasant adversarial attitudes and strategies are obvious and do nothing to build trust.

So while I cannot guarantee that planning will be an issue in the coming 2016 ACT elections, I feel certain that such questionable planning decisions are leading to a growing frustration with the ACT Government that will lead to many former supporters rethinking their votes.

Update – the detailed planning stuff mentioned above was (after several requests) extracted from the department on Tuesday – being several days late and therefore shortening the time for anyone to respond.



For further reading on the state of journalism I highly recommend Flat Earth News (2008) – Nick Davies.

In researching this piece, I became more aware of the quiet disappearance of the former ACT Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA). There’s an article to come on that.

I have highlighted the wondrous title being used by our planning officials – such as: Deputy Director General and Chief Operating Officer. Such titles conjure images of a uniformed bureaucrat team not unlike the current uniforms worn by our infamous border protection squads. I can see them now rattling their Planning Directorate Generalissimo sabres (or is that clipboards) as they descend on the residents to check out their planning meta-data.


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6 Responses to Is planning an issue for the ACT elections?
ungruntled ungruntled 11:45 pm 06 Jul 16

Thanks for this Paul.
The processes being used for “including” the input from the community at this time are incredibly disingenuous, to say the least & downright dishonest to be a little blunter.
It does really need to be called every time it happens.
No wonder I hear so many young people expressing disillusionment with Democracy – some of them have never seen it!

ungruntled ungruntled 11:35 pm 06 Jul 16

“Canberra was for years inflicted with high property prices, poorly serviced sprawling suburbs and a complete lack of any form of street level vibrancy. There is a reason Canberra developed its embarrassing reputation”

Gotta say in response to this :

Hi Property prices? No Dear. Property prices were managed by government & were amongst the most affordable in australia & prices were pretty stable. They started to skyrocket when ACT governments ceased to “manage” housing & turned it over to developers. Prior to that houses were for living in & not for trying to make money out of in Canberra!

Poorly serviced sprawling suburbs? Not my recollection. Spaced out, comfortable home blocks with enough space to grow your own fruit & veg if you wanted to, or keep a couple of chooks, put a sandpit for the kids, have a shed to tinker in etc. However, there were also townhouses, flats & duplexes. There really was a choice. There was a local shopping spot, a primary school in walking distance & a high school a short bus ride away and local parks, well designed for various children’s age groups & abilities. Then there was a big regional shopping centre with all the major stores also not far away. Oh yes, & free parking. A very amenable place to live.

Lack of any form of street vibrancy? Well, once again, not my experience. But the places where the music & partying was going on, was not cheek-by-jowl with where people lived, so we didn’t have residents trying to shut down the live music venues because the competing interests were in each other’s spaces, they were in non-residential areas. Then there were lots of cummunity activities, including music, going on in the parks (especially Commonwealth Park, which was jumping, especially on Sundays) all through summer. Also, with all this “vibrancy”, I have never seen so many shops & businesses in the town centres closing down & empty shopfronts.

True, many young people did depart for the bright lights of the big cities to party all night & kick up their heels. But very many of them, when it came time to raising a family, returned to the city of their childhood, recognising it’s inate values as a well planned & well run city. Now, that city’s very existence is being threatened by economic theories of “trickle down” & that the world is infinite (as expressed by infinite increases in the population).

Something just does not add up here.
Please reconsider who we are, what we want, what our options are & maybe start by knowing your history & that of others (not just limited to english speaking places – other people have worked out stuff too).

And actually, if you really like how it is in Sydney or Melbourne or wherever, then maybe that’s where you should live & enjoy it (different strokes for different folkes), instead of trying to turn this city into another one of those cities.

Oh yes, & the housing included mixed housing in all suburbs (the professor & the plumber & the pensioner), & the schools were pretty well the best in OZ – maybe because we all went to them.

bringontheevidence bringontheevidence 12:43 pm 06 Jul 16

Personally I think the ACT Government is doing an ok job of balancing the needs of the whole city against the desires of existing residents.

Yes there are occasional disagreements but nothing like the problems encountered in places like Sydney where NIMBY groups and corrupt developers compete to manipulate a weak and fractured council planning system, leading to a double whammy of poor planning outcomes and high prices.

Canberra was for years inflicted with high property prices, poorly serviced sprawling suburbs and a complete lack of any form of street level vibrancy. There is a reason Canberra developed its embarrassing reputation.

In the last decade or so a concerted effort by the Government (implicitly supported by the opposition) to increase residential density in town and group centres, increase supply of alternative housing options (townhouses, apartments etc) while protecting the vast bulk of canberra’s suburbia from redevelopment has allowed Canberra to (generally) ‘have its cake and eat it too’. The city is simultaneously more vibrant, more affordable and better serviced than it has ever been.

The great thing about developments like this is that they provide additional dwellings and additional services while only very marginally affecting existing residents like yourself, who will continue to live in detached housing protected from high density development.

When discussion planning approaches you need to look at the actual evidence, which in Canberra’s case shows that the authorities are pretty much doing most things well.

No complaints from me.

Paul Costigan Paul Costigan 10:30 am 06 Jul 16

Interesting thought, Bajar.

Thanks – I will pass your comment on to others.

There’s several players (developers and others) involved across Dickson that have much to gain if decisions go in particular directions. Money is definitely an issue.

One can only imagine the load of pressure being applied to the bureaucracy.

So yes – the contempt towards those pesky Dickson residents could be explained in that context.

Bajar Bajar 8:56 am 06 Jul 16

What’s curious Paul is the difference in the manner that yourself and the Dickson residents are being treated when compared to the Lyneham and Civic residents (and their associations) are being treated. The Department and Shane Rattenbury cannot seem to do enough to assist these groups, yet the Dickson residents are treated with absolute contempt. I wonder if the almighty dollar is barking loudly in these situations?

rommeldog56 rommeldog56 8:20 am 06 Jul 16

From the OP “Such is the state of the modern media whereby they have little resources, or time, or in some cases, the inclination to ascertain what the issues are before they conduct such interviews. In this case they were working solely from the script provided by the Directorate’s Deputy Generalissimo.”

Yep – that’s regularly the case with journalism now. Even the 1st half of this article here on RiotAct seems to me to have been written by or copied from an ACT Gov’t publication/press release/statement.

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