15 March 2017

LDA chief departs - but who should fall on the sword?

| Paul Costigan
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When a system is broken, how easily it is to point the figure at one person and say, “it wasn’t me, it was that person over there.”

In the case of the much-reported departure of the LDA/Directorate chief, David Dawes, I cannot help but feel as though there’s a family of politicians, developers and colleagues who are allowing the accusations around the goings on within land development to pass them by and that one person seems to have been left standing alone to take the heat.

I am no friend of the Land Development Authority (LDA) or the Chief Minister’s Directorate. This LDA/Directorate has operated within its own bubble and is viewed as having lost touch with the aspirations of the Canberra residents.

I have had dealings with David Dawes in the past, and I would agree with the sentiments about the man within John Thistleton’s October 2015 Canberra Times piece. I also agree that Jon Stanhope got it right in convincing David Dawes to take up the job when he did. But Jon has since moved on and there is now someone else responsible for what the LDA/Directorate has delivered (or not delivered) in recent years.

I also agree with what was said in John’s piece and in more recent days, namely that a lot has been achieved by the LDA/Directorate under the leadership of David Dawes.

But there have been problems. For instance, whatever happened to the noble targets set of affordable housing? What about all the tricks that the LDA/Directorate staff play and the marketing spin they continue to use in their efforts to outwit local residents’ groups? Then there are all those superficial ‘masterplan’ exercises run to justify land sales in contentious precincts such as shopping centres and/or community sites such as former sports clubs.

Last year the Auditor General raised serious questions about some of the deals undertaken by the LDA/Directorate. Fortunately, these were not deals along lines of the notorious goings-on in NSW. She raised doubts about processes and transparency.

The conclusion anyone could draw was that if not addressed, some of these not-so-transparent deals around money and land sales could escalate into more serious issues sometime soon.

The Auditor General’s questions needed to be addressed. They have not. It seems that the political will has been to allow doubts about processes to land on one person.

This is not the way transparency works in a democracy. Those up the line from the LDA/Directorate chief need to be brought out from behind their comfortable desks and the lights turned up, and direct questions asked.

I suggest that the LDA Board members, who are paid for their role, need to answer the Audit General’s questions. What responsibility are they prepared to wear for overseeing such questionable processes?

The LDA Board members had charge of the environment for all these questionable goings-on but they have remained silent about their part in all of this.

A side note here: The Land Development Authority used to be an ‘Authority’ – meaning it used to be independent of political interference. I suggest this is no longer – it is now an agency within the Chief Minister’s Directorate. Have a read of its own statements on this. It seems that in recent years the Planning Authority (ACTPLA) as well as the Land Development Authority have become almost non-existent. The logic follows that the politicians are the ones who must now wear full responsibility for decisions by both the LDA and the ACTPLA.

Back to David Dawes and his announcement that he will not be taking up any new positions mid-year: There are several politicians who have overseen and signed off on deals within the land development, planning and urban development portfolios over recent years. Not surprisingly they are uniformly very silent on what part they have played in any of the issues raised.

The current organisational chart for the Directorate points to several politicians who should have very bright lights turned onto them and questions asked about what they allowed to happen. The most outstanding point is that the current Chief Minister remains front and centre in all of this.

As the person directly responsible for the actions of the LDA/Directorate I have noted a silence around the departure of David Dawes. A good boss would be there by the side of his chief officer.

I wish David Dawes well. He is a hard working guy and he has given many years to deliver on the changing political agendas for this city. There have been problems but I am of the belief that as David exits this high-profile bureaucratic job, that those remaining, the LDA Board and a host of politicians, need to be made to answer the questions raised by the Auditor General and by the local community.

I have seen no real evidence that the Chief Minster’s portfolio has really understood the message about the need for a change of culture on how development and planning is delivered. Chairs will be moved around, new well-paid positions created, and new bodies given new logos etc. but to what end?

I really hope my pessimism is misplaced.


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I am not holding my breath waiting for the Canberra Times to dig deep on this.

Like the Mr Fluffy asbestos detritus, the intrigue of why this happened will be buried forever.

Hmmm, according to all official measures of land release, land prices and affordability, Mr Dawes has done one heck of a job. “The most affordable city in Australia” was the press report from earlier in the month with less than 20 per cent of average income needed to service an average mortgage or meet typical weekly rent. For those outside of the comfy average, a record level of land release for public and community housing and the highest per capita number of public housing dwellings in Australia.

With respect to Master planning, neither CMTEDD or LDA have responsibility – that remains the responsibility of the Planning Directorate.

Oh…and attempts to outwit residents groups? I will let the comments to your previous stories on this matter speak for themselves. I sense that the unrepresentative whining from residents groups was instrumental in the Government’s recent shift to the “participatory democracy” model of community consultation.

John Thistleton1:44 pm 16 Mar 17

Paul Costigan’s last lines here of chairs and logos changing, rather than culture, could be said about ACT Planning and Land Authority chief planner Neil Savery’s departure in 2011, amid uproar and allegations over supermarket competition policy.

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