5 October 2016

The Auditor-General, the Chief Minister and pesky chooks

| Paul Costigan
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There were moments during the ‘meet the candidates’ forum in Lyneham a fortnight ago when it seemed that something was not right with the Chief Minister, Andrew Barr.

It started with the announcement that his office was to be thanked for getting him to this community meeting. Did he not want to attend a meeting in his own electorate?

Whenever he was asked a probing question about planning and/or development (there were many) his demeanour changed and he looked askance that anyone would dare to suggest that anything was wrong.

His responses were puzzling. Having heard several times during the evening that people thought that something was seriously wrong with planning and development (read LDA), he smiled and assured everyone present that we were blessed with a planning system (read ACTPLA) that was rated very highly against others in Australia.

He omitted to mention who made this call. No hint of evidence was presented. He also seemed not to notice that this statement caused a polite chuckle across the whole audience present.

There were several instances during the meeting when the Chief Minister tuned out of the conversations and took to checking his phone messages.

Several people commented that the message they took away was that their elected member had far more important things to do than to have to put up with local debates – during elections. Some spoke of him in not very polite terms. I suspect the editor would not allow those words to be used here in this piece.

When the Auditor-General released her report last Friday, no residents’ groups would have been surprised. More likely that they were relieved that at last such accusations and doubts about processes were subject to official scrutiny.

For anyone interested in politics and human behaviour, these episodes involving the Chief Minister and his bureaucrats are totally fascinating. What have they been thinking?

How does any local politician get to the point when his actions and attitudes are viewed as being totally out-of-step with his own inner city electorate – let alone with residents groups across the whole city?

Residents talk openly about the multiple problems the city has with planning (read ACTPLA/ Planning Directorate) and development (read LDA/Economic Development Directorate). They make unflattering links between the Chief Minister, his department and the various property lobbyists and developers. Are his minders completely deaf to all this?


There have now been several years of questionable decisions and a host of accusations about improper practices across many aspects of planning and development. The role of the former planning authority, ACTPLA, has been diminished to be almost totally irrelevant. The Land Development Agency (LDA) seems to have become the primary planning agency that does this as part of delivering on the Chief Minister’s economic agenda.

Residents have witnessed many of the now famous win-win outcome boasts, being opportunistic and inappropriate land sales or land swaps (eg Dickson) that benefit the government and it seems, more so the property industry (given how much they agree).

As for those residents, especially the more settled ones – apparently they remain a nuisance.

While the Auditor-General has so far looked at particular questionable land deals, residents are looking for others to be included, for instance that Dickson land swap. And although it has been a separate issue till now, residents see a direct link with what the Auditor-General has reported on and the complex problematic processes within the Planning Directorate/ACTPLA. Both directorates and many of their recent decisions need to be examined closely.

A couple of months ago Jack Waterford wrote a very pertinent piece on how the Chief Minister reacted to being asked questions about the government’s handling of planning and development issues. The Chief Minister’s response was not a good look. All the warnings were ignored.

Following the Auditor-General’s report, it seems the chickens may now be coming home to roost with the Chief Minister as he takes his party to an election. The timing could not have been worse for both the Labor politicians in government and the new party candidates wishing to be taken seriously (best of luck with that).

Almost all of the other candidates have been running on a line that there needs to be complete clean out of the way planning and development operates. For instance Marea Fatseas has issued a press release in response to the Auditor-General’s interim report. The Greens have a policy on urban development and with dealing with the influence of developers. They also led the way by announcing they would introduce an ICAC-style body for the ACT at their campaign launch. The Liberals were initially reluctant, but followed suit some days later, and Labor finally added an Integrity Commissioner to their list of election promises late last month.


One last point. Last Friday’s local TV news contained a piece whereby a very nervous head of the LDA/Directorate attempted to allay people’s fears about what is going on within the walls of the LDA and the Chief Minister’s office. I had the sense that someone else was pushing this man out in front of a bus (or was it a tram?).

Given the level of decisions being made and the huge amount of monies at stake around these questionable projects, I suggest that the Chief Minister should not go into hiding. He is the one that should take all the heat – not a public servant.

Meanwhile I have it on good advice that those pesky chooks are on their way. They’re looking for their roost. There’s few chapters left in this story.

Declaration: no chooks were harmed in the writing of this post.

Publication of Paul Costigan’s article Googong – an alternative to Canberra has been postponed till Wednesday October 12.

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A Nonny Mouse said :

Some of this seems to go back a few years and the LDA does have an Internal Audit Committee. By tradition, the buck stops with the minister, but is that really fair and what was going on internally?

Someone very high up in the LDA was sacked last year by the person who was a little bit higher.

That’s where you will find out what was going on internally.

Here is the missing link:

A Nonny Mouse8:09 pm 08 Oct 16

Some of this seems to go back a few years and the LDA does have an Internal Audit Committee. By tradition, the buck stops with the minister, but is that really fair and what was going on internally?

creative_canberran1:07 am 06 Oct 16

I often disagree with you Paul, but I think you do raise some decent points here.

For disclosure I’ve always voted Labor in the ACT. I vote according to policy not party loyalty though. Generally I like the direction Canberra has developed in recent years under Labor. Kingston, Acton, finally getting rid of the mid-high density govies around the place, and suburbs like Forde. But as yet we’ve not heard any real planning policy from them for the next term. There’s no vision, except for the light-rail corridor, which I support… in 10-20 years and the renewables target, which I definitely support. But Much of the little rest is catch up or me-toos.

And some aspects of planning do trouble me. I see Molonglo and I see something that isn’t Canberra. I see the river side that was once a beautiful escape of pine trees behind Tuggeranong lined up to be housing.

I’m not convinced though the Libs have a cogent vision either but. Lots of lies over light-rail, lots of little announcements including the odd one about a Chief Engineer (though I bet LeVar Burton would make an awesome Minister). You had Coe with his thought bubble of opening Civic up to cars again and wanting to tar more of the Northbourne corridor, which is short sighted.

Tough choice this year. But Barr is looking a bit in denial, a bit glassy, a bit dazed in the headlights. A very quiet and low energy campaign where he seems to be presenting a small target, when he should be out there fighting for political life.

Kim F said :

i have voted Labor in every Territory election since we got self government. I took great personal delight when voting yesterday, in numbering all boxes and ensuring the Chief Minister received my last preference.

It’s strange when it gets to the point that you get the sh*ts with the government this badly. I am in that place too. Adding insult to injury, there was the government’s speed van booking people on Anzac Parade this morning! There has been ONE traffic fatality in the history of Anzac Parade, and it didn’t involve speed. Obvious revenue raising is not just obvious, but interpreted as an “eff you” by commuters a few days out from the election.

And yet the author supports the construction of light rail, by far worse from a planning perspective and far more costly.

Oh that’s right, he lives in the area and thinks he’ll benefit from it.

Situation normal, carry on.

i have voted Labor in every Territory election since we got self government. I took great personal delight when voting yesterday, in numbering all boxes and ensuring the Chief Minister received my last preference.

MareaFatseas10:52 am 05 Oct 16

Thanks Paul for your excellent coverage, and that of Charlotte Harper, on this issue. As noted in my media release, the Chief Minister was responsible as Treasurer for the Land Development Agency for more than 5 years, and should have been aware of its activities. My experience as a former public servant (for 25 years) was that Ministers expected to be briefed about potentially controversial decisions, and woe betide public servants who failed to do so. Was the relationship between the LDA and the relevant Minister’s office so far outside the normal public service practice? Marea Fatseas, Independent for Kurrajong

Quite simply, Barr isn’t fit to be Chief Minister. He’s from the Stanhope school of leadership – “I’ll do as please and if you disagree with me you’re an idiot”. He’s *never* been in touch with the people of Canberra. He, and his government, haven’t listened to what Canberrans actually want. He’s far too caught up in grandiose visions of the future at the expense of the realities of the present.

I’ll never forget the response he made in the Estimates when he was criticised about the increased hours to paid parking in the city.

“The parking fees are not even likely to be part of the price of a bottle of sparkling mineral water at some of our high-end restaurants,” Mr Barr told the hearing.

“I suspect that the idea that someone is going to be deterred from their $100 dinner by a $5 parking fee is certainly [wrong].”

And what was the reason for the extension of parking hours? Larger and larger holes in the last 4 budgets that require filling. What a perfect way to demonstrate just how out of touch he is with Canberrans, and how little he cares about how his decisions are make Canberra increasingly unaffordable for a lot of its people.

He even managed to get the Canberra Times offside. That’s quite an achievement considering how much Labor and the CT have been in bed with each other over the years.


Truly remarkable.

I hope Barr loses government this election. He’s earned it.

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