The National Capital Authority must have learned a valuable lesson from its abortive attempt to carve out a new diplomatic estate in Yarralumla eight years ago – don’t frighten the horses, or more recently their owners.
In 2012, the burghers of Yarralumla weren’t about to quietly let the NCA put embassies on Stirling Park, even if it was Commonwealth land.
They kicked up such a stink that a federal parliamentary inquiry ensued and the NCA backed off.
Fast forward to 2020, and a blindsided ACT Equestrian Association and the Curtin community are fuming at the horse paddock fait accompli engineered by the NCA and a seemingly reluctant but in the end compliant ACT Government.
The NCA had been working with the ACT Government for at least three years on getting the land supply it needed for new embassies, and the 30 hectare North Curtin Horse paddock was always in the frame.
But while there had been speculation about Curtin, neither party was going to let the public in on what the NCA had long decided on.
Despite the Commonwealth having the whip hand in negotiations, the NCA did not want another community backlash over the loss of a great swathe of green space complicating matters.
NCA CEO Sally Barnes says it would have been disingenuous to consult with the community because it was not for turning on the matter.
That’s easy to say after the deal was done but surely the community had a right to know what was coming.
What occurred, in the end, was a power play, first with the ACT Government over West Basin and then the unsuspecting paddock users and the Curtin community.
If the NCA had been totally indifferent to the community’s views it would have announced its intentions and executed the land grab, without worrying about the ACT Government’s or anyone else’s concerns, as it legitimately can under The Australian Capital Territory (Planning and Land Management) Act 1988.
But that would probably not have been a good look.
The NCA can point to the outcome of that 2013 parliamentary inquiry to justify its land grab. It recommended that the NCA develop a long-term strategy for the allocation of land to diplomatic missions in the ACT.
But it also said the NCA should manage impacts on local residents. The horse and Curtin folk must feel rightly managed.
Other recommendations included a tougher stand on diplomatic leases, resuming land not built on within three years; medium and high-density options for housing chanceries; policies to allow the subdivision of existing sites within the diplomatic estate; and a policy framework that allows more extensive use of residential and commercial properties to house chanceries, along the lines adopted in Washington DC.
The Yarralumla residents said at the time that greenfield land in Molonglo could be used but that’s way too peripheral.
The NCA appears to have focused on obtaining a single, large piece of land in a prestigious, convenient area that can be developed long-term into a manageable and secure enclave.
Ms Barnes has thrown a bone to the mob, saying the design could include ways to retain the site’s best natural aspects and provide some sort of access for the community.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr, colourful as ever and with a longer memory than most, called the whole situation Groundhog Day, with the same arguments as 2012 being rolled out, although too late to make a difference.
Knowing the extent of Commonwealth power, the ACT needed to salvage what it could, especially the eastern strip of the horse paddock, already identified for infill development along the Light Rail Stage 2 corridor, something that will require Commonwealth approval.
Not to mention its plans for West Basin, over which the ACT was being held to ransom, according to Mr Barr. Also included was a two-year transition period for agistees.
The Chief Minister was quick to say there was no deal, no agreement. The NCA did what it was always going to do.
He is right to point out the limited room in which the ACT could manoeuvre considering the Commonwealth’s clear power but Mr Barr is also being disingenuous if he expects the community to absolve him of any blame.
What the saga shows is that the NCA plays a long game.
It also reveals that as the ACT grows into a city-state in its own right, memories and knowledge dims about its reason for being and, as Ms Barnes would have us remember, its imperative to serve the national interest.
For her, that clearly meant pursuing land to house foreign missions as part of Australia’s obligations to the international community.
In a bigger, busy Canberra where its citizens are more detached from its history and have less and less time to devote to keeping tabs on their patch, this is a painful wake-up call about what can happen.
In time, there will be 30 hectares less green space. That puts an even higher premium on what’s left.