The Auditor-General, the Chief Minister and pesky chooks

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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 foolish 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. Did he not realise how rude this looked – he was sitting in full view at the front of stage?

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?

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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.

Want to have a bet on there being some form of Integrity Commissioner very soon here in the ACT?

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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.

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Paul Costigan

 

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