ACT Government too busy for community issues

In November Liberal MLA Jeremy Hanson proposed the ACT Legislative Assembly meet for longer than the allocated 35 days for 2022.

The reason for the extra sitting days was to allow the Assembly a Friday each sitting week to deal with issues that rarely see the light of day within the ACT government. That would be the issues that community groups continually ask the local politicians to pay attention to.

He was quickly slapped down by Labor Minister Mick Gentleman, who accused him of a stunt. Fancy that, one politician accusing another of carrying out a stunt to get attention!

Fiona Carrick, of the Woden Valley Community Council, was quoted as saying she agreed with the concept of getting attention to these issues. Her emphasis was that so much energy is put into submissions on community matters and most of the time nothing happens.

There’s a point to be made here. The ACT government has a role in local government matters that residents see as being neglected because the government politicians are busy doing other more important things. In other words, the things the residents talk about are a lower priority for actions by ACT politicians.

If they had to discuss them on the Fridays, as suggested, that would mean that some would have to neglect other stuff such as trimming lawns, polishing cars or meeting with lobbyists. These are busy people and it was outrageous that Mr Hanson asked for the ACT government to allocate time and attention to discuss community issues.

The ACT government has turned out to be an annoying and frustrating beast. It has ministers with important titles and duties. These include state-like functions as well as being part of any co-ordination with other state governments and, when appropriate, involvement with national matters.

Meanwhile, within the states, their local governments meet to discuss local planning and development matters, residents get to attend to put forward views on issues and even have the opportunity to watch how councillors vote.

Here we have a complex and opaque planning system overseen by a cohort of public-sector officers making decisions on behalf of the elected politicians. The processes have become more akin to the dark arts. It is almost impossible to see any logic in how planning and development decisions are made. Ad hoc is the politest term used to describe the ACT’s planning processes.

If residents wish to raise matters to be attended to, the government has provided an online service that works wonders for the government. But not so good for residents – the taxpayers. That would be Access Canberra where requests are sent off to a bureaucratic black hole. They too are busy with important matters.

The ACT bureaucracy has become very skilled at conducting consultations on behalf of the government through online portals such as “Have Your Say” that result in reports such as “What We Heard”. Residents have been very polite and have used these so-called consultations methods – knowing too well that their responses will be largely ignored or at best a few words cherry picked to underpin colourful and banal reports.

Community councils are frustrated with the process whereby developers and their well-paid consultants show up at meetings to present on their latest development. The exercise is usually a blatant waste of community time. The developers need to tick the box before they submit their development application and having ticked it, it’s back to business as usual – thank you, very much!

Fiona Carrick makes her points very clear. This government has become disconnected from the residents and has little capacity to identify with and appreciate issues that community groups raise. The new normal is little action by the government.

Whether it be by having extra sitting days or through some other new transparent process, the ACT elected government politicians need to do something in 2022 that allows residents and their community councils to get their matters discussed and where possible, actions taken. No more disingenuous words such as “pilots and listening reports”.

Actions not words would be a change

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This article is a version of the piece originally published online with City News

Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday matters.

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