bureaucrats lack empathy

Costigan-P1120577It was during a recent North Canberra Community Council meeting that I realised I was hearing something very rare. The presenter was talking about fairly matter-of-fact issues to do with changes to local traffic lights and footpaths and it sounded as though she identified with the issues being dealt with.

Then she said it. She commented that she lives in Downer and talked of her experiences with some of the traffic issues along Antill Street.

This small revelation explained why her presentation had that unusual touch of relevance and empathy that rarely comes across from planning agencies whenever they address residential groups.

I have had encounters with planning bureaucrats from various agencies across the government for several decades. In that time, I cannot name one other local planning bureaucrat who has been able to identify with the urban planning and development issues as experienced by local residents.

Sadly the experience is that presentations and workshops over the years have had the tinge of a patronising approach. There is always present the attitude that they, the bureaucracy,  know what is best for all of us.

If residents state their aspirations, then these are somehow mashed up into pre-arranged recommendations that then no longer reflect the core of the wishes of residents.

Over the years I have quietly observed from where the bureaucrats have travelled to make their planning proposals known to Dickson residents. It seems that the bureaucrats, and their paid consultants, live in suburbs way across town, several live in villages just outside Canberra and others live in older heritage houses or in apartments closer to Civic. None have demonstrated that they have taken the time to understand this suburb, its history or have been able to see the issues under discussion from the perspective of local residents.


There is one other strange quirk to this tale. Several years ago the ACT Minister for Planning attended meetings in Dickson. He made it very clear that the residents of Dickson and surrounding suburbs were mainly an older generation that they, the old folks, had to accept the questionable proposed changes to the suburbs and possibly should think of moving on to allow the necessary change to happen.

As was reported at the time, his approach to local meetings did not go down well with residents who as a result formed the obvious opinion that this Minister was out of touch with Dickson residents. This was then reinforced when in the days that followed the ABS stats on the suburb were circulated that showed just how low the average age was in Dickson (mid 30s).

The odd twist to this story is that the Minister was then identified as being a Dickson resident himself. He is now the Chief Minister and Minister for Urban Development and he still known for having no real empathy with the aspirations of local residents. To further reinforce people’s view of him, he recently made further not very complimentary comments about Canberra’s older residents.

This is why the woman from Roads ACT was a refreshing change. She was a local and understood the local issues.

There is one thing residents across Canberra agree on, that most of the present planning and development processes work against the residents and seem to favour others.

I do not pretend to know how we get professional planning bureaucrats to be more open to listening and to being able to empathise with and acknowledge the aspirations of local residents, whether here in Dickson or any other suburban area.

There’s a new series of ‘consultations’ due on the Dickson Parklands /section 72 (pic above) and residents are keen to be engaged in debating the possibilities around this important inner north Canberra green space.

Residents in Dickson and elsewhere wish things would change and that ACT politicians would step forward to do what voters expect of them.

Our local politicians need to bring about significant changes to the ACT’s planning and development agencies to make the discussions and decisions around urban development far more accessible, relevant, transparent, honest and democratic.

Is all this really too much to ask?

previous posted to RiotACT


Paul Costigan

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