National Capital Authority not fit for purpose

Folks, we have a problem – this time not with the ACT government and its planning directorate but with the National Capital Authority.

The NCA was established in 1989 “to shape Canberra as a capital that all Australians can be proud of by ensuring it is well planned, managed and promoted, consistent with its enduring national significance”. That’s about 33 years to get it right.

The NCA made national news on June 2 when the Australian National Audit Office issued a report that listed adverse comments on how the authority conducted its procurement services. It is a scathing report about the financial affairs of this federal body. Click here for the full report.

The NCA’s responses are listed in the report. There was no indication from the NCA that this harsh report was to bring about a massive change.

Essentially, the message was that things were pretty good within the NCA. No heads were to roll. No-one was to be sent to their room to learn how to spend money transparently and with no possibility of conflict of interest.

For a federal authority that has been in existence for 33 years, there was no shock to the system given these procurement requirements are well established and that the authority had failed on so many of the audit criteria.

The responses indicate that there is a quite relaxed attitude to governance issues. What is obvious is that the culture of the NCA is underpinned by its self-importance and self-righteousness

The NCA has a reputation of working against – or ignoring – the aspirations of communities within Canberra. It likes to brag about how it “consults” and receives loads of submissions on significant issues and projects. But their new normal is that the NCA largely ignores all those pesky comments and evidence as not relevant. It usually implements decisions that were obviously always the intended outcome.

Here’s a few reminders of how the NCA has failed in recent years.

  • Let’s start with the most stupid: The NCA approved seaplanes to land on Lake Burley Griffin. Forget other users, forget heritage, forget peaceful lives. Probably make sense if you happen to holiday on the south coast or live at Vaucluse and it takes too long for you to drive.
  • When the NCA stood back and allowed the ghastly West Basin development to go ahead, it confirmed the developer-driven agenda of the NCA. It also confirmed that the NCA was no longer the independent and objective authority people had hoped it was. One day soon a new and expensive apartment suburb of thousands of people, school and shopping centre will be where there could have been a 21st century parkland – and heaps of greenery and biodiversity.
  • To assist the above to happen, there was an agreement by the NCA to swap the land under the lake at West Basin for ACT government land. The North Curtin land swap was the next in the line of questionable deals by the Barr government – this time enabled by the NCA.
  • The NCA should be at the forefront of seeking heritage listing for significant parts of this city. Others had to pursue the listings with a submission made in 2009. Then there was the recent questionable decision by the outgoing federal government – having sat on the submission for over a decade. The NCA sat on its hands again while the ACT government was the major influence on the decision for the limited heritage listing.
  • And who could forget the mountain of submissions from residents and professional architects about the decision to reshape the Australian War Memorial. The NCA justified its compliance by spin about how people did not understand what role the NCA had and how wonderful the proposed changes would be. This one really brought home just what values drive the NCA.
  • The NCA says it recognises the role of Marion Mahony Griffin in the design of Canberra – along with her husband Walter. Yet despite all the rhetoric the best we have is the naming of the Mount Ainslie lookout and now the naming of a restaurant on the side of the lake. There was that photo opportunity with Marion’s head – charming! The NCA has failed to get serious about the recognition of women in the history of Canberra – in particular with serious attention to honouring Marion Mahony Griffin. May I again suggest they read the best book about her by Glenda Korporaal – available last time I looked at the National Library Shop. Marion has “interesting” thoughts on bureaucrats of her time who were much like those we now have within the NCA.

Despite the NCA’s reported cool responses, its handling of taxpayers’ funds as outlined in the national audit report raises major concerns. With this report and the recent years of experience by residents in dealing with this authority, the conclusion is that the NCA is no longer fit for purpose.

We have a new federal government with a new minister for territories. The city has a new senator in David Pocock. There’s also Senator Gallagher and three Labor Party House of Representatives politicians. Surely someone in this group of politicians representing this city is going to take a serious look at the governance of the NCA – and not just take the NCA’s word that everything is just fine and dandy.

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

Paul Costigan is a commentator on cultural and urban matters

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