Planning IS politics!

There are many reasons why the Napthine Liberal Government lost the confidence of voters at the recent election in Victoria, but at the top of the list must surely be their behaviour over the East-West Tunnel proposal.

To press ahead with this mega-expensive proposal in the face of such wide public criticism from experts, local councils and voters alike, showed that it was clearly an ideological and political decision, and they rarely lead to the best political outcomes. And to sign construction contracts weeks before an election in an effort to make it irreversible in the face of such substantial opposition was doubly insulting to all electors.

It's the same attitude as that of the Prime Minister whose blinkered comment was that 'The Liberal Party always supports roads not rail.' What sort of strange blanket ideology is that? Is he never ever going to support rail no matter what the circumstances, never ever going to change his mind whatever the facts? A strange position after all his broken election promises which he is busily explaining were due to changed circumstances. And warning that Federal financial support was only available for this particular project was also crude, why should the PM be the arbiter of what Victorians want?

Why wasn't the Napthine government prepared to really debate the issue and let the facts persuade us by making it an electoral issue? But apart from the particular issue what was crystal clear to the voters was that adopting the East-West Link meant postponing all other rail, light-rail and road proposals in metropolitan Melbourne for at least ten years, along with pretty well everything else! Can a city approaching six million afford to wait that long?

The East-West Link may have some transport merit in the future but there weren't enough positives right now. The cost was far too great for such slight traffic improvement and without documentation, the estimate was highly suspect.

The costs and benefits, and the business case they wouldn't release were both important, but the most important unanswered question for both political parties remains; 'What would make the greatest difference to the largest numbers of Melburnians irrespective of the way they voted?'

All of these questions went unanswered in the face of near unanimous agreement from independent traffic planners that the transport and business cases for this Link were weak ones and all those billions would be better spent on a number of rail projects that would have benefitted a whole lot more people. To appreciate this vital point, compare the graphs below.

 Planning Graph

One has to ask oneself why the government took such a determined stand in the face of great opposition to what was clearly a very unpopular proposal?
Did they really think it would enable them to win a few key electorates and stay in office? Was it a payoff for financial support from the development companies and road freight companies who would make a motza out of it? And why aren't these donations on the public record so this question can be answered?

Or was it simply an unthinking ideology like the Prime Minister's; Liberal voters use cars, rail is only for poor people who don't vote for us! Don't laugh, Hockey's statements about car use have been equally simplistic.

But hey, why are we surprised? Urban planning 1.01: planning IS politics! It should be quite clear to all that while urban planning decisions are hopefully of long-term benefit of the community in general, they are also of considerable financial benefit to the owners of developable land within the affected areas, and self interest always gives them a strident voice.

That's why if you go to any planning meeting, or fundraising event of either of the major political parties, you might well think yourself at a developer's convention. And if there were any sort of transparency about political donations we would certainly find major developers donating massively to both political parties.

Planning is often made to sound like some sort of abstract technical exercise but if one is at all cynical, it's also largely about handing out the potential to make money, which is always popular. As a result Australian governments have been largely encouraged to see their role as facilitating development!

And developers have already won the battle over greater social equity. In the early days of post war planning it was thought only reasonable that if the State rezoned your land so it became much more valuable, some of the increase in value should belong to the community who had rezoned it and a Betterment Tax was proposed; it didn't last long!

That Melbourne and Sydney will have over six million inhabitants should be the subject of commiserations and concern, not the normal congratulatory attitude that Melbourne will end up bigger than Sydney! A lot of people in both cities are certainly going to be made richer as a result of this growth, and in a market oriented culture like ours that means that the planning and look of our cities and communities will basically be decided by the investment decisions of developers and property owners.

Particularly in newly released outer areas developers and their consultants decide everything from land use mix and subdivision layout, to housing types and density and the rate at which land is released. Developers and their mouthpieces for privatisation and sprawl have also been very successful in deceiving governments about land supply and price by claiming, quite falsely, that population growth is causing a land shortage and driving up land prices. We need to make our cities denser, not keep on expanding them!

The financial interests of landowners and the political nature of the planning process are two of the reasons why no Federal government has attempted to develop an effective policy for our cities since Whitlam in the 1970's. And also why there hasn't been any effective overall planning in Melbourne since the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was abolished in 1985 and their functions largely placed under the direct political control of the Minister for Planning.

Plan Melbourne, the latest ritual attempt to plan for the expected growth to six million, was prepared for the recently superceded Liberal government in August 2013 by a Ministerial Advisory Committee of six hand picked experts. The Plan was subsequently watered down by the Minister in such a way that five of the six experts resigned in protest. And in an undemocratic move, the government even refused to make the Committee's Report available so its merits could be judged!

It would be tedious to list all the changes made by the then Planning Minister Matthew Guy, suffice it to say that they invariably left more power to make development decisions in the hands of the Minister rather than the democratically elected local government councils, and his decisions were always heavily in favour of the over-development industry.

Will it be any different with the new Andrews Labor government? One always expects more from the Labor party with its long history of greater social equity but as they have moved to the centre for electoral reasons these are not always to the fore. They should affirm their values by handing back planning control over development at Fishermans Bend to the City of Port Philip immediately.

The making of increasingly ideological decisions is even more marked in the Federal sphere where the Abbott government has dismantled all the environmental actions of the previous Gillard government based on a simple minded ideology that supports cutting down old growth forests, advocates more mining, particularly coal mining, and is opposed to taking any actions on climate change.

And increasingly I perceive a tinge of unstated class ideology underlying all of the current government's actions. Co-payments at the doctors has been put forward as necessary for budgetary purposes, but I suspect Messrs Hockey and Abbott really thinks there shouldn't be a free medical system, that in principle poor people should always have to pay! And although Christopher Pyne is probably too smart to say it out loud, that he really thinks if you can't afford university fees, that's just the way it is, that poor people can't expect to go to university.

It's all so short sighted, when the long term solution to our future is not digging more coal and iron ore out of the ground but by being better educated and smarter in all sorts of other ways. We are a relatively small nation surrounded by economic giants like China and the United States (and potential giants like India and Indonesia) and our only hope of maintaining our standard of living and independence is to become smarter and sell our services to all of them.

As Barry Jones rightly said once,'If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!'

Our aim must be to have a world that works for all.
And on a point of detail, one way it would work better would be to automatically incorporate sunset clauses that requiring legislation to be re-voted on again after a number of years to ensure they had really worked as intended.

There are too many examples like negative gearing that seemed like a really good idea at the time that have failed. It not only didn't encourage the building of rental housing as was intended but in the process it reduced our annual tax income by hundreds of millions of dollars. Now both parties are reluctant to dismantle it fearing electoral backlash from those who benefit. If it had been re-examined five years after it started and the facts had showed it hadn't achieved its objectives it could simply have been voted out of existence with no political pain.

We must try and insist on a world that works. Any people who can send the Rosetta spaceship off into space without any maintenance for ten years can surely monitor and ensure that legislation works the way it was intended to.

In this regard, the government's ideological alternative to the carbon tax, paying big polluters to reduce their emissions, would be a good place to start monitoring; it already has the whiff of potential rorting about it big time.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid December 2014.