The fall of NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has rightly intensified calls to end the culture of murky relationships between corporate lobbyists and politicians. This toxic culture has involved big business and their interests having undue influence on political decisions, while the voices of the people of NSW are drowned out and ignored.
Communities across NSW are frustrated because their views and opinions are not being considered in decisions that affect them. Many people are feeling taken for granted, particularly those in safe Labor and Coalition electorates.
Both major parties’ overhauls and attempted overhauls of the NSW planning laws have watered down the provisions for public participation, while shifting more discretionary power to the minister.
For many government initiatives, so-called community “consultation” processes lack authenticity. They seem to have become tokenistic exercises that merely provide an opportunity for making submissions that may never be considered, or another public meeting to attend that doesn’t achieve much.
Often, they occur too late in the process and without much scope to actually affect the outcome. There is a real sense that the government now organises these sessions for the purpose of positive PR, with no real interest in people’s contributions.
This lack of “invited spaces” for meaningful public participation has driven communities to create their own “insisted spaces”. Thousands of people joining the blockade in Bentley and the ongoing protests in the Leard Forest, to highlight the damaging impacts of coal and coal seam gas mining on our land, water and biodiversity, demonstrate the inadequacy of current consultation processes.
These events should ring alarm bells for the government. The refusal of decision-makers to share information explaining billions of dollars of infrastructure spending has inevitably eroded the public’s trust in government, so citizens have taken non-violent direct action. They feel entirely disenfranchised, and believe there is no other choice.
In particular, decisions on massive transport projects such as the WestConnex toll road, the private North West Rail Link metro shuttle, the unsolicited NorthConnex tunnel project, and the truncation of the Newcastle rail line, are all shrouded in secrecy.
It is not surprising that trust in politicians and the political process is diminishing, while public demands for openness and transparency are increasing. Regulated channels for obtaining government information can also often be inaccessible and frustrating.
Retrieving government documents through Freedom of Information is a costly, time-consuming, and confusing process. Many requests do not eventuate in the release of useful information due to lack of clarity over the appropriate language, procedure, and specificity. Even when useful information is released, it can be buried in mountains of documents requiring copious amounts of time to review.
The community’s right to know, to access information and to be involved in decision-making underpin and advance the democratic rights of citizens. In addition, effective and genuine public participation also enhances problem-solving by bringing together diverse perspectives and knowledges, engenders trust through shared responsibility, and fosters ownership of decisions through the involvement of affected and interested parties.
Unfortunately, this understanding of the true value of public participation is often marred by ideals of autocratic decision-making held by those in power. Barricading the revolving door between the major parties and the big end of town, tightening donations laws and increasing transparency and public scrutiny are clear ways to reduce the influence of vested interests. However, in order to fully restore trust in politics and our political system we must also reform governance processes to ensure ordinary citizens, not power brokers or the corporate elite, are at the centre of decision-making.
Empowering citizens and re-educating governments and administrators on the importance of public participation is not only desirable, but a necessity. Democratic legitimacy can only be achieved through active public participation in decision-making. Politicians and governments ignore this at their own peril.
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