The latest ICAC revelations will hardly raise an eyebrow among the scandal-weary public of New South Wales. They disclose that the Free Enterprise Foundation is nothing more than a front to allow the Liberal Party to launder developers’ money, that state law prohibits them from receiving.
At the centre of this subterfuge was Chris Hartcher, a senior state minister until he resiged last year when ICAC’s investigation into him came to light. Hartcher had also set up a business called Eightbyfive to disguise developer donations as payments for sham services. The revelations have already prompted NSW Liberal MLC Marie Ficarra to voluntarily stand down from her role in the parliamentary party.
With his predecessor recently skewered by a bottle of plonk from a dodgy businessman, Premier Mike Baird pledged righteously to get to the bottom of the affair; to cleanse his party of the taint. But no doubt the people will see this for what it is: risible posturing from yet another bear-pit hypocrite.
Baird’s father was also a politician in a state where the line between business and politics has always been very thin. If he had no inkling about the existence of a slush fund, then he is startlingly naïve about the way things are conventionally run in NSW state politics. Palm greasing is the norm, not the exception, as the sordid tales of Eddie Obeid’s tenure in NSW politics have revealed.
The entire history of property development in NSW has been built on dubious liaisons between developers and politicians, local and state. For example, in the late 1950s the Labor Government abandoned the post-war Cumberland Plan for Sydney and permitted low-density suburban development to be rolled out. The plan was based on the principle of urban consolidation, but with peri-urban landowners standing to make millions, and wielding great influence, the green belt was abandoned.
Later the egregious concreting of the coastline, to cater for buyers’ obsession with proximity to the ocean, came to represent one of the great environmental disasters of modern Australia — much of it fuelled by hundreds of dodgy deals between developers and local councillors and officials.
With the spectre of global warming and climate change hanging over us, and with most studies indicating the environmental virtues of medium-density housing, it would behove us to restrict the amount of green-field development in our cities. But in NSW, under O’Farrell’s leadership, developers have been encouraged to identify new sites they would like to build on — and hey presto, things can happen!
One can only hope that the newly appointed Minister for Planning Pru Goward, among the more principled members of Baird’s cabinet, will temper the excesses of the market with some environmental sense.
And it is not just the domestic and commercial property developers who leverage massive power in state affairs. The roads lobby continues to be heard even as our cities groan under the weight of cars. How can that be? With the rest of the world diverting resources from private to public transport, in Australia we continue to build urban motorways based on the fallacious notion that better roads speed up traffic. They don’t. They simply refer the congestion elsewhere.
The obscene amounts of public money that has been expended on refunding tolls paid by motorway users could have been much better spent on developing heavy and light rail. But former Labor Premier Bob Carr realised that in order to be re-elected, he would have to court outer suburban car commuters. So the public picks up the tab and tollway companies continue to make huge profits. With such high stakes in development and tenders for public infrastructure projects, not to mention mineral development, at state government level, it is little wonder that big business cosies up to politicians.
In view of this it is high time to consider setting up a popularly elected authority that has the power to draft and implement planning principles, much like the Cumberland County Council formed in the late 1940s to plan post-war Sydney.
Unfortunately local councils stymied that body by fiercely resisting incursions on their own planning and development powers. Today, however, state governments can and frequently do over-ride local councils and are rarely guided by anything other than political expediency and corporate influence in making planning decisions.
A state or metropolitan authority, popularly elected for a reasonable term through a proportional representation system, could be insulated from the caprice of politicians in Macquarie Street and could plan for the long-term development based on sound and sustainable planning principles, and community consultation.
While it would be premature to prophesise the decline of the major parties, it would appear that the recent revelations of dirty deeds by both Liberal and Labor could present opportunities for new community-based forms of involvement in public life. An elected planning authority would connect local communities in public life in a way not seen since campaigning was conducted "on the stump", before the onset of spin doctors, power-brokers, slush funds and improper electoral influence.
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