Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Developing a Position

The NSW Labor government was a government characterised, rightly or wrongly, by corruption.

That corruption was, to many people, most evident in the field of development. Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 was amended in 2005 to allow the government to seize, from local councils, control of applications that were "state significant".

This was widely perceived as being the government ensuring that their large developer donors were looked after - no planning application could be stymied by a shortsighted, selfish local council.

In this context, just about every large development approved under Part 3A was labelled by the media and the public as being a political decision to appease the developer.

Whilst I don't pretend to be an expert in the area, one would expect that many of these developments deserved to be approved on their merits.  Nonetheless, the manner in which they were perceived by the public was a pretty clear indication of the public's opinion of the NSW Labor government.

At its very first meeting, the new Coaltion Cabinet has voted to repeal part 3A.  This appears to be a very clear effort from O'Farrell to show that under him things will change.

The difficulty is that when it was introduced in 2005, O'Farrell and the Opposition supported the amendments that brought part 3A into existence.

Luckily for him, few voters will recall or care that he previously voted another way.

The real difficulty is that, in principle, part 3A was a good law.

There can be little doubt that the provision was used too liberally (to the detriment of Labor) and that the law gave too much power to the Minister to take control of larger matters.

That said, there is also little doubt that there are developments for which the significance to the state mandates that it be dealt with at a higher level.

For this reason, most parties appear to agree that some level of minister oversight or control is necessary.  As Stephen Albin of the Urban Development Institute of Australia said, "Everyone in the debate acknowledges that we need to have a system in place that treats major projects differently from a DA for a new house." 

A spokesman for O'Farrell said "The NSW Liberals and Nationals policy has recognised there will always be a need for a reserve power to deal with genuinely state-significant developments, but that such a power must be exercised transparently with clear guidelines and clear public accountability

Having now repealed Part 3A, it is likely that when O'Farrell (inevitably) introduces an amendment to allow some upper-level oversight and control he will be subject to vicious attack from opponents.

The solution may be to allow Part 3A type developments, but only in a open transparent way.  This could be achieved by long and thorough consultation processes - processes that do, from time to time, lead to rejection of applications so that the public perceives that their protests have some effect.

This is not radically different from the system under the previous government. But given that O'Farrell will be given the benefit of the doubt for at least a period of time, it may be the political solution.

The donation reform that he has promised will also assist to dispel accusations of being bound to the donations from developers, especially if they forbid any large donations and publicly fund election campaigns.

But no matter what O'Farrell does, every large development will upset some people, and will therefore be the subject of accusation.  How he deals with these accusations may well be the first real test of his leadership and ability to win the media debate.

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