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Developing a tale of comeuppance

Date

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

How brilliant to see ICAC finally doing its job. All over town, decent people are rubbing their hands with glee. Not in revenge. More from the sense that, at last, the truth may come out about the self-serving ratbaggery that for so long ran this state. Like captives in a slime-cave we scent nostril-quivering fresh air, and we want some.

Not that we didn't know. There's no mistaking the whiff of putrefaction. As far back as Bob Carr, he was clearly the stainless face on the pitted reality.

For years I have personally been sledged, slated and slandered by developers and politicians for suggesting that decisions like the coalmines now strewn across the Hunter Valley might be less than noble. It's just nice to be vindicated.

Not that vindication is a remedy. Sadly, the costs of power abuse - and of the systematic destruction of trust that accompanies it - are deeper and more damaging.

Wider, too. Far broader than just planning, or even just government, the abuse of power is suddenly everywhere. From Israel and Palestine to priests and children; from nursing home bullies to dodgy politicians to Lord of the Flies taser-happy cops, it's all about those trusted with power proving that they cannot and should not be.

You are no doubt aghast, as I am. Yet many people - I know more of them than I'd like to - consider such thuggery core human behaviour. All relationships, they say - often citing Machiavelli - are power relationships.

That may be true. Things are seldom equal. Yet, in any relationship, however unbalanced, the powerful partner has a choice; either to use power nobly or to suck above and stomp below.

The former, a presumption of general decency, underpins pretty much all our laws, habits and institutions. It is why we trust out children to priests in the first place, or our aged parents to nursing homes, or our lands and taxes to politicians.

But often, these days, suck-up-stomp-down seems more normal. In school playgrounds it is called bullying but in corporate life it's just 'managing up,' and rewarded with preferment. (No surprise that Machiavelli was himself a high level bureaucrat).

It's ironic that we expect higher standards from our children than from our selves, especially since the capacity to behave well absent scrutiny is (we say) the mark

of adulthood.

Which begs the question; is it new, this behaviour?

We've been hearing about clergy-on-child abuse since the 1980s, but the priesthood is much older than that. Have they always been kiddie-fiddling in this way? Has it always just been unknown? Ignored? Tolerated?

Have cops always been brutalising the harmless? I'm not even going to ask about pollies. There are appalling tales of abuse on Cockatoo Island, when it was a self-enclosed shipyard, and of child abuse in remote communities everywhere.

Is the brutalisation of the weak by the strong just what happens behind closed doors, when families, orders, tribes and forces self-police? Is it, in short, inevitable?

Because it's not just sex, or violence, or corruption, though those are bad enough. To my mind, this kind of abuse is theft. The child abused by a priest isn't just sexualised, degraded and humiliated. As surely as Roberto Curti was robbed of his life by spontaneous official torture, the abused child is robbed of his or her budding trust in authority and, by extension, the world.

Children are very moral animals, with an intense and intuitive feel for justice. To be betrayed and defiled by the supposed source of truth and goodness leaves a child truly broken hearted.

In the case of grubby planning decisions, politicians are the slimy adults and we the broken hearted children, but the destruction is similar. We are the victims of systematic environmental theft.

The last time I saw Frank Sartor he muttered, shaking my hand, "I should have sued you." I replied, "I should have sued you."

(Had I the money, I would have, for saying, twice in his book and again in his blog, that I was "asked to leave" Council employment and "nothing more was said" - as though I'd been caught stealing canapé´s or peeing in the corridor. In fact I'd had consistently glowing assessments from my boss (not Sartor) and the Special Projects Unit I headed was restructured out of existence once the Olympics were done.)

Sartor repeatedly accuses me of "porkies". But I have never said he was corrupt. I don't believe he was. He did however engage in much criticised conduct, with Justice David Lloyd describing his Catherine Hill Bay decision as a "land bribe" - and not because of Rosecorp's massive $143,500 party donation, but because of the land-swap agreement (which would swap approval for the development for 300 hectares of public conservation land) that the Minister signed before giving the approval that the court then rescinded.

It's also true, as Sartor told ICAC last week, that he authored neither Part 3A, nor ministerial 'call in' powers over development. Nevertheless, as he also conceded, his Planning Act amendments were designed to broaden ministerial discretion and "switch off all the other concurrencies" that impeded fast-track, broad-discretion planning approvals.

These 'concurrencies' included the Threatened Species Act, Native Vegetation Act, Fisheries Act and assorted fire protection, forestry and heritage Acts: everything, that is, that might protect our environment from rampaging mates.

This was not corrupt but it did, as I said at the time, place a big red 'press here for favours' button on the chest of whoever was minister. As Barrister Tim Robertson told Quentin Dempster in 2009, these planning changes returned us - his words - "to the days of Bob Askin."

So no one could have been surprised when in February 2011, Minister Tony Kelly finally did rely on the ''call in'' powers under the notorious Part 3A, just months before he (Kelly) was found corrupt over Currawong.

Leichhardt citizens are now rightly agitating to return the 25 storey Tigers' tower to Council control. I hope they win.

But nothing can save Rose Bay from Tripodi's mega-marina or the beautiful and fertile Hunter / Bylong Valley region from the plethora of coal mines approved by the various ministers such as Macdonald and Kelly; Honourables both.

Charges against Obeid and Macdonald may or may not arise from the ICAC enquiry. But wouldn't it be bloody marvellous if, this once, NSW saw justice done?

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