In what many people will regard as a welcome display of independence and autonomy, the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment this week queried the legitimacy of the government's public consultations over a proposed development along the Murrumbidgee river corridor.
Kate Auty said that in the absence of environmental studies, the government's rush to consult risked raising expectations that "the development [at West Tuggeranong] will proceed regardless of the outcomes". She warned, moreover, that there had be a careful balance between conservation and development, and that the only way to achieve this was by "thorough rigorous initial assessments" and a strategy embracing ecological values.
It was only in March that the Barr government announced plans to build a new suburb (likely to be called Thompson) on a 167-hectare parcel of land straddling the eastern bank of the Murrumbidgee. Adding weight to Ms Auty's comments was the news that the government has begun a second round of consultation after the first indicated strong opposition.
Similar concerns have been voiced about another development on the Murrumbidgee at West Belconnen, downstream from the proposed Tuggeranong venture. This joint venture between the Land Development Agency and a private developer, Riverview Projects (ACT) envisions three suburbs within the ACT and a new settlement over the border in the Yass Valley. Like the Thompson development, the West Belconnen/Parkwood proposal will require assessments of its likely impact on at least three "matters of national environmental significance".
An extensive community engagement process (with a commitment that it will be "meaningful and inclusive") is well under way. This is being overseen not by the ACT government, however, but by Elton Consulting, a private company with involvement in other development ventures around Canberra. Not surprisingly, eyebrows have been raised in some quarters at the cosiness of this arrangement.
The perception of community consultations as a process in individuals of standing (as well as those with a less obvious connection to a development) are able to air their legitimate concerns and have these addressed in meaningful fashion lies at the heart of effective deliberations. Like all democratic contrivances, however, public consultations are open to being abused, corrupted or distorted. Many a developer and homeowner has been driven to despair by the vexatious demands of people claiming to have standing in planning matters and the right to influence outcomes.
By the same token, companies intent on engineering favourable planning outcomes can, without too much difficulty, sideline, downplay or minimise concerns or objections raised during consultations. Or they can simply overwhelm them by arguing that the benefits (jobs, urban renewal, affordable housing, economic activity, etc) outweigh any concerns or impacts, environmental or otherwise.
Governments yearn for such results too. This inevitably gives rise to public perceptions that they game the process is order to achieve, as far as possible, the outcome or result they desire, West Tuggeranong being a case in point.
Ms Auty is right to point out the farcical nature of staging "consultations" when basic environmental issues have yet to be properly addressed.