OPINION: Skewed idea of democracy

Amendment proposals by GPT and Urban Growth about the inner city in 2014 alarmed many Novocastrians. Picture: Darren Pateman

Amendment proposals by GPT and Urban Growth about the inner city in 2014 alarmed many Novocastrians. Picture: Darren Pateman

REASONED discussion is the lifeblood of democracy. It powers progressive social change and is crucial to coherent policymaking. Great social reforms – the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, free and compulsory education – were all preceded by decades of discussion. 

So it is disturbing to witness the contemporary downgrading of discussion in Australia.

 The most recent manifestation of this has been the Abbott government’s attack on the ABC’s Q&A. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Manipulation of public opinion for political or commercial gain now permeates our civic culture.  

Simplification of issues is central to this manipulation. Complex questions are reduced to slogans. 

The implementation of a market-based strategy for dealing with climate change is redefined as “a great big new tax”. “Stop the boats” is the federal government’s – and now the opposition’s –  response to the human tragedy of refugees. The Greek economic crisis is attributed to lazy workers. In Newcastle and many other cities, those who advocate urban redevelopment based on more than growth and profit are characterised as naysayers and nimbys. 

Such simplifications undermine our capacity to deal with vital and complex issues. Right now in Newcastle, we have an opportunity to find a better way.

In 2012, after extensive community consultation, the NSW Liberal government unveiled its Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy. This envisaged the commercial centre of the city moving to the west end and the eastern part of the city (the old town) becoming a mixed-use residential/tourist/cultural precinct. 

Then, in March 2014, development corporation GPT and NSW government agency Urban Growth proposed an amendment to the strategy that would place high-rise towers and a shopping mall in the old town. Two months later, Premier Mike Baird announced that the light rail would run down Hunter Street, rather than the heavy rail corridor, as previously promised.

These proposals alarmed many Novocastrians. Their concerns were deepened by the refusal of then-planning minister Pru Goward and then-Newcastle lord mayor Jeff McCloy to consider alternative plans, and also by the mid-year Independent Commission Against Corruption revelations and subsequent resignation of the lord mayor and two state Liberal MPs.

 Questions were asked about both the likely urban design outcomes of the old  town development and the light rail redirection, and the decision-making process surrounding them.

A year later, apparently registering community concern, the state government is taking a more conciliatory approach. Urban Growth has struck a memorandum of understanding with the now Labor and Green majority Newcastle council. A community consultation process is central to this new agreement.

Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance welcomes the government’s willingness to consult, but has concerns about the consultation process.

A recent Urban Growth briefing to Newcastle council emphasised breadth of consultation rather than rigorous discussion of Newcastle’s urban design options.

 The language of this briefing also suggested that ‘‘consultation’’ is conceived by Urban Growth (as it often is by politicians and bureaucrats) as a one-way flow of information from officials to citizens, with the latter giving feedback on proposals, but having no opportunity to negotiate changes to them.

This managerial approach to urban change assumes that government and business will work together to “grow” the city, and that consultation will help citizens to understand the value of a predetermined plan. This model emphasises economic outcomes over other urban design goals such as public amenity, aesthetics, efficient and sustainable transport – and, importantly in the memorandum of understanding context, citizen participation in decision-making.

If it is to facilitate a more democratic approach to planning Newcastle’s future, the memorandum of understanding must involve a redistribution of power. As a first step, the proposed community consultation must be reconceptualised and reorganised. 

The consultation should be planned, implemented and monitored by a small steering group comprising representatives of Urban Growth, Newcastle City Council, business and the community. 

Only in this way can Novocastrians be assured that the community consultation will be more than a box-ticking exercise that legitimises a preconceived plan.

Griff Foley is a member of NICRA, the Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance

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