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The Burden of the Public Consultation Melbourne Planning Scam - by Sally Pepper

Planning scam, or should I say, planning scam juggernaut. The speed of so-called consultations for new development proposals is overwhelming democracy. No-one, except wealthy professional developers, with dedicated teams of staff, can keep up with the proposals. Maybe that’s the point. Still recovering from two recent surgeries, and on the heels of an unavoidable community organisation event, involving time consuming preparation and sequelae, I was looking forward to taking a break. I could see about 3 weeks of "clear sky" ahead of me, in which I could deal with an issue of mutual concern with my neighbour, do my tax return, prune the lemon tree, wash the curtains, and organise the hard rubbish for Friday. This feeling of relative freedom lasted about two days, before yet another "opportunity" for consultation from Melbourne Planning reared its head.

Or was it an obligation? This latest one involved a new parliamentary act about Public Land:

"Have your say and contribute to a project to renew Victoria’s public land legislation for the benefit of the community through the creation of a new Public Land Act."

I ran my eye over the document. The call for ‘streamlining’ and the reiteration of reassuring statements that ‘current tenures’ would not be disturbed, alerted me to the need to know what was going to happen to ‘future tenures.’ Of course, there was no clear information on that burning question. Just appendices talking about ‘sustainable’ use, to “enhance the natural, cultural, social, and economic values of public land.” Knowing that Victoria’s parliament always puts ‘economic’ values above environmental ones and any others, I did not like to think what the developers, who more or less run parliament these days, want to push through under the bleary eyes of community group members.

But this threatening document, albeit smiley-faced, is just the latest of many. Last year the Victorian State Government sought submissions on "environmental infrastructure for growing populations" and another one on "ecosystem decline," another on "A regional climate change adaptation strategy for Greater Melbourne," another on, "Waterways of the West Action Plan," another on, "Future of our forests". Making a serious submission is not just a walk in the park for a working person! Furthermore , these were highlights in an endless stream, which had begun as a trickle with a Plan for General Development (1929), then Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme 1954: Survey & Analysis, and Report (1954), Planning Policies for Metropolitan Melbourne (1971), Report on General Concept Objections (1974), Metropolitan Strategy Implementation (1981), Living Suburbs (1995), and gathered into a torrent around the turn of the 21st century, with Melbourne 2030: Planning for sustainable growth (2002), A plan for Melbourne's growth areas [2005], Melbourne 2030 Audit [2007-2008], Planning for all of Melbourne [May 2008], Melbourne @ 5 million [December 2008], Delivering Melbourne's newest sustainable communities [See Amendment VC68 (July 2010)], Plan Melbourne 2014, Plan Melbourne 2017 - 2050 (2017), Plan Melbourne Addendum (2019).[1] As well as this there were vast new tollways to connect new suburbs that never should have been built, and VCAT was transformed from a low-key tribunal where people represented themselves at low cost, to a high-powered, development-biased kangaroo court, defiantly serving the legal and development industries. All this affected public land, and changes were often spear-headed by superficially innocent ‘bike-paths’, and new sports-grounds, which so-called ‘environmental groups’ would try to bludgeon through.

The Melbourne City Council gains community input via its website under the banner of "Participate Melbourne." I have participated a number of times, on behalf of community organisations. Most people probably never hear of these invitations to submit [to fruitless pain] but, if you belong to a community group, particularly if it is concerned with the environment, somebody will bring each “opportunity” to your attention.

Repetition is forcing me to question whether these "consultations" are actually wonderful opportunities for my ideas to be carried forward. More and more they amount to tedious homework exercises to keep me quietly beavering away at home, unpaid, alone at my computer, away from my friends, the books I long to read, and facing a deadline. Occasionally I will let one go by, as it might save me a week of my life, when I can catch up with my grocery shopping, mow the lawn (yes, I am lucky enough to have a little green patch), and clean the windows.

Mostly however, I am a fairly compliant "environmental activist," dutifully submitting or assisting others' diligent efforts. What happens to our high-quality work? Usually, we agree to it being visible to the public, so it has to be of a standard that we would not be ashamed of, and which will possibly bring credit to the organisation we are representing. Are we listened to? Not according to the late Paul Mees, in "Who killed Melbourne 2030."

“Mees (2003, 2007) criticises both the content ofMelbourne 2030and the process by which it was produced,arguing that both the consultation process and the commitment to sustainability praised by the strategy’s admirers were shams. Although there was a very extensive process of consultation, this was not allowed to influence the strategy, which was written in private by members of the Strategy Development Division. And the strategic directions involved only a rhetorical, rather than a real, departure from the policies of the previous Kennett government, which focussed on market-led residential infill and road-based transport. Mees (2003, p. 298) predicted that the strategy would not survive a change of government, as it had no legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and did not deserve to survive, as it lacked substance and rigour.” [...]

“A series of ‘strategic directions’ ranging from the trite (Direction 8: Better transport links) to the completely content-free (Direction5: A great place to be) was presented for public endorsement. When people agreed with these platitudes – as if there was an alternative: worse transport links, or a terrible place to be, perhaps? – the Department of Infrastructure then treated this as endorsement of its actual policies and proposals, which were never submitted for public discussion or approval. An additional round of consultation to review the draft was proposed early in the process, but then cancelled without explanation (Mees, 2003).” ("Who killed Melbourne 2030.")

These “democratic” opportunities are becoming a burden and a way of life. My feeling is that I, as a member of the public, am being consulted because something valuable to the community, and to our environmental health, is about to either come under attack or be radically changed in some way. The imperative to make a submission within a deadline, and with proposals and deadlines coming down the planning pipeline at ever accelerating speed, puts members of the community in an invidious position. If we don't make a submission, it will appear that we don't care or we are asleep at the wheel. It's almost as though, if, under our watch, the government authority stuffs up, we have only ourselves to blame. But this is not so. In Australia, we have three levels of government which should be responsible for protecting their constituents from unfair, unsafe, overly rapid, intensifying development.

This constant need for public consultation, however, would indicate to me that they are not governing in our interests. Governments should have access to whatever expert advice they need in order to avoid environmental damage, yet it seems they are powerless or unwilling to prevent environmental destruction, rural or urban. Is all this public consultation the "get out of gaol free card" for ministers and public servants nominally at the head of planning departments that have actually contracted out their responsibility to private developers?

We know from successive government environmental reports that the Victorian environment is in steep decline. At the end of the day, when there is no wildlife, no native forests, and no public urban parklands, do members of the last government delude themselves with this declaration, "We consulted the public, and they obviously wanted to live in urban deserts?"

Or are we seeing a ‘tick-boxes’ to satisfy the community consultation auditor, whilst really satisfying the demands of mafias and triads in property development, that have got their claws solidly into government and opposition?

The unreasonable pace of 'planning' abets destructive development by overwhelming democratic participation

This trend to overwhelming community groups and individuals committed to democracy, with avalanches of consultations, seems like part of a cynical plan. The key to it all is the unreasonable pace. Something similar was burlesqued in 1970 in a film called The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. Politically agile polling expert, Michael Rimmer, finally extracts total power from the people by requiring them to engage in endless postal voting on trivial matters. They are so exhausted, that they finally vote to pass all power to Rimmer.

You can watch the movie on youtube here. Or you can watch Melbourne Planning. There isn’t much difference, although the film is funnier.

More information about The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer: “The mysterious Michael Rimmer (Cook) appears at a small and ailing British advertising agency, where the employees assume he is working on a time and motion study. However, he quickly begins to assert a de facto authority over the firm's mostly ineffectual staff and soon acquires control of the business from the incompetent boss Ferret (Arthur Lowe). Rimmer then succeeds in establishing the newly invigorated firm as the country's leading polling agency, and begins to make regular TV appearances as a polling expert. He subsequently moves into politics, acting as an adviser to the leader of the Tory opposition, and then becomes an MP himself, for the constituency of Budleigh Moor (a reference to Cook's frequent collaborator, Dudley Moore), along the way acquiring a trophy wife (Vanessa Howard).

Relying on a combination of charisma and deception—and murder—he then rapidly works his way up the political ladder to become prime minister (after throwing his predecessor off an oil rig). Rimmer then gains ultimate control by requiring the populace to engage in endless postal voting on trivial matters. At last, exhausted, they acquiesce in one final vote which passes dictatorial power to him. Ferret attempts to assassinate Rimmer as he and his wife ride through the capital in an open-topped convertible, but fails and falls to his death. (1970 British satirical film starring Peter Cook, and co-written by Cook, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Kevin Billington.)


[1] “Plans” for Melbourne have been coming ever thicker and faster. You can read about them via the links below:

• Plan Melbourne Addendum (2019)
• Plan Melbourne 2017 - 2050
• Melbourne's strategic planning history
• Plan Melbourne 2014
• Melbourne 2030 Audit [2007-2008]
• Melbourne 2030: Planning for sustainable growth (2002)
• Delivering Melbourne's newest sustainable communities [See Amendment VC68 (July 2010)]
• Melbourne @ 5 million [December 2008]
• Planning for all of Melbourne [May 2008]
• A plan for Melbourne's growth areas [2005]
• Living Suburbs (1995)
• Metropolitan Strategy Implementation (1981)
• Report on General Concept Objections (1974)
• Planning Policies for Metropolitan Melbourne (1971)
• Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme 1954: Report
• Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme 1954: Survey & Analysis
• Plan for General Development (1929)

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