August 25, 2006 | Ronda Jambe

ACT in hands of the White Coat Brigade

When I first moved to Canberra, in the early 1980s, the city was a gem. From the first spring, when the pretty blossoms on the plum tree miraculously turned into an abundance of fruit, I was hooked. What a wonderful place to bring up children (although that didn’t turn out so well), and the low key lay out, with the natural features dominant over the built environment, was relaxed and refreshing. It felt safe, and there was little indication of rich or poor suburbs. All was bland in a relatively egalitarian way. For a while we kept goats in our Ainslie backyard, there were horses not far away, and chickens could be heard crowing in the morning. Above all, Canberra seemed to be decently run, with a view to stability and middle of the road provision of services for all, not just the wealthy.
Since then the population of the ACT (which amounts to Canberra) has more than doubled. The nature of the leafy suburbs has changed, and so has the climate. Like a warning whisper, I hear Jared Diamond’s reasonable voice speaking at the ANU last year: ‘And what will you Canberrans do if you lose your winter rains?’
Well, this winter, we have had very little rain. No government I know has adequately responded to our changing climate, and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect clear thinking from politicians whose brief seems to be playing all sides off against each other. However, that does not excuse the egregious decisions being made in the ACT that go beyond head in the sand stupidity, and border on the dangerously irrational. It is as if the elected officials have all become drunk on a potion that clouds their judgement, and blots out any considerations beyond growth and profit.
As with federal politics, this madness is a combination of woodenheadedness from those in power and ineffectual opposition. A few weeks ago the Budget for the ACT was finally passed, at 5 am. Isn’t it just nuts that the gov had the numbers, but it still took them til 5 am to get it done? While the Canberra Times reported that in 2 years, the ACT has turned a surplus of $12m into a deficit of $291m, this claim was later reversed, and apparently the ACT gov has a surplus. Surprising to me that such serious figures aren’t fully and transparently known well ahead of budget week.
Yet lots of things are being cut back, in a time when real estate prices and therefore land tax and stamp duty have steadily gone up. You have to wonder ‘whose got the money?’ Land tax on a suburban house being rented can be more than $3000 per year, contributing to high rents and squeezing low income earners. It is rumoured that people now sleep rough on Mt Ainslie.
While good money is being spent on luring people to move to Canberra, based on its attractive environment, even more money is being spent reducing it to a bland suburb of Sydney. That’s why I have started thinking of them as the White Coat Brigade, taken by a demented approach to pririty setting. The mentality seems to be Develop- Destroy- Deny, oblivious that they are killing the very goose that laid the golden egg. For many Canberrans, that golden egg was a balanced existence, relatively free from the intensities that accompany big city pleasures. Thank heavens! is often heard when people return from a trip to the Big Smoke up the road, so glad to get back to the trees!
But, like the climate, all that pleasantness is changing. More often now, if I have to go to one of the enhanced and enlarged town centres, I think of how little it attracts me. For a visitor, there would be nothing to draw you back to Woden Plaza, for example. The chance was missed to create a real piazza. Instead, the water feature and trees came out and more cement went in.
Just a few examples of recent crazy decisions:
For the sake of about $180,000 per year (the cost of one bureaucrat committed to maintaining a do-nothing status quo) the ACT gov is shutting down the food service at Ainslie Village. This facility provides housing and services long and short term for people unlikely to find housing elsewhere. Having visited a few times over the years when my junkie son had stints there (he’s not there now) I always thought it a haven, nestled under the mountain, with little ponds and ducks, and good landscaping. The modest rooms are functional, services are nearby for those who need them, and it seems like a place where a person could get back on their feet, or live protected. The food service allowed tennants to have deductions from their dole or disability money in exchange for a cooked meal each evening. From the state of the group kitchens and the tenants, clearly many are completely incapable of the level of organisation necessary to shop, prepare, plan, and clean up for a meal. This lack of mercy for the least fortunate or most troubled in society is not something we can be proud of in the capital of our first world nation.
Instead, the ACT gov is apparently committing $2.5 m over 3 years so that a Melbourne football team can play a game or so here each year. Is that possible? Now, I may be missing the sport gene, but is there really community support for this balance of expenditures?
And it’s not just the pollies that are crazy; the bureaucrats are out of whack too. It seems 2 children known to the ACT authorities (their job is to protect them, you see, they get paid for that) have died in the past 2 years. While I’ve never had contact with child protection bureaucrats, I have had some encounters with those who are supposed to be helping druggies. My best advice, as with many federal bureaucrats, is ‘send them home’. Just let them go, and see if anyone misses them. Sadly, the ACT is not unique. Similar horrific failures of duty of care in relation to children at risk have recently been reported in WA and Victoria. With our great wealth, surely we can do better. This lack of accountability is indicative of a wider implosion of governance.
Only services that provice demonstrable benefits should be retained, as distinct from people who are hired to sit at desks and fill out reports. But the ACT gov doesn’t seem to see value in real services, so they are also shutting down the needle exchange and drug referral service in Civic. Someone said it is being moved to Woden, away from the junkies. So there will undoubtedly be lots more syringes left lying around, and lots more cases of HIV and Hep C. Again, is this the style we expect from our proud capital?
Then there are the grandiose (perhaps even megalomanic) plans to redevelop Civic. There is a sweet little spot called City Hill, beautifully covered in historic trees, but almost inaccessible for use because it is surrounded by a busy traffic circle. A simple minded person (such as myself) might think the solution would be to eliminate some of the traffic, calm it or redirect it, and perhaps provide a pedestrian tunnel or bridge to make it more usable. Certainly that busy traffic circle is both an eyesore and an impediment to a pleasing city centre. Instead, there are large scale and extremely expensive plans afoot to divert the traffic with more roads, and create shops, and more shops, flanked by token pedestrian walkways. An interested developer has proclaimed that Canberra is boring, and believes more commercial development would solve that.
There has been little attempt to create dialogue about what kind of city state we want, or even whether we should be encouraging population growth. In the same week that the success of the recruitment to Canberra campaign was noted, the CT published aerial photos of some traffic jams in Canberra. Together with the scars on the landscape, my golly, you could blink and think you were in Sydney’s hinterlands.
Then there are the school closures, and perhaps some rationalisation has to occur to match changing demographics. But leaving the inner north with no year 11 and 12 facilities doesn’t make sense, as transport to other areas is awkward.
Integrated policy would consider these aspects. In the absence of serious long-term planning for climate change, the new Gungahlin Drive Extension will serve some people, for a while. That much contested but also much desired road (by those in Gungahlin) is now grinding away at great swathes of the ACT’s remaining areas of native bush. Modest 2 or 4 lane roads framed by gum trees were once one of the delights of the capital, but now they are giving way to more imposing highways. Together with the continued drying out of the landscape, with more and more trees marked in pink for cutting down, the allure of our bush capital is giving way to the ordinary obsessions of develpment mentality elsewhere.
Twice Pulitzer Prize winning Barbara Tuchman wrote The March of Folly, and I am reading it now. Unfortunately, her history of folly and woodenheadedness, or actions contrary to self interest, stops with Vietnam. Had she not died in 1989, she would no doubt be writing about Iraq and Israel and Al Quaeda as the height of folly. Maybe the ACT gov aspires to be remembered for its folly, now that would make sense.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 2:35 pm | Comments Off on ACT in hands of the White Coat Brigade |
Filed under: Australian Politics

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.