Rob Stokes, considered NSW’s most knowledgeable and qualified planning minister, has been moved out of the portfolio following a cabinet reshuffle by new NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Dr Stokes, whose PhD is in planning law, was well regarded by planning professionals, having overseen the installation of the Greater Sydney Commission, considered a game-changer for integrated planning in the city.
Dr Stokes also made headlines at the end of last year when he called for a rethink of negative gearing to alleviate the country’s growing problems with housing affordability.
“Why should you get a tax deduction on the ownership of a multimillion dollar holiday home that does nothing to improve supply where it’s needed?” he said in a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.
While housing affordability has been named as one of Ms Berejiklian’s main priorities, Dr Stokes has, inexplicably to many, been shifted into the education portfolio, replacing what was considered one of NSW’s most respected education ministers, Adrian Piccoli.
Despite widespread, and rare, support across the entire education sector, Mr Piccoli, a National Party member, was long expected to be axed from cabinet following turmoil in the Nationals after a disastrous show in the Orange by-election, which lost him his place as deputy.
Right-wing powerbroker Anthony Roberts will now take the reigns of the planning portfolio, moving from resources and energy.
As a former minister for fair trading, Mr Roberts initiated changes to strata laws that from last December allow for strata agreements to be terminated with 75 per cent of owners’ approval. Prior to this all strata unit owners needed to give approval to terminate a scheme.
This is part of the reason the development industry has welcomed Mr Roberts with open arms. Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson said Mr Roberts was an “excellent choice” for planning minister, and urged him to work on increasing Sydney’s housing supply.
“His past achievements and experience, including overhauling the ageing NSW strata system, make him very well placed to improve the lack-lustre performance of the NSW planning system,” Mr Johnson said.
Greens planning spokesman David Shoebridge wasn’t as welcoming, telling The Fifth Estate Mr Roberts had nothing in his history to suggest he’d make a good planning minister.
“[As resources minister] he has a track record of siding with industry over land holders and communities,” he said.
“It’s difficult to see apart from internal factional deals [why he landed the role].”
Mr Shoebridge said the state was in the middle of significant proposed reforms, which was “exactly the wrong time” to change ministers.
“Planning in NSW is in a terrible mess. We need a minister with genuine vision and a commitment to empowering communities.”
A whole-of-government approach
Mr Roberts said there would be a “whole-of-government” approach to tackling housing affordability.
“This means I will be working closely with my ministerial colleagues Pru Goward on social housing and treasurer Dominic Perrottet on taxation matters,” he said.
There is, however, concern premier Berejiklian and the government may be beholden to “supply only” solutions to housing affordability, after Ms Berejiklian said it was the most important response to housing affordability, despite evidence to the contrary.
Labor attacks on supply
Labor lambasted Ms Berejiklian’s comments on supply.
“Premier Berejiklian’s mantra is that supply is the only solution,” NSW opposition leader Luke Foley said. “That strategy has failed families in Sydney who are trying to get a roof over their heads.
“If the premier is really serious about helping people to buy their first home – as she has claimed – then she has to embrace new solutions such as reforming negative gearing.”
Environment minister Mark Speakman has been appointed attorney-general, swapping positions with Gabrielle Upton, who is also taking on local government and heritage.
Mr Shoebridge said putting Ms Upton into the local government portfolio was sending a confused message, as Ms Upton had been vocal against council amalgamations in her area.
“Upton is a long-standing critic of forced mergers in her local electorate and now she has a real chance to put an end to them across the state,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“The next few days will show if Minister Upton has sold her political soul to remain in the ministry or if she will take a stand for local democracy.”
Some changes welcome: government has an opportunity to quickly turn around its record on environment
The Nature Conservation Council meanwhile welcomed the reshuffle, saying new ministers in environment, energy and planning were opportunities to improve the government’s poor record in these areas.
“There are many ways the government can quickly turn around its record on environment protection, clean energy and planning reform, and we look forward to working constructively with the new ministers to achieve that,” chief executive Kate Smolski said.
She said people needed a greater say in the planning system, investment in renewables needed to be ramped up, and the net zero emissions target needed to be moved forward to 2030.
The Green Building Council of Australia also welcomed the new planning and environment ministers.
“We look forward to working with both ministers Roberts and Upton to deliver homes, workplaces and communities that are more affordable, efficient, sustainable and liveable,” GBCA chief executive Romilly Madew said.
She also thanked Mr Stokes for his time as planning minister.
“Minister Stokes has delivered practical solutions to some of the previously intractable planning challenges in NSW,” she said. “His establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission is an outstanding example of his ability to look beyond the immediate election cycle to deliver the long-term reform required.”
WestConnex gets its own ministry
The controversial WestConnex toll road has been given its very own ministry as part of the reshuffle, with minister for Western Sydney Stuart Ayres taking on the portfolio.
However Greens spokesperson for WestConnex Jenny Leong said the ministry was an “extraordinary acknowledgement” of the dysfunction surrounding the project.
“It signals that they recognise that WestConnex is a basket case that needs special oversight, to manage the incompetence and bad planning decisions that have plagued the project,” she said.
“The fact that this minister will be Stuart Ayres, who as sports minister oversaw the debacle of the Sydney football stadium project and proposed building a stadium over Kippax Lake at Moore Park, is ridiculous.”