Prue Goward

On the dangers of feisty electorates, development, and one-term governments

Yes it’s election season in NSW. And yes the idea of first term governments losing office is no longer new and might well be the way of the future if “Big Brother” politics – or democracy writ real – continues to roar up the charts.

The Baird government is well aware of the odds; it has a fair chance of winning on 28 March but is taking no chances either.

And there’s no doubt it’s keeping a keen eye on what happened to its compatriots north and south of its border and would probably happen in Canberra if a federal election was held next week.

Guests at the Urban Task Force lunch

On the plus side is the honeymoon factor, given that the line-up of cabinet is almost entirely less than 12 months old given that Baird was airlifted in to clear up the mess left behind by his predecessor Barry O’Farrell.

On the negative side is planning, easily one of the most volatile and dangerous political issues for government on the planet. It’s where all the big social issues of population growth, demographics, housing, jobs, economics and environment are most likely to prod and pinch an increasingly feisty, empowered and educated electorate.

But that’s just half the story.

Even more dangerous is planning’s evil twin, big bad development – the kind that got so many O’Farrell ministers and backbenchers sacked and that keeps rearing its head – out of big juicy government-owned sites, coal mines, brown paper bags and the like.

Most recently poor lovely Newcastle, long in desperate need of a sustainable revamp, has blown the potential for a happy transformation by tacky and highly tainted behaviour if the evidence sifting through the media is anything to go by. See Elizabeth Farrelly’s searing piece here.

You can see the planning gig in state government is increasingly the hot spot.

So it was with great interest that The Fifth Estate sat in to hear what planning minister Pru Goward had to say on election eve, 10 months into the job, to a batch of developers and their supporters at the NSW Urban Taskforce lunch on Tuesday.

Goward proved to be no slouch at the politics. She played both sides of the development fence.

NSW had done well but there were plenty of challenges still to come

For the developers she promised better planning, praised the industry, expressed sympathy at the difficulty of amalgamating decent sized sites and even offered to look closely at Queensland’s “one stop shop” speed planning regime.

For the community and local government she said that development would occur in collaboration with local government, which knew its area best, and more localised work and housing solutions to lessen wasted time in traffic and enable better social outcomes.

“It’s election season” she started off, in the almost surreal dark and heavily decorated  Dolton House overlooking Hyde Park.

“Don’t think you will get a small target from the Baird government; we have an unashamedly bold plan,” she said.

NSW was “once more a shining light”. It had come “from the back of the pack a few years ago to be leading the nation once more on a number of economic indicators”.

“As a Liberal government we believe in competition,” continued the minister, “especially when we’re winning”.

In the four years since the Coalition took control, dwellings were up 46 per cent, retail 16 per cent, construction work by 14 per cent, economic growth was up $106 million or 12 per cent (this seemed low for a state leading a nation, just the equivalent of 106 average Sydney houses, we thought).

Growth was key to achievement, especially the “inevitability of population growth” otherwise you would need to “either sterilise people or put them to sleep or ban immigration”.

The growth also came from cutting red tape, and stimulating confidence. And that was important because “any government can make policy but not every government can inspire confidence”. And we know what happens to governments with headlines and no substance, she said.

There was a bit of fun too.

“When we came to office the place was a mess.” It was like an “old Victorian mansion”, like standing in the street and wondering whether you’d just bought a knock down or renovator’s delight.

The reno option won.

“We’ve spent four years rebuilding the foundation of this great old state. We’ve spent time putting in some new footings.”

Goward said economic growth was “not an end in itself”.

“Economic growth means people and the community are safer, richer, have more opportunities, more choices and it means better care for the vulnerable.”

It’s a shame she didn’t mention that environment was also a key input into the equation but the “e” word was notably absent throughout. The guests assembled were probably not keen to hear about more pesky barriers to their projects; the planning “red tape” was more than enough.

Urban Task Force chief executive fielding questions

Goward said the NSW project wasn’t done yet. We needed capital to put a new driveway into this “grand rehabilitated old mansion”.

But (unlike ordinary households, we thought) the state would not be funding this through debt but by selling some of the family silver, the “poles and wires” of the electricity network.

(At this point Goward made the first of two interesting pitches, both aimed at finding a common platform with the major opposition party and sidelining the volatile independents who have demonstrated a growing ability to control the balance of power in government.)

The government’s opponents know this is right, Goward said.

Many “secretly agree with us… They know they’re right but they don’t have the courage to stand up against the unions and the negative attacks have already started.”

Goward even mentioned she’s recently had “the pleasure of sitting with Michael Costa”, a minister in the former Labor government and a casualty of “ the last discussion this state had about poles and wires”.

Now pardon us if we are wrong, but do we care if we no longer own dodgy poles and wires designed to carry fossil fuel energy when most people are going solar in their houses and looking forward to cheaper battery storage/electric cars so they can plug in and go off grid?

We asked Alan Pears, one of Australia’s best analysts on energy, who said it really doesn’t matter who owns the assets. What matters is the kind of gold-plated agreement governments will make to get someone to take these things off their hands.

This is a reasonable concern. There are plenty of instances where governments and taxpayers have been badly burned in deals with wily corporates. Think public–private partnerships in infrastructure.

Brave Baird for having another go at unloading a donkey. But who’s got the highest paid lawyers to stitch up the best deal? Investment bankers or the public service?

And with all the difficult issues in government, she said, often the person who most gets it is your opponent. Again another pitch at the flurry of independents who have held up planning reform and could yet further hold it up come 19 March, she warned.

Former NSW planning minister Frank Sartor

Among the big challenges she nominated were the usual – infrastructure, infill development, which had been all “too hard” for the former government but would be tackled by the new Baird government if re-elected, the (ever) “new” metro strategy and new precincts such as at near Rosehill Racecourse and Parramatta Road (no mention of the Bays precinct).

Interestingly she nominated regional areas and “greater Sydney” as the key to future development, and this must be a relief for the west, which has for so long searched for attention and found none.

On planning reform the current metro strategy was probably not released with all the “glitz and glamour of previous plans but it is measured, well considered and realistic”, she said.

Left to right: David Tanevski, Peter Daly, Laurie Rose

Among the questions after the presentation was an equal measure of humour and developer pathos.

Former planning minister Frank Sartor asked how Goward was enjoying the job. It was great, she said. Helping to shape the future of the state was fascinating. (We believe her; we’re not sure Sartor had the same experience but then he was in the job longer than Goward has been so far.)

A developer at The Fifth Estate’s table was keen to say that in the 11 years he had waited for rezoning of his “complying” site – while other non-complying sites waltzed through the process – he had seen six planning ministers come and go.

How would a developer in today’s post-corruption inquiries world possibly get to see a planning minister to discuss such a problem?

Hmmm, through the usual channels, the minister said after hoots of laughter. That is, the new usual channels, with an open diary available for public scrutiny, she carefully said.