On Kangas and Norway changing the world, and the never ending fun of politics and planning

Isn’t politics exciting? There go the pollies swaying in the wind, feeling the rhythm of the vibe. Which way next?

But what’s even more exciting is when the pollies become irrelevant. Such as when that powerful beast – money – decides to ignore them and snaps around to bite them with giant fangs. Go the money machine!

On Thursday morning came the big news that Norway’s sovereign wealth fund was told to get out of coal. By the afternoon there was the financial media’s lament that AGL and coal miner New Hope would suffer as a result.

Pity it’s not 100 per cent divestment; the fund said it would get rid of all companies that earned more than 30 per cent from coal. But who’s quibbling? We’re talking about a $900 billion fund and a conservative, albeit minority, government pulling the strings (because it has to).

The news followed quick on the back of the revelation that ANZ’s green bond we flagged on Friday would be a whopping $600 million.

This doubles previous green bond highs issued in Kangas.

(For newbies to the fin-markets Kangas are Aussie dollars and if you’re green and you care, it’s time get out your Language of Money books by Edna Carew and study up hard).

Climate bonds star Sean Kidney told us earlier this year that the world could be on track to $100 billion in green bonds by the end of 2015. After ANZ’s efforts that can’t be too far away.

Ah money. It moves without fear or favour. It simply follows its own single-cell amoebic nature and divides and multiplies.

Better than politics? Nah

But politics will always be an excellent sport because it’s just as exciting whether you’re in stratospheric la-la land such as a mad rogue country like Australia, state government or even the local council. Hell, even the politics with your partner can get exciting.

And what best to bring out the frisson of politics? Planning of course.

This week we saw the far from mild mannered Urban Taskforce drop the NSW part of its moniker and wade into the apartment debate in Melbourne, where the new Labor government wants to consult more with the community and test for social benefit when big projects are approved.

Whoa… hold those socialist horses! Who’s running this outfit anyway?

Chris Johnson who runs the Taskforce sent a media release on Thursday that called for restraint from the newbie pollies in Melbourne who clearly haven’t worked out the score.

This kind of stuff could cost perhaps up to $150,000 more per apartment, he told us. We proffered that a broom closet would shave heaps off the price. “Well you have to be able to market the thing,” Johnson responded. Maybe, but we didn’t think students got a say.

This talk of quality brought to mind the Tyler Brûlé talk at the Lend Lease show of force at Darling Harbour on Monday night, where the stakeholders gathered to pay homage to the cities fetish and drink from the cup (you know the one).

Brûlé was a wake up call. As befits a man who can’t stand still (globally speaking), he called for a wild array of sensory impacts to make a city exciting, from small kiosks with random retailers to acceptance of noise (if you want silence go to the outback, he said) to planes landing in a CBD. (He showed a photo of some such airport –  in Vancouver from memory, but then we are so badly travelled here at The Fifth Estate… But we couldn’t help thinking they could retrofit all that wasted space in Martin Place for a runway, after moving the Cenotaph of course. It would be kind of fun to clip the top of Parliament House as you came in to land from the east.)

The other thing that Brûlé called for must have rocked some of the assembled guests (not in a nice way). He said apartments should be designed for people, not brochures. Imagine that! Bedrooms that didn’t remind you of the amenity of a coffin and bathrooms where you could swing your cat (in a friendly, fun kind of way).

But back to Johnson, who’s always so much fun to talk to. Mainly because he’s not afraid to speak his mind and be provocative if needs be. But also because his members happen to be the most powerful developers in the land.

Here’s a bit from Johnson’s media release:

“The move by the Victorian Government to require the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to recognise social impacts and to involve communities more in planning determinations will slow down building production.”

It might threaten the vast amounts of development under way, he continued (ignoring, it must be said, the danger of oversupply).

Johnson quoted Australian Bureau of Statistics figures that put Victorian construction in the March quarter at $1172 per person while in NSW it was only $808 per person. (Hmm, interesting way to shift the thinking and make us feel all personally responsible for the state of the development industry.)

But there’s a reason for this personal apportionment.

Johnson says a Productivity Commission report found that 64 per cent of Sydneysiders were against growth compared to 52 per cent in Melbourne. Ah ha!

In our conversation Johnson explained what was going on. Yes it was his members who were prompting this step into Melbourne planning business since the developers operate all around the country and were worried that the Sydney disease would take hold in Melbourne.

The biggest worry and problem with Sydney, Johnson said, was “raised expectations”. That’s when the government promises consultation (such as under the former planning minister Brad Hazzard) and then before you know it, the community wants to be consulted on all sorts of things.

Johnson has been so worried about the potential spread of this pernickety tendency that he recently switched sides on the issue of amalgamating councils.

Bigger councils, he reckons, will mean more power because the state government has offered more say in planning controls as a sweetener for amalgamations..

“My worry is that the more powerful the local government the more this starts to confuse the role of the state government and councils in delivering services in terms of planning roads, transport etc.

“If you build up bigger councils they will start getting into those areas and create big confusion,” he told us.

Poor old state government. There it is thinking it’s responding to its most important economic constituents, the development industry, which has lobbied and begged and pleaded for years for council amalgamations and now here’s the developers saying, sorry, nope, stop. Don’t want that anymore.

What the developers want is a nice big powerful Greater Sydney Commission, Johnson says. One that can say, we’ll do all the big blueprint stuff, local councils and community can look after the local (much smaller stuff).

“Clearly communities must be involved in the planning process,” Johnson says in the media release, but it should be at the “strategic planning end” rather than when the blueprints hit the tarmac, so to speak – when a real project is proposed.


Johnson thinks the rest of the country could learn a few lessons from Queensland instead where the still-new Palaszczuk government said this week it would pick up planning reform where the Newman government left off.


Either the Queensland community has had a community backlash bypass or everything really is hunky dory in the sunny state.

Certainly Johnson thinks the Queensland government is unlikely to do anything too radical with its planning reforms. And certainly the Property Council in Queensland is pleased with the proposals.

But you need to see what the Environmental Defender’s Office chief executive Jo Bragg told Andi Yu.

The Newman government did an untold amount of damage to environmental protections. It’s not acceptable that the new government will not restore the measures.

Bragg said it was no surprise that the property industry likes speed and efficiency, which is top of the reform agenda.

“They like things being fast tracked whereas the community likes things being assessed more thoroughly,” she said.

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