There’s broad agreement that the new Planning Act in Queensland – coming into effect on Monday – will take the development industry and planners by storm.
James Cook University senior lecturer Sharon Harwood, the Planning Institute of Australia’s chief executive David Williams and several other planning insiders are in agreement that most people don’t realise that the Act enshrines in law the obligation to respect and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture.
That’s right, promote as well as protect.
Most people we spoke to in recent weeks agree the government has little idea what its enabled and that most planners didn’t see it coming.
What’s more, it is likely to be the first of such legislation to creep its way around the country.
But what it means and the impact it will have is up for grabs.
Is the legislation aspirational and along the lines of high level goals enshrined in other planning acts that say, for instance, that environmental outcomes should be balanced with economic outcomes? (Only to be laid aside as one fracking company or developer or miner manages to prove their needs are greater than those of future generations).
Or will it be taken seriously and change the way things are done?
For now, no one knows. The countdown clock on the department website flagging the imminent new law might be cause for celebration or consternation, depending on where your interests lie.
PIA’s Williams, for one, says it’s been a long time coming. And not soon enough. His institute has written a position paper on the topic.
“We put a statement out because we believe it is important, because Indigenous planning is an area that PIA needs to be able to carve out its leadership role and begin to guide the profession both on understanding the issues culturally and the increasing compliance of the legislative requirements to get the conversation started.
“Some of the easy stuff is around the archeological and heritage issues. But how do you do land use planning in a dynamic way?”
In effect, Williams says, Queensland has “hard-wired” into its planning act that advancement of Indigenous communities be considered in planning decisions.
But he doesn’t think the planning industry, nor developers, are fully aware of the implications.
How did it come about? The issue has clearly been in focus for 15-20 years, according to the people we spoke to, but it seems a significant final impetus came from Sharon Harwood.
Harwood says she went to New Zealand to speak to Maori planners and see how similar planning regulations operated there in practice. Then she made a submission.
“I drafted something up.”
The result is an “absolutely fabulous first in Australia that acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have different cultures”.
“And so they put this piece in the planning and they did it without knowing what they were doing, but they have to be congratulated.”
Jennifer Roughan, a director of Buckley Vann Planning + Development, says the provisions are overdue, and a recognition of the significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ heritage and cultural values.
But she thinks they sit at the same high level part of the Act that protects outcomes such as ecological sustainability, community wellbeing and economic development.
“It sits up there at that high level.”
It’s about identifying a purpose for the Act itself and undertaking a whole level of policy-making decisions to advance that purpose, such as taking into account housing diversity considerations and sustainability practices in addition to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural and heritage values.
Planning in the end is always trying to balance community, environment and economic outcomes.
But the reality is “we don’t always get environmental protection”.
“In a practical day-to-day sense the provision of this is not likely to shift every day assessment.”
But Harwood is not so sure. She reckons a few test cases in law will set up a batch of case law the same way that legal tests work out how an act is interpreted.
“It will take some core precedents to sort that out when people, knowledge, culture or tradition hasn’t been protected or valued.”
And this will give the Act the teeth it needs.
She agrees the state government itself may not know the full scale of what it’s implemented.
Another academic, Libby Porter, senior research fellow at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT in Melbourne, says the idea came from a big push in the profession over the past 15 to 20 years.
“The point of departure is that all land in Australia is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander country,” people who have “not gone away”.
“Sovereignty still exists.
“It’s not just about Native Title, where native title is claimed or found to exist, it’s about people still here, practising their culture and their law and they have aspiration for their future and are caring for their country.”
The new Queensland Act mandates an imperative to protect and promote the heritage, knowledge, values and culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people. That’s the principle.
“This is quite profound now: the purpose of planning in Queensland law is to really pay attention to what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are saying about their values, law and connection to country.”
Even more interesting is these objectives are not “spatially defined”. They go across any planning intervention.
Porter says it’s “beholden on us – and I speak as non-Indigenous person – to listen to the people who have thrived in this country for 200 generations, and we can all benefit.”