You are here: Home / Media / Secret business puts a community at risk - 29.11.2004

Secret business puts a community at risk - 29.11.2004

The Redfern-Waterloo Authority Bill gives one minister immense power, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

Picture it. January 2004. The professor, chairman of the parliamentary committee, bravely reminds parliament that compulsory acquisition of land without notice, which the government seeks to legalise, is actually unconstitutional. The professor's argument is clear and cogent - but without effect, since the government proceeds undaunted, acquiring land as a child picks flowers.
Which parliament? Not NSW, clearly, since we have neither constitution nor, for that matter, cogent opposition. No. The speaker was Professor Abednico Ncube, the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs. The country: Zimbabwe.

NSW is not Zimbabwe. Of course not. There's the black-white reversal, for one thing. But the legislative creatures in question - Robert Mugabe's Land Acquisition Act 2001 and Bob Carr's Redfern-Waterloo Authority Bill 2004 - are strikingly congruent. Both concentrate power to acquire public or private property in the hands of one man; both exempt that man and his authority from the normal operations of democracy; both justify such means by extreme political exigency.
You think I draw the long bow? Consider this.

Carr's Redfern-Waterloo Authority (RWA) Bill doesn't even feign checks and balances. Whisked through the Legislative Assembly a week ago and awaiting the upper house's stamp duty, so to speak, it creates an authority that is not only secretive and self-validating, as we have come to expect, but has powers unprecedented even in the wilds of Sydney planning. It is "trust me" legislation of the scariest, dopiest kind.

In some ways this just spells out Sydney's fair-weather friendship with democracy: lip-service when skies are blue, summary abandonment at the first wisp of trouble. And Redfern-Waterloo is trouble. It is also one of the most diverse, disadvantaged and sensitive communities in the country, a youthful community where not a single indigenous male attends university; where even government reports bemoan the "crippling welfare mentality", while toddlers play knee-deep in used sharps from the Government's do-good needle bus.

What does the bill propose?

First, it creates yet another secret Sydney planning authority - no public meetings or minutes, decisions or debates - and puts that authority under control of a single minister; the minister not for Planning, but for Energy and Utilities, Science and Research, Health (Cancer, assisting), Arts (assisting). It invests that minister, Frank Sartor, with unheard-of discretionary powers, even within this Thatcherite development corporation mentality, to plan, acquire, approve and develop public or private lands, within and without the given area, without outside scrutiny.

He can appoint and sack board members and advisory committees for no reason; extend boundaries; suck in external developer contributions without hypothecation; and run a staff of authorised officers with no function except to serve penalty notices, "personally or by post".
The Aboriginal community has lately applauded Redfern police for their delicacy in a difficult job. But the place needs another (untrained) enforcement troupe like a baby needs a barbed-wire sandwich.

Checks and balances? Sure. The bill requires the minister to make the Redfern-Waterloo Plan publicly available, but not before its approval. Not even before its execution. It requires the minister to consult the board in making said plan, but he can sack them if they demur. It allows the minister to take public issues into account, if he so chooses. And, in order to facilitate all this, it "disapplies" the Heritage Act, wherever the minister feels this to be essential to his vision.

This means nothing is safe. Any property - in an area with 16,500 residents - can be acquired, demolished, redeveloped. And because the money, from development and from penalties, goes straight into coffers, the minister has a direct incentive to maximise both - and sack any dissenter. Dangerous law, more dangerous precedent.

Then there's the board. In a move as insulting, to all of us, as naming Bennelong Point after Bennelong died of rum in a gutter, the bill requires one - one - indigenous board member (minister's choice), leaving all other nine appointments to pure ministerial discretion.
And in case that's all too constraining, the bill entitles the authority to "do all such supplemental, incidental or consequential acts as may be necessary or expedient for the exercise of its functions". You don't often see the word expedient in the statutes, even in NSW.

In Parliament, while the Opposition doodled, the Member for Bligh, Clover Moore, moved a volley of amendments. Most were rejected, including one that would have helped the minister out of an obvious conflict of interest by giving consent powers to the Planning Minister, Craig Knowles, instead. One amendment, though, was accepted, requiring the minister-for-everything not to do anything dramatic about his boundaries (like including the airport corridor) before consulting, well, himself. Help me here - is that a check, or a balance?

As to motive, there are various theories; from demolishing the Block by stealth to grow the CBD, to reclaiming what the ALP lost through its hamfisted pre-election gerrymander. (Remember the minister's "local-government pissants" tirade back in February, and his promise to Lucy Turnbull that "the Government ... will destroy the City..." Remember that?) Then again, some say the Opposition is waiting for the Government to trip itself up here - which might explain their pathetic performance in Parliament, where only five independent MPs (including Moore) bothered opposing the bill.

Just as Mugabe used the Land Aquisition Act to stifle political opposition, the Carr Government relies on the Liberals' pro-development habits and the popular kneejerk to "clean up Redfern" forever, to push through legislation that no democratic government should be seen dead with.
And just as Mugabe ended up putting half of the very population he purported to help on food aid, while the fat guys sit pretty, so Carr's Redfern-Waterloo Act will backfire, destroying the only pocket of live indigenous culture the city centre will ever have while the Big End white boys take over the small black end as well.

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Redfern resident, architecture writer and former city councillor.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald
November 29, 2004