Time to strengthen ACT Assembly governance over Canberra

November 9, 2015
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The CSIRO recently announced its intention to redevelop its 701 hectare Ginninderra Field Station site into a residential estate containing up to 10,000 houses.

The Field Station site is located between Fraser and Crace and is currently zoned as “hills, ridges and buffer space”. However, the National Capital Authority (NCA) have changed this in the current draft of the National Capital Plan to “urban area” at the express request of CSIRO. This may not seem like a big deal until you realise that the approving authority for any development on this site will also be the National Capital Authority, and not the ACT Government.

As I explained in a recent article for The Canberra Times, once this amendment to the National Capital Plan is approved, the CSIRO can essentially do what it likes. Since the Ginninderra Field Station is a National Land site, it simply has to get the NCA to rubber-stamp its plans:

The NCA does not have to seek approval from the ACT Government or reference the Territory Plan. It does not have to align with the ACT’s planned land release program or environmental standards. It can literally write its own planning rulebook.

To be fair, the CSIRO has good intentions, and is working within the current legislative framework. And at information sessions in September, a CSIRO general manager made a big deal of its voluntary consultation activities with residents and the ACT Government. However, it is very clear where the power lies.

The need for “National Land” status makes sense in some special cases, such as exempting Defence sites from normal ACT planning processes. But in a supposedly self-governing jurisdiction, it is inconceivable to me that the Federal Government should be allowed to take land it no longer needs in the heart of suburban Canberra and do whatever it wants with it. (The NCA is accepting feedback on the draft Plan until Friday 13 November. If you think this is as wrong as I do, please let them know your feelings.)

This is only part of the bigger picture though.

Our framework around self-government was set up a quarter of a century ago. It hasn’t kept pace with what we need locally or federally.

There is no justification for the NCA to ever approve developments that aren’t expressly needed for Federal Government purposes. The Act relating to National and Territory Land status in the ACT should be amended to ensure that land must revert to Territory Land status in the event that it is no longer required for Commonwealth purposes. This wouldn’t affect ownership but merely ensure that the planning controls instituted by our democratically elected Territory government can be honoured.

With improved conversations and conventions, the relationship between the ACT Government and the NCA could be cooperative and highly productive. The NCA should have been our best advocates, standing with the ACT Government in arguing for better compensation from the Federal Government on the Mr Fluffy issue.  And given the significance of Northbourne Avenue as the entry way to Canberra, the NCA can still help the ACT Government lobby for Federal Government funds in support of the transformative light rail project.

Similarly, I was really pleased that the Department of Finance is now forcing the Department of Immigration to evaluate local impacts of a potential move out of Belconnen before any new tender can be released. But we should never have had an 18 month process of extreme uncertainty for residents and businesses that also left tenderers who engaged in good faith with the tender process hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

The bigger problem is that we are still essentially operating under the arrangements drafted by the Federal Government prior to establishment of self-government. Now that we are moving to a 25 member assembly, it is an appropriate time for a broad review that strengthens self-government arrangements in the ACT.