Victoria at risk of NSW-style planning fiasco
Architect Nonda Katsalidis, right, and an artist's impression of his Australia 108 tower. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
What would happen if Eddie Obeid or Ian Macdonald ever became Victoria's planning minister? It's a question posed by City of Melbourne councillor Stephen Mayne, who provides his own answer: They'd have a field day.
It's a question and answer that cuts to the heart of governance principles that range from fine to foul around the nation, from the smallest shire to our biggest administrations. As the saga still unfolding before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption demonstrates, ministerial power and discretion can be a terrible thing. One man's can-do red-tape-slicing is another's ticket to the races.
It hasn't taken corporate governance activist Mayne long to get into a fight in his new council job, this time with Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy over the approval process for what would be the Southern Hemisphere's tallest building, Australia 108 - 388 metres and 108 levels of glamour and glass from the team that built Melbourne's merely 297-metre Eureka Tower.
It's bemusing that the spat is over something Melbourne developers apparently can do that James Packer can't: build a massive landmark six-star hotel, accommodation and office complex without a casino to pay for it. Who knows, maybe somewhere down the track the Australia 108 mob might decide, as a matter of state significance, that their hotel should indeed have a high-roller casino floor or several. It would be more than bemusing to see what the reaction of Packer's Crown operation would be to that, the reversal of the current Sydney play.
The Australia 108 developers had planning permission for a 226-metre tower, but have gone to the Planning Minister for the extra 162 metres to whack the hotel, bars and restaurants on top.
Mayne's beef is that simply going to the minister for permission is dangerous governance, telling his newsletter readers that:
“A succession of Victorian Planning Ministers have had way too much power with not nearly enough transparency around their decision making and far too much fully delegated discretion. And Minister Guy is on a roll like no-one before which looks like culminating in approval for the biggest building in the Southern Hemisphere without even referring it to Cabinet.
“Whilst City of Melbourne councillors have resolved that we'll never meet with a developer without an officer present, no such protocol exists in the Minister's office.”
Mayne of course makes no suggestion of any impropriety on Guy's part, but says the system is open to abuse should a less scrupulous individual score the job. State politics being state politics, it's not hard to imagine such a possibility.
In the way of planning politics and power tussles between state and local government, Mayne making those points on Melbourne ABC radio last week quickly had Minister Guy on the line slamming the councillor and claiming all was fine and dandy because the system in Melbourne is that the Planning Minister is the man for projects of more than 25,000 square metres. Australia 108 certainly qualifies.
It was a rather silly barney on the minister's part, as you can hear here. By just claiming the system is the system, he appears to totally miss the point that it might be possible that said system is slightly less than perfect. Boasting that he didn't have to give the City of Melbourne a look in at all, but was doing so, tended to prove Mayne's point.
The real question
The question isn't about whether Melbourne should or shouldn't have the “tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere”, however naff that title may be, taking the bragging rights from the Gold Coast's 323-metre Q1, and keeping a nose above the buildings of Africa, South America, New Zealand and Antarctica. By the Wikipedia list, Australia 108 would scrape in as the world's 20th highest. It's a list that, these days, is dominated by developing countries that might be trying to prove something, or perhaps compensate for something else.
And the question isn't about whether Sydney should have a second official casino to go with its scores of unofficial casinos. In both cases, it's whether the governance practice is sound and transparent, that it's OK for an approved building to sprout another 162 metres on a minister's say so, or that a powerful businessman can avoid an open, competitive tender for a government licence.
It is fair complaint that development costs in many jurisdictions (and we do have a great many different jurisdictions) are needlessly inflated by planning Pooh-Bahs, red and green tape, NIMBYs and sundry self-appointed drongos. Good governance shouldn't mean slow and costly – but it does mean transparent and balanced.
Ian Macdonald's apparent ability to run his former department at his personal discretion - and allegedly that of his mates and assorted associates - demonstrates the potential danger of opaque power. According to Mayne, the Victorian system has plenty of that sort of potential. Victoria is not alone.
Michael Pascoe is a BusinessDay contributing editor.