The Age Editorial: Let public’s voice be heard on east-west link

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The Age Editorial: Let public’s voice be heard on east-west link (August 12, 2013)

Bipartisan federal support for constitutional recognition of local government could not convince Victoria’s government to back a yes vote in the referendum to be held with a September 14 election. The state feared its powers might be usurped by a change that ”could blur the roles and responsibilities between the three tiers of government, leading to poorer overall outcomes for our communities”, Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell said. Now that the election is a week earlier, the referendum has been shelved and the state has changed its tune about respecting the role of each tier of government in serving community interests. The issue at hand is the proposed east-west link, but the role of councils in representing residents and providing informed local input to planning has broader significance.

The Napthine government hopes to sign off its signature project, which Labor opposes, before next year’s state election. To this end, it aims to limit opportunities for public and procedural challenges and delays. Legislation is in the offing to enable the planning minister to ”confine the matters under consideration” at public hearings. While the government says this will cut ”procedural delays and red tape”, a statement tabled in Parliament by Transport Minister Terry Mulder conceded the law could limit ”the degree of involvement during a public hearing”. The public is free to make written submissions, but the minister could stifle the public airing of inconvenient voices and points of view.

Project impact assessments also are being limited under a ”risk-based” approach that excludes community issues deemed to be ”marginal” or of ”little consequence”. Residents are entitled to fear their concerns may too easily be dismissed as trivial.

Meanwhile, the Napthine government has sought to end Yarra Council’s campaign against the project. Ms Powell used Local Government Act powers to order council disclose its spending on the Trains Not Toll Roads campaign. It was appropriate, she wrote, for councils to make representations on preferred options and ways to alleviate construction impacts before a state government decision. ”It is a different matter to wage a public campaign against a project of state significance.”

On the contrary, councils are elected to represent communities’ ongoing concerns. The east-west link’s impacts on neighbourhoods are so substantial that it is neither democratic nor reasonable to restrict the ability of residents and their council representatives to have their say. It is not good enough, for instance, for the government to tell the City of Melbourne to suspend long-term urban renewal plans for a public park on the west bank of Moonee Ponds Creek in Kensington, or to build ramps that divert heavy traffic to suburban roads, and then expect councils and residents to cop it in silence. Communities have a right to have their concerns heard in public and to get answers to many reasonable questions.

The government should welcome open dialogue with the public if the east-west link is as well conceived as it claims. Stifling local democracy in planning processes is ill considered and a sinister development.

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