Power walkers: Lucy and Malcolm Turnbull stroll through Paddington last month. Photo: Christopher Pearce The Turnbulls receive an official welcome in New Zealand earlier this month. Photo: Hannah Peters
Comment: Liberals thumb their noses at party reform
The Turnbull family’s remarkable ascendancy to the apex of Australian political life appears set to continue with Lucy Turnbull favoured to be appointed head of the new agency charged with reshaping Sydney.
Ms Turnbull, a former lord mayor of Sydney and the author of a book about the city, is firming as the frontrunner to oversee the Greater Sydney Commission, the super-agency to manage planning across the city.
If appointed chair, Ms Turnbull and her commissioners would have extraordinary powers to override local council planning controls and guide infrastructure spending.
The position would dovetail with the determination of her husband, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to use the power of the federal government to improve Australian cities, and would be sure to raise questions about the two working together.
But there is a strong view by some in NSW politics that Ms Turnbull’s relationship should not count against her candidacy from the job, for which her background and interests make her well qualified.
The NSW cabinet has not signed off on any names for positions in the new organisation. And Ms Turnbull told Fairfax Media on Friday she had not been approached for the job. “If I was offered a role like that it would be a very great honour,” she said.
“The Greater Sydney Commission has the great potential to be a transformational way of having a collaborative working model for state and local government which has often not been the case in metropolitan Sydney,” said Ms Turnbull, who also chairs advocacy group the Committee for Sydney.
Other names discussed as candidates for roles in the commission include the ubiquitous business executive and adviser David Gonski, sustainability consultant Heather Nesbitt, urban planner Sarah Hill and environment consultant Geoff Roberts.
Explaining the legislation establishing the commission to Parliament last week, Planning Minister Rob Stokes credited Ms Turnbull’s 1999 book Sydney: Biography of a City for proposing a “Greater City Movement”.
“There should be a way of looking at this great city in its entirety rather than as a maze of fiefdoms, each with its own agenda and set of priorities,” Ms Turnbull’s book said.
NSW Labor has said it would support the commission, and Opposition Leader Luke Foley has proposed a better-resourced and more independent organisation than that proposed by the government.
However, the commission nevertheless risks inflaming old tensions between developers and local activists and environmental lawyers. Concerns have already been raised about the quantum of powers invested in the new agency.
Legislation introduced last week and not yet passed allows the commission to draw up local environment plans that could override council plans.
And a surprise element included in the legislation could see a similar approach to planning rolled out across the entire state. The Planning Minister has the prerogative to divide NSW up into regions governed by similar ‘regional’ bodies – but much of the detail of how the plan would work outside Sydney is absent from the bill.
That has critics accusing the government of making policy on the run.
“It is outrageous that the government is ramming these changes though Parliament without proper public consultation,” said the chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council, Kate Smolski. “It will reduce the input people will have into how their communities can be developed, and concentrate power into the hands of the minister and planning bureaucrats.”
Greens MP David Shoebridge warned communities around the state could lost control over local bushland and the environment to Macquarie Street.
“Every protection people thought they had, every bit of local order is all up for grabs,” Mr Shoebridge said.
Mr Stokes said fears communities could lose out were “misleading” and said they would play a role in decision-making through the appointment of six district commissioners – appointments which would be determined by local councils.
“The only person losing power in this bill is the Planning Minister,” he said. “Local environment plans will remain the key document for local planning and decision-making.”
As well as an independent chairman who will report to the minister, other commissioners include an independent environment commissioner, economic and social commissioners and the six district commissioners nominated by councils.
The chief executive of development lobby the Urban Development Institute of Australia, Stephen Albin, said this week the commission would “change the way our city will be shaped”.
“I think you’ll find … they will start really getting involved and forcing the hand of local governments and other stakeholders in areas to ensure we get development.”
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