The political advantages of Lucy Turnbull

WestCONnex is currently demolishing homes such as here in Ashfield. Photo: Peter Fairfax

Early one morning last month, the Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) Lucy Turnbull — a lifelong resident of the city’s most privileged suburbs along the south-eastern edge of the harbour — quietly slipped across to Sydney’s inner west where she was taken on tour by a WestConnex manager of the M4 East tollway tunnel corridor. There she presumably saw for the first time the gigantic construction sites in Haberfield where scores of heritage homes, businesses, gardens, parks and trees stood until a few weeks ago.

Her visit followed a humiliating interview with ABC 702’s Wendy Harmer, who asked for her reaction to the destruction of heritage homes in Haberfield. The demolitions have been the talk of Sydney for months. Even some who had previously supported WestConnex were stunned by the scale of destruction.

The National Trust was scathing of the approval process, describing the destruction as the “worst hit to heritage” in Sydney’s history and comparing it to the 1970s in Queensland when “wrecking balls were brought in and buildings were knocked down in the middle of the night”. Occupations of homes by residents were reported across news media.

Promises

When Turnbull, one of the most powerful people in NSW Planning, told Harmer she did not know that heritage homes were being demolished in Haberfield, people were outraged. Turnbull did promise, however, “to investigate”.

WestConnex Action Group (WAG) spokesperson and Haberfield resident Sharon Laura, who has campaigned against the 34 kilometre, $17 billion tollway for three years, promptly sent Turnbull an invitation to meet Haberfield residents so she could gain a first-hand understanding of their experience.

She received a reply offering a meeting between Turnbull, the Central District Commissioner of the GSC and a group of WAG representatives. The invitation to visit Haberfield was ignored.

After her visit, Turnbull put out a statement. She was sorry if she had caused offence. She now said that she had been aware of demolitions but not of their location. She understood the importance of heritage and that people do not like losing their homes. She was reminded of earlier demolitions of Sydney heritage for significant projects.

Moving on, she said that “now that Stages One and Two [of WestConnex] are underway, we need to make sure that the opportunities to increase investment in safe cycling and greater walkability in the suburbs along the WestConnex route are prioritised. I have been in contact with government agencies about the heritage impacts on homes and neighbourhoods. We must make sure we can do whatever we can to create better city making outcomes.”

Her statement did not mention that she had visited Haberfield without meeting residents. It was a bland statement that avoided any criticism of WestConnex or reference to her own long-term support for the project. Indeed were she not a supporter, it is unlikely that she would have her current job.

Born to wealth and power

Lucy Turnbull is a woman born to wealth and power, who has been married for 35 years to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. One of their shared interests is cities.

It goes without saying that Lucy Turnbull is entitled to an independent career. As an ex-Lord Mayor of Sydney, she had the qualifications to be the powerful Chief Commissioner. But, as a player in her own right she should be subject to the same scrutiny as others.

It was astonishing that Turnbull had no knowledge of the uproar over the Haberfield demolitions, especially as she had visited the Inner West Council, with which the state government has replaced the previous local councils that opposed WestConnex, while the demolitions were actually underway. Did everyone present on that occasion understand that Turnbull is a WestConnex supporter and so politely avoided the issue?

The explanation for Turnbull’s ignorance is less important than the questions it raises about whether a person so deeply entangled in Liberal party politics and fundraising, and an active promoter of controversial developments, including WestConnex, was a suitable choice to head the powerful GSC.

The GSC has been given one year to produce draft district plans for Sydney that will impose crucial zonings and supposedly integrate transport, heritage, green open space and housing. It can override local councils and has the power to make one-off planning determinations and dish out green space grants.

Looked at more closely, Turnbull’s appointment was a strategic move by Premier Mike Baird who appears increasingly anxious to avoid scrutiny of his government’s controversial development agenda, including WestConnex.

The NSW Coalition government was elected in 2011 on a platform of getting rid of what was widely regarded as Labor’s unaccountable and corrupt planning regime. Its promise of returning planning to the community and the councils soon led to bitter disappointment after the new government launched reforms that removed the rights of councils and the community to participate in decisions at a local level.

Community groups across NSW campaigned against the reforms. They were in favour of regional planning but rejected a model which appeared to blatantly favour the property development lobby. The reforms became so toxic that they were withdrawn.

The GSC was the Baird government’s second go at reform. It is a top heavy body that is solidly embedded in existing planning power networks.

WestConnex a ‘necessary evil’

Turnbull has always supported WestConnex. In December 2014, in her characteristically vague way, she described WestConnex as a “necessary evil”. She did not explain why it was “necessary” or “evil” but presumably loss of heritage might be included in “evil”.

Last month, the GSC said that it could not actively intervene in WestConnex’s operations because Stages 1 and 2 had been approved by the time the GSC had been set up in January. In fact, Stages 1 and 2 were not approved until February and April this year. Approval was given without any independent evaluation of expert evidence and despite lengthy submissions from five councils opposing the project and 12,000 submissions from the public, more than 99% of which objected to WestConnex.

While residents were confronting the bulldozers in Haberfield, Turnbull was also thinking about WestConnex. She declared it to be a “rational solution” that should have happened 20 years ago. She did not respond to the many transport planners who argue WestConnex will not solve Sydney’s traffic woes.

Turnbull’s job at the GSC is to persuade Sydney residents to accept its vision of the city in the form of district plans. The task is a tough one.

Residents enraged

Thousands of residents across Sydney are enraged at being shut out of decisions around major developments such as WestConnex, Barangaroo, the chopping down of trees in Anzac Parade, plans to close railway stations to make way for a private metro, plans to sell off Crown Lands, massive high rise in Waterloo, the removal of hundreds of public housing tenants from The Rocks, toxic dumps, more tolls, threats to heritage and 24 hour aircraft noise in Western Sydney.

Since Turnbull’s unexpected blunder on heritage, the news on WestConnex has got worse. The audit of promised federal funding is due early next year. CIMIC, the company that holds the greatest share of $8 billion worth of contracts, is reported to be struggling financially. A culture of corruption within CIMIC is being investigated by federal police.

Early this year, Baird was revealed to have suppressed a report recommending changes to the unfair acquisitions system that has forced hundreds of residents out of their communities.

On September 7, National Threatened Species Day, workers began clearing about 1.4 hectares of the critically endangered Cooks River-Castlereagh Ironbark Forest at Wolli Creek for which it does not yet have approval. The area, which is being cleared to provide parking bays for construction equipment for WestConnex, is home to endangered powerful owls and blue wrens.

ABC has exposed allegations that asbestos is being used in the WestConnex road mix. NSW Labor and the Greens are calling for a stop to all work.

There will be lots for Baird, his Ministers and Lucy Turnbull to talk about at the Cabinet subcommitee. Or perhaps they will congratulate themselves on the progress the project is making and continue to pretend that the bad news is not actually happening.

[This article has been abridged from Wendy Bacon’s blog. You can read the full article here.]

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