Neutering the Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

This article is a follow-up to my recent long piece titled Northern Territory development, debt and deficit – the long and winding road.

Urban development ideas are invariably bedevilled by community dissension, much of it uninformed and anything but constructive.  However, part of the cause is failure by governments to adopt clear collaborative and consultative processes. Protesters with NIMBY motivations and instinctive Nabobs of Negativism often achieve levels of community fear and concern that their arguments and motives don’t merit, because governments have failed to make proposals and their underlying rationale clear and failed to build a consensus in favour of them before formally announcing them.

The proposed but now abandoned Myilly Point Indigenous and Multicultural Museum, which was to form part of the long-awaited Darwin City Deal with the federal government, is a classic recent example. Darwin badly needs an attraction that will honour our rich Indigenous and multicultural history and make it more accessible both to tourists and local residents. There’s no doubt in my mind that a well-conceived museum/cultural centre would have been really exciting and a big success. But the concept was never explained or “sold” clearly by the Gunner government either to the public or stakeholders. As a result, widespread misunderstanding and ignorant opposition were inflamed and the Chief Minister felt compelled to abandon the whole idea on pragmatic political grounds.

There are other projects that arouse community opposition on somewhat more rational grounds.

Darwin City Council’s abandoned plan for traffic lights at the Smith/Daly intersection in the CBD was a silly idea that was eventually abandoned after massive opposition. Providing a safe crossing point for cyclists wasn’t a silly idea, but traffic lights certainly were. How about a pedestrian and cycle overbridge? Ditto with the notion of a dedicated cycle lane along The Esplanade, when we already have a wide dedicated cycle path directly across the road in Esplanade Park. That idea was only abandoned after expenditure of significant ratepayer funds.

There are still other proposals that attracted major community protests before they were built, but that just about everyone now supports and takes for granted. Both Cullen Bay where we live and the Darwin Waterfront development are examples of that phenomenon. On a smaller scale so too are the new large kids’ playground in Esplanade Park and the Foreshore Cafe adjacent to Nightcliff Pool. There was a time not so long ago when you couldn’t go for a walk or cycle along the Nightcliff foreshore without being accosted by someone with a petition collecting signatures against the Cafe. Nowadays you can find many of those protesters sitting around at the Foreshore Cafe happily sipping lattes themselves.

Part of it is simply that many people lack the ability to envision change or realistically assess its likely impacts.  Better the devil you know than the one you don’t. They may also distrust the information they receive from government; their default assumption being that all politicians lie and that many have corrupt motives.

So how do we go about building a more constructive, collaborative model for identifying and nurturing new urban development proposals and ensuring that as far as possible they meet fundamental public interest criteria? Here are two specific proposals.

1. Committee for Darwin

Our major capital cities already have business and community-based bodies with strong government linkages that identify, develop, research, consult and advocate for new urban development ideas to enhance their residential, business and tourism amenities. The Committee for Sydney and Committee for Melbourne are prime examples. The latter describes itself like this:

Committee for Melbourne is an apolitical, not-for-profit, member-based organisation that brings together over 120 organisations from Greater Melbourne’s business, academic and community sectors who have a passion for shaping Melbourne as a leading global city in the world’s fastest-growing region, the Asia-Pacific.

Its focus areas are future economy, liveability, infrastructure and urban optimisation. For example, the Committee proposed the Melbourne Free Tram Zone and had it adopted by government starting in 2015. The Zone allows people to move and shop freely and easily around Melbourne’s CBD without a car and irrespective of the weather. It has been a huge success, contributing to Melbourne repeatedly being named the world’s most liveable city. More recently they have proposed a plan to extend the free tram zone to include a range of sporting and cultural venues just outside the CBD. Darwin could do a lot worse than try something very similar.

A Committee for Darwin might be expected to identify or at least analyse and research; accept or reject; and then advocate and build community consensus for major proposed new projects like new inner city roads, parking stations, the Myilly Point Museum and a mooted CBD major water theme park. No doubt some would be embraced while others wouldn’t. But at least it would reduce the current absurd and almost universal kneejerk opposition to just about all development proposals, where media uncritically report the protests because conflict is more newsworthy than consensus and collaboration. With a Committee for Darwin the NIMBYs and Nabobs of Negativism wouldn’t be able to masquerade as the silent majority.

2. Mandatory publication of “business case” and benefit-cost analysis for major projects

Again, larger states already have fairly formal processes requiring business cases for major development and “benefit-cost” analyses by independent expert bodies eg Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure Victoria. These bodies rank proposed projects in terms of their assessed levels of return to taxpayers and advise on development priorities. An assessed rating greater than one means that the project can be expected to generate more benefit for the community than it costs to build, while a rating less than one suggests the opposite. Ratings include factors of benefit to the community that can’t necessarily be “captured” profitably by a private operator, such as environmental, social and cultural factors or reduction of traffic and overcrowding. That is, a public benefit-cost analysis is much more than just a business case.

Both processes should be required in the NT. Any development involving more than (say) $20 million of public funds should require a formal business case and an independent public benefit-cost analysis, both of which would have to be published albeit with redaction of parts that could genuinely be regarded as “commercial-in-confidence”. The requirement would apply equally to fully public projects; private ones with significant government funding, subsidies or guarantees; as well as Public Private Partnerships. Had these processes been in place in past decades, the Territory might have been spared the wasted expenditure of the Trade Development Zone as well as worthy projects with misconceived subsidy deals like the Darwin and Alice Springs Sheratons.

There might also have been more careful evaluation of projects like the Darwin-Alice Springs Railway, which might have ensured that it was built within a context involving realistic plans for development of other “building blocks” essential to fostering the avowed aim of making Darwin Australia’s genuine “gateway to Asia” over time (eg a highly efficient automated port with frequent affordable shipping links).

Lastly, a requirement for independent benefit-cost analysis might have thwarted current projects like Barneson Boulevard and the proposed underground carpark adjacent to Parliament House, allowing government funds now committed to both of them to be devoted to more productive projects. I would be very surprised if either Barneson Boulevard or the underground carpark could survive any competent independent cost-benefit analysis.

Maybe the NT at our stage of development can’t afford to develop our own infrastructure assessment body. We might have to sub-contract the analyses to Infrastructure Australia or Infrastructure Victoria (preferably the latter).

Neither of my proposals involves reducing or restricting the powers of elected NT governments. They will remain practically and electorally responsible for the projects they propose, fund and deliver. If they believe that there are overriding public interest factors favouring a particular development then they will still be able to proceed irrespective of the views of bodies like Committee for Darwin or Infrastructure NT. But at least they will ensure a process that maximises government transparency and accountability, and will enhance the prospect that taxpayer funds will be spent in areas of maximum benefit to Territorians rather than for short-term political posturing or deals for mates.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Jennifer McCulloch
Jennifer McCulloch
5 years ago

Myilly Point is a significant site in so many ways and Darwin visitors have little access to knowing much at all about the oldest continuous culture on earth. Come on government be practical and imaginative and create beauty.
Also, I think I am now one of those people that doesn’t like it when big trees are cut down. There was a beauty on Marina Bvd, it swayed bravely all the way through the cyclone and looked so strong. Now it is gone, I don’t know why, I hope the reason is that it was dead on the inside, and that wasn’t yet obvious to us on the outside.