Early one morning last week, the Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission Lucy Turnbull, a lifelong resident of the city’s most privileged suburbs along the southeastern 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.
When Turnbull, one of the most powerful people in NSW Planning, told Harmer that she didn’t 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 with 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 Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) and a group of WAG representives. The invitation to visit Haberfield was ignored.
A few days later, protesters wearing mock Lucy Turnbull masks toured Haberfield construction sites and received widespread media coverage. For someone used to a fawning press, this must have been an uncomfortable experience.
Residents sick of being treated with contempt
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 understands the importance of heritage and that people don’t like losing 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 didn’t mention that she had visited Haberfield without meeting with residents. It was a bland statement that avoided any criticism of Westconnex or reference to her own long term support for the project. Indeed if she wasn’t a supporter, it is unlikely that she would have her current job.
When I told Laura about Turnbull’s Haberfield visit, she told that she was disappointed that she didn’t meet with residents who are experiencing the loss of their community and intolerable impacts of construction. She described Haberfield as one of several communities that “has been treated with contempt while planning bureaucrats conduct fake consultations and those in power do hidden deals with private interests.” Laura said that Turnbull hadn’t actually refused her invitation and that she and Haberfield Association heritage experts were still willing to host her on a tour, which she guaranteed would provide a different perspective from that provided by project managers.
Woman of Wealth and Power
Lucy Turnbull is a woman born to wealth and power who has been married for 35 years to PM Malcolm Turnbull. She campaigns for gender equality in work and relationships. “Malcolm is a sounding board for me and I expect I will continue to be a sounding board for him … it’s a mutually, kind of supporting relationship,’’ she said when interviewed by The Australian last year. On another occasion she said, “we talk about everything all the time.” 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 qualifications for the powerful Chief Commissioner job. The Rudd Labor government appointed her to an expert panel to review capital city planning. 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 because she visited the Inner West Council, with which the Baird 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?
Should Liberal party fundraiser hold down powerful NSW public planning job?
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 as a part time public servant to head the powerful GSC that is supposedly independent.
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 must work with Councils but can override them. It has the power to make one off planning determinations and dish out green space grants.
Big Business insider
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.
At the time of her appointment in early December, 2015, Turnbull was Chair of the Committee for Sydney, a lobby group that includes amongst its members Packer’s Crown Resorts, big developers such as Meriton and Mirvac and engineering contractors, including AECOM a major player in the planning of Westconnex. ( For more on AECOM, read about some explosive emails that were part of the case against the company for misleading traffic projections on a failed Brisbane tollroad project.)
She was also on the Board of the Redfern based Australian Technology Park which the Baird government privatised and sold to developer Mirvac late last year.
She is an investor and sits on the board of the vaccine developer company Prima BioMed for which she gets paid $188,000 each year. In May this year, she led a delegation of more than 30 women to Israel for the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, including Broadspectrum (previously Transfield Services) Chair Diane Smith-Gander and Lisa Sonnabend, chief operating officer of Macquarie Capital which has a longterm contract with the NSW government to fundraise for Westconnex.
Turnbull also sits on the board of the Packer Family Foundation. Fellow board member Ros Packer (James’ mother) was the biggest Liberal Party donor in the 2012-2013 financial year, giving a total $580,000 to the federal Liberal Party.
She has been a loyal supporter of Lendlease and Packer plans for Barangaroo. In February 2014, as Committee for Sydney Chair, Turnbull co-hosted a dinner with the Daily Telegraph at which which James Packer celebrated the government agreeing to his offer to build a high rise, high roller casino at Barangaroo in Darling Harbour.
In May last year, speaking at a forum held by Barangaroo developer Lendlease, Turnbull described the project, which consists of Packer’s casino and three other closely spaced towers, as a “world class project” which “would cement Sydney’s place as a global city.” Once again the property development and big business lobby wholeheartedly applauded. But her views are extremely controversial among planners, urban designers and the public who see four towers on the foreshore as boring obtrusive architecture in which the broader community interest has been overridden New Matilda investigated the casino deal in 2012).
Coincidentally on the day she transitioned from the private lobby to part-time public servant, Turnbull launched Harry Triguboff’s Meriton 38 story high rise accommodation towers in the congested heavily developed North Shore suburb of Chatswood. Triguboff is Australia’s biggest developer, landlord and hotelier and richest person in 2016. Turnull enthusiastically endorsed the development as a “perfect illustration of urban density done well. It is right on the train line and there is a huge cluster here of jobs, shops and housing including the Meriton apartments...It is a really amazing model for transit-oriented developments and density done well.” While Triguboff has his supporters, members of the public responded with derision. For example, one wrote ”Chatswood is an example of exactly how you should not plan high density suburbs. In Chatswood high rise apartments are clustered closely together near the station in a concrete jungle. There is no scenery or privacy….Of course the Turnbulls will never allow a high rise apartment building to spoil their precious little eastern suburbs.”
Fairfax media reported in June this year that billionaire Triguboff’s Meriton Properties made $10,000 donations in 2013-14 and 2010-11 to what it described as Malcolm Turnbull’s “under the radar” Wentworth Forum.
Liberal Party supporters pay big money to hear Lucy Turnbull
During the recent campaign, Lucy Turnbull was not only supporting the PM, she was also using her own business connections to fundraise for the Liberal Party as well. In late June, she was billed as the Chair of the Greater Sydney Commission to promote an elite $3000-a-head women-only lunch hosted by Senator Michaelia Cash. On the way into the lunch, Turnbull was confronted by a Fairfax journalist who asked her if she was aware that her public position was being used for political fundraising purposes. She said she had no idea that her GSC role had been linked with the event.
Just a few days earlier Turnbull was the invited speaker at an $100-a-head fundraiser hosted by Chantelle Fornari-Orsmond, the president of the Liberal Women's Council. According to the SMH, this event was promoted as “Chair of the Greater Sydney Commission, [to] share her vision on designing cities to suit women, with a strong focus on safety as well as functionality ...One of Mrs Turnbull's goals is to make Sydney 'a 30-minute city' where people can use fast transport links between centres and provide more flexible zonings for mixed land use." It’s hard to see how Turnbull would not have been aware that her role was relevant to this fundraising event.
The Liberal Party later apologised for promoting her GSC role and donated the money from the $3000 event to charity. But does it really matter whether Turnbull’s actual title was used? Surely most of the guests know of her role anyway. How many other senior public servants are out delivering talks over lunch to raise money for their favourite political party during election time?
Greater Sydney Commission 'independent' in name only
Although the GSC is supposed to be ‘independent’, Turnbull’s role is better viewed in the context of NSW politics of development and planning.
The NSW LNP 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 under the banner of the Better Planning Network (BPN). The BPN was in favour of proposed regional planning but rejected a model which appeared to blatantly favour the property development lobby. The reforms became so toxic that they were withdrawn.
Lucy Turnbull was an active supporter of the unpopular reforms. She was on a committee advising the Minister for Planning Brad Hazzard who drew on her support in a parliamentary speech. He quoted her as saying, “The reforms will give NSW the best planning system in Australia, putting Sydney back on track to improve the productivity and liveability of our city.” Sarah Hill, the current CEO of the GSC, was also a strong supporter of the Hazzard reforms.
The Greater Sydney Commission was the Baird government’s second go at reform. It is a top heavy body that is solidly embedded in existing planning power networks.
Greens MLC David Shoebridge: Top heavy GSC lacks accountability
Liberal and Labor parties supported the GSC. Greens MLC David Shoebridge pointed out, “None of the State government’s 13 appointees to the Greater Sydney Commission will be elected or in any way accountable to the millions of residents whose suburbs, shopping strips and parks will be in their sights.”
As well as the Chief Commissioner, there are three other commissioners and six district commissioners. The secretaries of the Departments of Planning, Environment and Transport are ex officio members. The Secretaries of the Ministry of Health and Education sit on the GSC’s Infrastructure Committee. For good measure, the CEOs of the NSW government land developer Urban Growth and Infrastructure NSW (which came up with the idea of Westconnex) are observers.
Lucy Turnbull becomes member of NSW Cabinet sub-commitee
As Chief Commissioner Turnbull gets to sit on the influential NSW Cabinet Infrastructure Sub-Committee along with Premier Baird, Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian, Planning Minister Rob Stokes, Roads Minister Duncan Gay and other key Ministers. The fact that a part-time public servant with extensive private interests could sit on such a Committee would once have caused a storm. But in a state where the notion of conflict of interest is disappearing as private and public interests are merged, with stark consequences for public accountability, it barely raised a ripple.
The Sub-Committee meetings are private but one would assume that the biggest transport infrastructure project in Australia’s history would be regularly discussed. For that reason alone, you would expect Turnbull to be abreast of Westconnex.
Turnbull sides with WestCONnex
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 why it is “evil” but presumably loss of heritage might be included in “evil”.
There was a moment last year when Turnbull could have struck a decisive blow in favour of an independent assessment of the evidence for and against the controversial project. Instead she shored up support.
In April 2015, Tim Williams CEO of Committee of Sydney who is also a planning adjunct professor at Sydney University, gave a lecture in which he was scathing about NSW Transport Planning, the powerful role of NSW Roads and Maritime Services and the idea that motorways like Westconnex were a solution. I attended this lecture which was a detailed, thoroughly researched presentation with a Powerpoint of 73 slides. Williams promised that more research and documentation was on the way. A sense of relief and strong support from hundreds of planners and students present was palpable. ( You can read more about the event and view the slides here.)
While other experts had been critical of Westconnex, Williams intervention was seen as pivotal. He is a significant figure heading up a committee of powerful companies and peak business organisations.The lecture was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Minister for Roads Duncan Gay and his staff were worried. Gay admitted in parliament to conducting a phone campaign against Williams, accused him of being a ‘rogue operator” and suggested that he should be sacked.
Then came the backdown. In a note jointly signed by Turnbull, Williams said that he had commented only from a personal perspective and had gone beyond the formal position of the Committee without clarifying that he was doing so. "I have apologised to all partners and to my board who have been very magnanimous,” he said. The words needed to satisfy Minister Gay came next, “We have long supported the principle of a well-integrated WestConnex project which combines improved travel times and reduced congestion, and enables the creation of more housing and urban renewal along Parramatta Road.”
“We will always be a platform for both collaboration and challenge to ensure Sydney gets the policies it needs. But we do this without controversy and on the basis of evidence and that will always be our approach." It was a chilling moment in the history of Sydney planning. At that stage there was no approval for the first stages of Westconnex. Instead of being a moment to pause to consider evidence put forward by Williams, it ended with silence and an endorsement of Westconnex.
The Committee for Sydney Board and Gay had indeed shown that they would scotch controversy. But even if he had apologised, Williams’ own evidence that received resounding support on the night stood intact. The Committee including Turnbull were united in demonstrating a lack of interest in debate and evaluating evidence when it came to justifying Westconnex.
The lesson was clear to all - stick your head up and it will be kicked. Turnbull meanwhile had sealed her claim to the Chief Commissioner’s job. Williams had his contract renewed but has since been quiet on the subject of Westconnex.
Last week, 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 2016. The Minister for Planning gave his approval without any independent evaluation of evidence supplied by experts, 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, Lucy Turnbull was also thinking about Westconnex. She took the opportunity of an Australian Financial Review Infrastructure summit to declare it to be a ‘rational solution’ that should have happened twenty years ago. She didn’t explain what she meant by ‘rational’ or respond to many transport planners who argue Westconnex won’t solve Sydney’s traffic woes.
She no doubt didn’t notice Westconnex protesters picketing outside or the giant poster that dramatically demonstrated the destruction in Haberfield.
Greater Sydney Commission slogan: Our Sydney, Your home
Turnbull’s job at the Greater Sydney Commission is to persuade Sydney residents to accept its vision of the city in the form of district plans. The task is a tough one. 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, and toxic dumps, more tolls, threats to heritage and 24 hour aircraft noise in Western Sydney.
'Talkbus' hits a blogger road bump
One of the GSC’s answers to the problem is a ‘talk bus’ which travels across Sydney chatting to residents about their ideas for city planning. We can assume that some of the 40 people working at the GSC, just like the planners in the audience at Tim Williams lecture, would like the road and property developers to have less control over Sydney's planning. They are no doubt sincere in wanting to implement some residents' ideas within guidelines delivered from above.
In May, the GSC posted up what residents would like to see in different regions of Sydney - less congestion, more public transport, more affordable housing, more open space appeared frequently and in Sydney Central that includes the Inner West, heritage was mentioned. No loud call for more tolled motorways. Pity about WestCONnex.
At a food market on Canterbury Racecourse the talk bus crew encountered Sydney University’s Kurt Iveson. The GSC team in black t-shirts tried to foist a balloon onto his young son and pushed his mother to ‘talk’ to them about her ideas. He later wrote at letter to the GSC that he published on his blog. Here are a few short extracts:
With the recent establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission, a bunch of appointed Commissioners have acquired incredible powers to shape this city….In fact, the way that the NSW Government has gone about establishing the Greater Sydney Commission is a perfect example of what's most messed up with the way this city is governed.
There are lovely statements on the webpage about the Commission 'working with us', how they want our ideas so they can 'co-create' a better Sydney with us. It's very nice of them to seek our ideas.
But we know how this goes. The plans they develop will be the plans they were always going to develop. I'm sure their reports will include selected quotes from consulted punters and pie charts of community attitudes, to give them the veneer of democratic legitimacy. They will claim they were shaped by our 'participation' and 'engagement' through extensive consultation.
This form of consultation is not the same as democratic participation -- indeed, it is close to its opposite. Those involved in the Commission may genuinely wish to know what we think. They may even deign to incorporate some of our ideas in their plans. But ultimately, they are not accountable to us. We don't get to determine what they do with our ideas. The plans will be theirs. Indeed, the strange motto of the Commission -- Our Sydney, Your Home -- kinda sums this up for me. Weird, right? It's like the Commission is telling us "you might live here, but Sydney is ours, not yours...
More talk than transparency
The Greater Sydney Commission is not transparent or accountable. It does have the power to make one off determinations. In fact in a move favoured by many, it ruled out some super high rise towers in the centre of Parramatta.
I asked the Commission for a list of other determinations but no list is available. Apparently, determinations will be included in the minutes of meetings which must be held five times a year. The minutes of the first meeting in May are available but July's meeting minutes cannot be approved until September. No notes of scores of meetings with Councils and other bodies are available.
Knowing what you need to know
Turnbull leads the GSC team because she has demonstrated firm support for Baird government’s vision of Our Sydney. While her ignorance about Haberfield was embarrassing, it was not surprising. She knows what she needs to know, and what she should leave alone.
Since Turnbull’s unexpected blunder on heritage, the news on Westconnex has got worse. There will be much to talk about at the next Cabinet Infrastructure Committee. There’s the Federal audit of promised Federal funding due early next year. CIMIC, the company that holds the greatest share of $8 billion worth of contracts, is reported to be struggling financially. Its current management is accused of failing to deal with a culture of corruption being investigated by Federal police. Last week, Baird was revealed to have suppressed a secret report recommending changes to an unfair acquisitions system that has forced hundreds of residents out of their own communities. Other residents are still being pushed out of their homes. This week, Westconnex is preparing to knock down critically endangered Iron Bark forest in South West Sydney for which it does not yet have approval. Last night the ABC exposed allegations that asbestos is being used in Westconnex road mix. NSW Labor and the Greens are calling for a stop to all work. There is evidence that the project will worsen traffic congestion and air quality in many areas of Sydney.
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.