Stephens, David: “We have once again been played for mugs by a deeply flawed process”: analysis of the National Capital Authority consultation report on the $498m Australian War Memorial redevelopment project “early works” application

David Stephens*

‘“We have once again been played for mugs by a deeply flawed process”: analysis of the National Capital Authority consultation report on the $498m Australian War Memorial redevelopment project “early works” application’, Honest History, 28 June 2021

 

Update 4 July 2021: Key documents; bulldozers move in.

Contents

Summary.

  1. Covering statement from Chair of the Authority.

Comment.

  1. The consultation report proper.
  2. Need for, and purpose of, the AWM expansion.

Comment.

  1. Extent of tree removal.

Comment.

  1. Impacts on Heritage Values.

Comment.

  1. Demolition of Anzac Hall.

Comment.

  1. Cost of works.

Comment.

  1. Early works being considered separately from the major redevelopment works.

Comment.

  1. Concern about the consultation process.

Comment.

  1. Conclusion of the consultation report.

Comment.

  1. Final word.

Comment.

  1. What could be done to make the NCA a worthwhile authority?

Comment.

***

Summary

The National Capital Authority (NCA) consultation report on the War Memorial’s early works application has a covering statement from the Chair of the Authority. That is a very unusual feature of such reports and suggests that the Authority was sending a message that it had looked particularly closely at the application.

Yet, the actual approval of the application was a decision, not by the statutorily appointed Authority, but by the Authority’s Chief Planner, who carries the Authority’s delegation on works approval matters. The Chief Planner and his staff deal with hundreds of works approval applications annually, but these are typically for small projects, affecting few people. That is nothing like the $498m, multi-year, highly complex Memorial project.

The consultation report understates the importance of the Memorial to Canberra and Australia and fails to recognise the risk that the redevelopment will destroy the balance at the Memorial between display and commemoration.

The Authority has required the Memorial to plant more trees, but this is no more than a sop to community outrage. It is also the concession that places least obstruction in the way of the redevelopment.

The consultation report steers away from the defects of the heritage decision by the Minister for the Environment, including the criticism of the Memorial project from within the Minister’s own portfolio, and the chicanery that has been associated with the Memorial’s Heritage Management Plan.

The report fails to address comprehensive critiques of the process that is leading to the demolition of Anzac Hall.

The report takes a narrow, monetary view of the costs of the works, not recognising that a grandiose and wasteful project like this has a cost to the status of the national capital.

The Authority has gone along with the ‘early works’ rort engineered by the Memorial. Approval of these early works – the demolition of Anzac Hall, the felling of 140 trees, and the huge excavation – makes further public consultation on the project irrelevant and redundant.

The public consultation process has been cheapened, on both the Memorial’s and the Authority’s side, by the presentation of masses of complex material, poorly indexed and confusingly presented.

The Authority’s report shows little grasp of the earlier stages of consultation on the project, stages that have consistently been misrepresented by the Memorial and its consultants.

The Authority’s treatment of the 601 submissions it received is slipshod and shows signs of haste. Lengthy submissions are reduced to brief summaries and crucial points made by many submissions are ignored in the summaries of them.

The Authority’s comments on the submissions make use of a ‘mix and match’ collection of standard paragraphs, with insufficient attention paid to unique points made by submitters.

The Authority held a special meeting, a week earlier than normal, probably because of political pressure to resolve the matter quickly. The Authority was still publishing public submissions on its website days after the approval decision had been made.

The Authority concluded that the early works were ‘not inconsistent’ with the National Capital Plan. Applying the ‘not inconsistent’ test allowed the Authority to look at the features of an application and match them against the general words of the Plan and find there was no inconsistency.

The Authority had, on one hand, a collection of plans, blueprints, and assessments relating to demolition, excavation, tree-felling and other bits and pieces (fences, paths and so on) and, on the other hand, in the Plan, some high falutin’ words about how the national capital should look – and hardly anything about demolition, tree-felling and digging great big holes.

The Memorial, through its consultant Knight Frank, seems to have had had so much contempt for the consultation process that the application documents explicitly stated that the National Capital Plan – the yardstick for NCA consideration – did not apply to the works in the application.

Did the Authority advise Knight Frank or the Memorial how the application material could be worded to facilitate a finding that the application was not inconsistent with the National Capital Plan?

The Heritage Guardians submission examined this aspect at length, but this material was completely ignored in the Authority’s consultation report.

Canberrans and Australians have been played for mugs by this process, right from the time Prime Minister Morrison on 1 November 2018, at Parliament House, in a lavish launch paid for by War Memorial Council Chairman, Kerry Stokes, announced the funding of the project.

The insiders (including those who work and have worked at the War Memorial) have always known that all those approval processes and public submissions were so much hot air after that big launch of 1 November 2018. The plans were unveiled in November 2019 and have remained largely unchanged since – as the Memorial itself admits.

The NCA needs to be drastically reformed. It has very limited powers on projects that matter. It is subject to intense political pressure, under which it caves and rushes to judgement in a flurry of self-exculpatory words.

The NCA has pretensions to consult the public, but they are pretensions that amount to very little when push comes to shove and the political fix is in.

Fundamental reform, on the other hand, might give the NCA some chance of fulfilling its mission of enhancing and preserving the national capital.

The analysis concludes with six suggestions for reforming the Authority, some of which would require legislation:

  • hold an inquiry into how the Authority might be reformed;
  • remove the works approval delegation from the Chief Planner for projects of more than a specified value;
  • ensure there is no perceived clash between the function of liaising with works proponents and approving applications, particularly applications for larger projects;
  • require that all works in a project should be considered as a single package, thus doing away with the early works rort;
  • require the Authority to show it has presented material properly and dealt with community input fairly;
  • require that the Authority’s treatment of works applications be reviewed annually by the Australian National Audit Office.

***

An earlier post noted the release of the consultation report and the reaction to it. This post looks at the report itself. Headings are mostly drawn from the report, but section numbers have been added for ease of reference. Author’s comments are under heading ‘Comment’ and in italics.

Supporting evidence can be found in the full Heritage Guardians submission to the National Capital Authority and the summary of that submission.

The long history of the Heritage Guardians campaign against the project provides further evidence.

 

1. Covering statement from Chair of the Authority

The consultation report is prefaced by a ‘Statement’ over the name of Terry Weber, Chair of the Authority.

The statement summarises the process and the decision. The Public Record of the meeting of 2 June (scroll down to pdf) suggests the Authority heard at length from ‘NCA officers’, presumably including the Chief Executive, the Chief Planner and his team. The record does not state which officers were present.

The Chief Planner and his staff had done the heavy lifting on the Memorial project; as the Heritage Guardians submission to the Authority noted (paras 10 and 42 and endnotes 3, 6 and 7), NCA works approval functions have been delegated to the Authority’s Chief Planner and his staff, although the accountability remains with the Board of the Authority.

Once the Authority had considered the proposal and found no inconsistency with the National Capital Plan, the Chief Planner gave his formal approval on 4 June. (Thanks to the Authority for a recent email providing advice on this point.)

By a further email dated 25 June, Heritage Guardians has asked the Authority to provide a copy of the Chief Planner’s approval and a copy of the Authority’s delegation to him relating to works approvals. David Stephens, for Heritage Guardians, has also lodged with the Authority requests for Statements of Reasons under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act.

Comment

The Chair’s covering statement ploy is unusual: a check of the previous 53 consultation reports on the NCA website, going back to May 2015, reveals no other statement signed off by the Chair. Inclusion of this statement, along with the detail in the Public Record, is perhaps intended to assure readers that the Authority had a particularly close look at the early works application from the Memorial.

These refinements do not make the Authority’s decision any more acceptable; they just spread the responsibility. Still, it remains the case that a project worth nearly $500m was formally approved, not by the statutorily appointed Authority, but by a public servant, the Chief Planner, whose normal fare (over 12 years in the job) has mostly been a series of modest, often piddling-sized projects, at the rate of up to 400 projects a year.

Something is seriously wrong with this arrangement. Surely, the delegation should be removed or varied for projects above a certain size and complexity? Approval of these projects should be a matter for the full Board of the Authority, that is the four statutorily appointed members and the Chief Executive.

There is an additional element involved when the Chief Planner, the holder of the delegation, the officer who gives the formal approval, also seems to have been the main point of contact with the proponent, in this case the War Memorial (Heritage Guardians submission, para 42 and note 6). There is a confusion of hats and roles here that needs to be resolved.

The confusion emerges most closely in the penultimate sentence of the Public Record of the meeting of 2 June (scroll down to pdf): ‘The Authority asked the NCA to ensure it continues to provide substantive input and engagement in the redevelopment project to ensure it will continue to be of the highest possible quality’. This sentence only makes sense if ‘the NCA’ is read as ‘the Chief Executive’ (who is also a member of the Authority) and/or the Chief Planner.

The NCA website claims, ‘Our board, also called “the Authority”, is the National Capital Authority’s primary decision-making body’. Except, it seems, when it delegates approval decisions – even really big ones – to the Chief Planner, who in this case, as noted above, seems to have been the main liaison person with the proponent, the Memorial.

The Public Record of the NCA meeting of 2 June says that ‘the Authority noted that the Early Works application is not inconsistent with the National Capital Plan and agreed that the NCA’s decision and Consultation Report and detailed attachment be finalised and publicly released’. In other words, it left the actual decision to the Chief Planner, exercising his delegation.

The delegation arrangement might be acceptable when the works being approved are small and of little consequence beyond immediate neighbourhoods; it is unsatisfactory with a project as large and consequential as the Memorial megabuild.[1]

 

2. The consultation report proper

The complete consultation report runs to 1195 pages because of the need to summarise and respond to the 601 submissions that had been received by the time the Authority considered the report on 2 June. At the time of publishing the present post, around 290 submissions had been reproduced on the NCA website with the permission of the submitters. Submissions were still appearing on the site after the Chief Planner made the approval decision on 4 June.

The report proper, however, is just 13 pages. Much of that is the standard template description of process that appears in many or most NCA works approval reports, including a summary of the provisions of the National Capital Plan (against which the Authority assesses works applications) and an outline of the consultation process.

Of the 601 submissions, just three supported the works in the Memorial’s application, while 590 expressed concerns about some or all of the proposal and eight provided a neutral response but raised concerns or questions. Three out of 601 is 0.5 per cent.

The report accepts the Memorial’s claims about the need for the project and notes the previous decisions of the Parliament on the Public Works Committee (PWC) report and the Minister for the Environment under the heritage provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Page 13 carries the report’s Conclusion, with the key words in bold:

The NCA’s consultation process was carried out in accordance with the National Capital Plan and the NCA’s ‘Commitment to Community Engagement’.

The NCA sought additional information from the AWM on aspects of the proposal including information on the proposed landscape replacement strategy. The AWM provided a tree replacement plan, noting this will form part of a separate and future works approval application.

The NCA is satisfied the proposed landscape replacement strategy addresses the concerns raised during the community consultation.

The NCA considered all issues raised and concluded the proposal is not inconsistent with the National Capital Plan and is supported by the NCA.

The NCA Board reviewed the Consultation Report at its meeting on 2 June 2021.

On 4 June 2021, the NCA approved the early works application. (Emphasis added.)

There is that reference to the two dates, with the Chief Planner’s formal approval coming two days after the Authority met.

The report summarised the key issues under the following headings.

 

3. Need for, and purpose of, the AWM expansion

The report says ‘the need for the expansion and the story to be told within the expanded facility are matters for the AWM Council. The NCA notes and supports the enhancement of a national cultural institution; however, the NCA does not have a role in determining the content of exhibitions or the curatorial direction of the AWM.’

Comment

This is a narrow view of the importance of the Memorial to Canberra and Australia, particularly given the NCA’s role under its legislation to maintain and enhance the character of the national capital. The redevelopment is more than a matter of curatorial direction; it threatens to irreversibly shift the balance of the Memorial away from commemoration and remembrance to display and entertainment.

This risk was a theme of many submissions to the NCA and has been recognised by the government’s premier advisory body on heritage matters, the Australian Heritage Council, and by the heritage experts within the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. (See comment by Stewart Mitchell, former head of buildings and services at the War Memorial. This post and Australian Financial Review article links to the FOI documents Mr Mitchell mentions.)

 

4. Extent of tree removal

The report refers to the EPBC heritage process conclusion that tree removal will not have an unacceptable impact on environment or heritage values.

The report notes that the Authority pressed the Memorial further on the trees issue. The Memorial is to plant at least 250 additional trees to replace the 140 to be destroyed. There are requirements regarding species of trees and how advanced the new trees will be, plans regarding watering, and a further approval in 2022.

‘The NCA is satisfied’, the report says, ‘this process will ensure the landscape qualities of the AWM site and the broader landscape setting of the national capital will be maintained and enhanced’.

Comment

Some of the trees to be destroyed are as old as, or older than, the Memorial itself. Whatever requirements the Memorial has accepted regarding the planting of advanced trees it will be decades before the mass of trees matches the current landscape; the view up Anzac Parade and the link to Mount Ainslie will be devastated during that time. The Authority’s decision on trees is no more than a sop to recent public outrage and is the concession which places least obstruction in the way of the Memorial redevelopment. The Memorial has already begun to plant the trees.

 

5. Impacts on Heritage Values

The National Capital Plan requires that all proposals subject to NCA planning approval are assessed in accordance with the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The Australian War Memorial and Anzac Parade are places on the National Heritage List, protected under the framework of the EPBC Act.

The report notes that the Minister for the Environment approved the project under the EPBC Act, subject to conditions and that this ‘satisfies the heritage conditions of the Plan and guided the NCA’s assessment of this matter’.

Comment

The conditions attached to the Minister’s decision are inconsequential. They do not resolve or reduce the recognised heritage impacts of the development. All identified heritage impacts remain. The NCA should have conducted its own heritage assessment, including questioning whether the Memorial was acting in accordance with its own Heritage Management Plan 2011 (HMP), produced in accordance with the EPBC Act. The Memorial’s HMP requires conservation of Anzac Hall, as does an overdue review of it (2019) which was ‘shelved’ by the Memorial during the approval process. This shelving was done on the advice of the Minister’s Department. (Stewart Mitchell’s document is relevant to these points. See also Heritage Guardians submission to NCA, paras 77-81.)

 

6. Demolition of Anzac Hall

The report covers the history of Anzac Hall and the fact that the moral rights legal obligations to its designer have been fulfilled. It notes the arguments against the demolition but accepts the Memorial’s claim that it has given ‘exhaustive consideration’ to alternatives. It notes that the demolition of Anzac Hall was ‘included in the 2019 referral of the proposal to DAWE for its assessment under the provisions of the EPBC Act. Demolition of Anzac Hall was not considered to have an unacceptable impact on heritage values of the AWM.’

Comment

The Authority did not address the comprehensive critiques by former Memorial officer, Richard Llewellyn, published and readily available on the Honest History website. Mr Llewellyn argued that the process that produced the demolition of Anzac Hall was deeply flawed. He also provided a submission to the NCA consultation (pdf of submissions posted 17 May 2021, from page 53).

 

7. Cost of works

Submissions suggested less money should be spent or that the money should be spent elsewhere. The consultation report notes that expenditure of public money is a matter for the government and that the PWC had dealt with the issue.

Comment

This is a narrow view of the cost issue, particularly given the NCA’s role under its legislation to maintain and enhance the character of the national capital. A decision which privileges grandiose, wasteful and ill-directed expenditure reflects badly on the status of the national capital and thus on the nation.

 

8. Early works being considered separately from the major redevelopment works

The report includes a justification for the early works approach. It acknowledges concerns about the approach – approving early works before the major works have been approved – but says the NCA

has been actively reviewing the evolution of the larger design and providing critique and direction as the AWM has been developing the major works packages. This engagement has provided the NCA sufficient confidence regarding the overall character of the major redevelopment works to enable approval of the Early Works package.

The report says the public ‘has had visibility of’ design concepts online and during consultation. There will be opportunity for further consultation when the major works applications come from the Memorial.

Comment

Interested parties would be quite justified in not bothering with further consultation stages. As the Heritage Guardians submission to the NCA said (para 37), ‘these so-called early works – the demolition, the big excavation, the mass tree-felling – are irreversible and fundamental and should not be dealt with in isolation from what is meant to happen in the future. Approval of these early works makes further consultation irrelevant and redundant.’   

The die has been cast, the bulldozers are about to move in. It only remains to offer comments to the Authority on, for example, the colour of the paint and the quality of the materials in the new, much bigger Memorial. Why bother?

The NCA accepted what Heritage Guardians knows to be the Memorial’s justification of the early works approach, with its emphasis on risk management and allowing for more contracts to local firms. As for the NCA’s history with this approach, the report says, ‘It is not uncommon for an applicant to discuss the structure of an application with the NCA, particularly when the proposal is large and/or complex’. Yet, the Authority, questioned by Heritage Guardians during the consultation period, found it difficult to point to previous examples of the early works approach.

The clanking euphemism, ‘had visibility of’, indicates a feature of the consultation process throughout the Memorial project: the practice of the Memorial, and now the Authority, of confronting the public with masses of material, poorly indexed and confusingly presented. Visibility perhaps, but not comprehensibility.

The extension of normal consultation periods, which the Authority mentions in the consultation report on this application, does little to alleviate this feature. A neutral observer would be justified in concluding that the deluge of information from proponents and regulators is deliberate and designed to discourage meaningful input. This is another area where the NCA’s practices are crying out for reform.

 

9. Concern about the consultation process

The NCA’s report summarises the consultation processes undertaken by the Memorial, including under the EPBC process, by the PWC, and by the Authority itself.

Comment

The NCA’s report does not even properly summarise the numerous consultation exercises set out (if in a misleading form) in the Planning Report (pdf attached to link), pages 30-34, submitted to the Authority by consultants Knight Frank for its client the Memorial. The Planning Report focusses, for example, on the Memorial’s November 2019-February 2020 exercise involving 1031 respondents (a massively flawed effort, as Heritage Guardians pointed out, pages 10-15), ignores the much larger February 2021 ‘survey’ (still being massaged by the Memorial) and omits to mention that an earlier ‘survey’ (only 134 responses, despite intense publicity through mailouts and other means) was completed as far back as September 2018.

The Authority fails to acknowledge criticisms of the Memorial’s consultation methods. Heritage Guardians’ submission referred to

the masses of spurious “survey” material the Memorial has used since 2018 to justify its claims of wide support for the project. This material has been characterised by leading questions, biased samples, low response rates, and misleading spruiking by public officials and contractors who should know better. The words “mendacious” and “meretricious” are appropriate for much of this “evidence” (Submission to NCA, para 7).

The Authority’s treatment of the 601 submissions received is slipshod and shows signs of haste. Lengthy submissions are reduced to brief summaries – Heritage Guardians’ 8400-word submission is summarised in 265 words – and crucial points made by many submissions are ignored in the summaries of them.

The Authority’s comments on the submissions make use of a ‘mix and match’ collection of standard paragraphs, with insufficient attention paid to unique points made by submitters. The fine words in the Authority’s Commitment to Community Engagement were not put into practice in the rush to get this exercise disposed of as quickly as possible.

The Public Record of the NCA’s meeting of 13 April 2021 (scroll down) says the Authority’s ‘next regular meeting is scheduled for 9 June 2021’. The Authority duly met on that day but, a week before that, on 2 June, it had held its special meeting on the War Memorial project. One can only speculate about what pressures were being placed upon the Authority by the Memorial, and perhaps the government, to get the process over pronto.

Finally, the report includes compliments about the interest shown by submitters in the project. Rather than this flannel, most submitters would have preferred to see some evidence that their views were having some influence on the process. The sop about the Memorial having to plant additional trees will be treated by many submitters with the disdain it deserves.

 

10. Conclusion of the consultation report

The key words in the report are found in the section headed ‘Conclusion’ and they are these: ‘The NCA considered all issues raised and concluded the proposal is not inconsistent with the National Capital Plan and is supported by the NCA’ (emphasis added).

Comment

The bolded words above are crucial. ‘Not inconsistent with’ is a low bar, as shown in the following illustration, using imaginary examples:

Example A: There is a proposal for a ten-storey building. The National Capital Plan says buildings shall be no more than eight storeys. The proposal is amended to make the building just seven storeys. The proposal is now consistent with the Plan.

Example B: There is a proposal for a ten-storey building. The National Capital Plan says nothing at all about how many storeys buildings should have. The proposal is not inconsistent with the Plan because there are no relevant provisions in the plan. The ten-storey building can go ahead.

Applying the ‘not inconsistent’ test allows the Authority to look at the specific features of an application and match them against the general words of the National Capital Plan, including its Planning Principles and Precinct Codes, and find there is no inconsistency. In the current case, the Authority had, on one hand. a collection of plans, blueprints, and assessments relating to demolition, excavation, tree-felling and other bits and pieces (fences, paths and so on) and, on the other hand, in the National Capital Plan, some high falutin’ words about how the national capital should look.

All this meant that the Memorial had that low bar to climb over – or, to mix the metaphor, you could drive a bulldozer through the process. Indeed, the Memorial, through its consultants, Knight Frank, seemed to have so much contempt for the process that the Planning Report (scroll down to pdf), the key document in the application, explicitly stated that the National Capital Plan, the NCA’s guiding document, was not relevant to the early works application. Here are some quotes:

[G]uidelines in the National Capital Plan (NCP) do not relate to the works proposed under this application. This application describes the works and provides background information for the overall development project. (Planning Report, page 6; emphasis added)

[T]he proposal [that is, the big project] is assessable against the NCP. The works proposed [in the Early Works Application], on the other hand, are limited to early works packages of site hoarding, services relocations and ancillary works, demolition and excavation. Guidelines within the Plan are developed to control the design outcomes of built form. As a result, specific guidelines of the Plan do not relate to the works proposed and are therefore not addressed in this planning report. (Planning Report, page 28; emphasis added)

This report has not addressed Detailed Conditions of Planning, Design and Development within the NCP because the works proposed are not of a nature which may be assessed against design-based guidelines. (Planning Report, page 36; emphasis added)

The Heritage Guardians submission to the NCA (paras 45-60) went into this discrepancy at length. In response to our enquiries during the consultation process, we had received NCA emails referring us to the Planning Principles and Precinct Codes associated with the National Capital Plan. Our submission pointed out the clanging irrelevance of these documents to an application which was all about demolition, excavation, tree-felling, and some trivial preparatory works – and which explicitly stated (see above) it had nothing to do with the design matters addressed in the Plan.

Heritage Guardians checked the Planning Principles and the Precinct Codes and concluded (Heritage Guardians submission, paras 59-60):

It is not surprising that HG as a submitter to the process had difficulty matching the terms of the EWA [early works application] to the NCA’s Planning Principles and Precinct Codes. Knight Frank did not even bother to do so, perhaps knowing that, despite the Authority’s claim that these are the “go-to” documents, they do not help much on how to dig holes, demolish buildings, and chop down trees. In sum, the Knight Frank-Memorial material contains insufficient evidence for public commenters to make an assessment against relevant criteria.

If public submitters could not match the application against the National Capital Plan, how did the NCA manage to do so? Did it really need to try? In fact, it took advantage of the low bar of the ‘not inconsistent’ test. And the claims in the Knight Frank-Memorial application that it had nothing to do with the National Capital Plan made the bar easier to get over.

Did the Authority advise Knight Frank or the Memorial how the application material could be worded to facilitate a finding that the application was not inconsistent with the National Capital Plan?

The part of the Heritage Guardians submission that addressed the above issues amounted to almost 1600 words in a total of almost 8400 words, yet it received not a single word in the NCA’s summary of our submission (Consultation report, from page 975) and thus did not even score a cut-and-paste/mix-and-match response. So much for the Authority’s ‘commitment to community engagement’.

 

11. Final word

Comment

If the Authority lacked the capacity or time to properly engage with a mass of submissions, particularly detailed ones where submitters had taken the process seriously – where they had really ‘engaged’ – it should have taken longer to do the job and done it properly, asking for more resources if needed.

Canberrans and Australians have been played for mugs by this process, right from the time Prime Minister Morrison on 1 November 2018, at Parliament House, in a lavish launch paid for by War Memorial Council Chairman, Kerry Stokes, announced the funding of the project.

An Interdepartmental Committee chaired by the Memorial was kept busy during 2018 while Mr Stokes and Director Nelson used back channels with Ministers to nail down funding. The plans got an easy run through (or possibly around) Cabinet and Department of Finance guidelines. The PWC said it had limited authority in the matter, the Minister in charge of heritage (which observers were regularly told was just one aspect of the project) agreed to inconsequential approval conditions, and the NCA brought up the rear, saying it, too, had limited powers after the PWC and EPBC work had been done.

In the face of these disclaimers and incomplete forays, comprehensive analysis of the Memorial project has been left to members of the public and advocacy organisations, all of whom lack formal power to affect the outcome. Heritage Guardians and many others have done their best.

The insiders (including those who work and have worked at the War Memorial) knew that all those approval processes and public submissions were so much hot air after that big launch of 1 November 2018. The plans were unveiled in November 2019 and have remained largely unchanged since, as the Memorial itself admits.[2]

Tenders for parts of the work were advertised from early 2019, saying the project had been ‘approved’ by the government, when no formal approvals had been given. The Memorial’s catering contractor started pitching the new, remodelled Anzac Hall to potential customers as early as July 2019 (update 23 July 2019). (What a great place to enjoy cocktails and prawns with an arms manufacturer donor to the Memorial!) Station-master Nelson testily told critics in August 2019 that ‘the train has left the station’.

The NCA has been the final actor in this regrettable performance. As has been the case throughout this long-running farce for many players, we have once again been played for mugs by a deeply flawed process.

The NCA’s record here shows it needs to be drastically reformed. It has very limited powers on projects that matter. It is subject to intense political pressure, under which it caves and rushes to judgement in a flurry of self-exculpatory words. It has pretensions to consult the public, but they are pretensions that amount to very little when push comes to shove and the political fix is in. Fundamental reform, on the other hand, might help the NCA fulfill its mission of enhancing and preserving the national capital.

 

12. What could be done to make the NCA a worthwhile authority?

Comment

Here are six actions that could be considered:

  1. The Australian Government should appoint an independent inquiry to examine the history of the former National Capital Development Commission and National Capital Planning Authority, to see which of their powers might be restored to the NCA, while taking account of the role of the ACT Government, and of the findings of previous inquiries in this area, such as the Hawke review of 2011.
  2. The National Capital Authority should remove the works approval delegation from the Chief Planner for projects of more than a specified value, say, $20 million.
  3. The National Capital Authority should review its arrangements for liaison with works proponents to ensure there is no perceived clash between the liaison and the decision-making and approval functions, particularly in the case of large projects.
  4. Recognising that the early works application process is essentially a rort, the Australian Government should insert a provision in the NCA’s legislation that requires it to consider as a single package all works in a project.
  5. The Australian Government should amend the NCA’s legislation to require that the Authority show in its consultation reports (a) that it has arranged and indexed material relevant to the consultation in a way that facilitates maximum community input and (b) that it has dealt fairly and as comprehensively as possible with the submissions it receives.
  6. The Australian Government should require by legislation that the NCA’s treatment of works applications be subject to annual audit by the Australian National Audit Office as to their fairness and comprehensiveness, with the ANAO being provided with additional resources to allow this to occur.

 

* David Stephens is convener of the Heritage Guardians campaign and editor of the Honest History website.

Endnotes

[1] There is a problem of terminology here. The Public Record of the meeting says the Authority ‘noted’. The Consultation Report says the meeting ‘concluded’. The difference is puzzling (and careless for a public authority). The two words mean different things: ‘concluded’ implies a reasoned judgement; ‘noted’ is something less than that. Given that the Public Record of the meeting is not the Minutes of the meeting, what word do the Minutes use? What word best describes what happened?

[2] ‘Both the public comments and advice from DAWE greatly contributed to the Memorial’s Final Preliminary Documentation [to DAWE under heritage provisions of the EPBC Act]. Changes included more than 50 updates, clarifications or changes to project documentation and supporting attachments. Although the core project proposal remains largely unchanged, considerable work has been undertaken to reduce heritage impacts identified through this process. This is reflected in substantial design detail changes to the proposed New Anzac Hall, Glazed Link and Oculus elements in particular.’ (Emphasis added.) ‘Development project: process and approvals’, under sub-heading ‘Second consultation phase’, accessed 27 June 2021.

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