One of NSW Planning Minister Frank Sartor’s legacies was the establishment of the Planning Assessment Commission, a seven-member independent body of experts to give transparency and arms-length propriety to decisions on major developments.

Sartor, who lost his Cabinet position when Premier Nathan Rees took over last September, had become increasingly alarmed at the public and media perception that he was “green lighting” projects for developers who had given generously to the ALP’s Sussex Street machine.

Nothing could be further from the truth, said Sartor, the former Sydney lord mayor who hosted the 2000 Olympics.

Indeed, many developers were furious with Sartor’s aggressive involvement in the approval process and through their lobby group, the Urban Task Force, they were seeking his removal from the portfolio.

The anti-Sartor campaign was assisted by Joe Tripodi who had been involved in some spectacular fireworks with him in Cabinet and factional fixer Eddie Obeid from the upper house.

With his career as Planning Minister drawing to an end, Sartor persuaded Cabinet to adopt the Planning Assessment Commission to create a Chinese wall between the minister and hotly contested major developments.

He then staffed the body with his own experts:

  • Gabrielle Kibble (chair), current chair of the Heritage Council, administrator of Wollongong Council and former head of the Planning Department.
  • Donna Campbell, former Director of Legal Services at the Environmental Protection Authority.
  • John Court, chemical engineer and environmental expert.
  • Lindsay Kelly, former NSW Government architect.
  • Neil Shepherd, former head of the Environment Protection Authority, Ministry for the Environment and National Parks and Wildlife Service.
  • Garry Payne, Director-General of the Department of Local Government.
  • Janet Thomson, respected planner with more than 30 years experience at all levels of government.
  • Richard Thorp, leading architect and President of the NSW Architects Registration Board.

When the names became public, the developers were appalled. For them, this was the panel from hell: it comprised people of the highest probity with the toughest hides. The game was over. Or was it?

In late November, Sartor’s novice successor, Kristina Keneally, MP for Heffron, issued a press release headed “Depoliticising Planning Decisions” announcing that the PAC would only get to make the decisions on a very small and diminishing number of developments — those where the developer had made a donation or where the Minister personally had a conflict.

In the interests of “depoliticising decisions”, the Minister would make over 90% of the private developer decisions, not the 20% Sartor had envisioned.

Sartor’s 11th hour attempt to restore some transparency to the untrammeled powers of the Minister has been derailed and his much-vaunted PAC has been rendered virtually redundant. How long before Keneally dismantles it?

It’s business as usual in the State of Disgrace.

Peter Fray

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