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Major Projects Bill (Land Use Planning & Approvals Amendment Bill) 2020 No. 26

[3.26 p.m.]

Ms ARMITAGE (Launceston) - Mr President, first, I thank the Leader and other members for all the briefings that were organised, and also the many members of the public who actually made the effort to come and speak with us about their concerns and otherwise about the bill. Some were actually very happy with some parts of the bill.

In the plethora of feedback I have received on this bill, a great deal of which came from individual private citizens, an overwhelmingly common theme was the concern about power being taken away from councils to make planning decisions that will benefit local communities. Some are concerned disproportionately powerful legislative reforms are being brought in under the guise of responding to COVID-19; however, that is not my view. In my own consultations I received a reasonably passive response from some who work with such legislation, citing the projects of state significance and projects of regional significance legislation never having been utilised as a reason not to be too concerned about this current major projects bill.

However, my issue is that once power is taken away from local authorities, it would be near impossible to get it back when it is wanted and needed. The concept of having a social licence to build and develop has been cited as a reason to accept passively the effect of the major projects bill. As one person told me -

Developers generally like to achieve social licence for their proposals. This involves public engagement and consideration by their democratically elected councils. After all, once they are approved, they need to operate in their local communities, therefore I believe developers will continue to utilise the current planning authority process rather than the major projects approach.

I understand some people are content with this, but many people in the community are not. After all, while a social licence is nice to have, it is clearly not an expressed necessity under the major projects bill. I am sceptical of any legislation that proposes to take power from the people and invest it in a body that is unelected, removed from the community and has opaque assessment processes. I believe we and the Government need to accept these are real concerns held by Tasmanians regarding this bill.

I emphasise that I, like many others, entirely understand the significantly positive effect that major projects have on the Tasmanian economy. I do not, however, believe that this is mutually exclusive with responsible and considered development, whose ultimate purpose is to benefit the communities in which they are constructed. I do not want to be misconstrued. Development is important for our state. It is important we fuel our economy by these means. It is also important we listen and respond to the people and their concerns. I believe there is scope for economically beneficial development to occur in a responsible way.

I am aware the major projects bill is not a vehicle to fast-track planning approval processes, but it is a way for significant developments to be assessed by an independent, expert panel. I would suggest, however, that by necessity, the considerations of the impact major developments have on the communities in which they are situated should take precedence. In that case, why should it be taken out of the local council domain altogether?

As one major projects bill consultation submission pointed out, there is a manifest lack of clarity for the justification in taking a proposal outside the normal planning application process in this bill.

Any reason, therefore, for taking a project outside the normal application process is critical to the integrity of the assessment. As a consequence, any social licence obtained during consultation and engagement processes, as I discussed earlier, becomes de-legitimised.

I believe our local councils - the layer of government closest to the people - must retain meaningful and reasonable power to represent the interests of their communities. Planning, particularly for major projects, can be a difficult - even an intimidating - matter for local councils to contend with.

However, local councils, the layer of government closest to the people with a mandate to promote the wellbeing of their communities, must possess some ability to make decisions for their communities.

I believe there is room for improvement of the major projects bill, particularly in the way it interacts with other Tasmanian planning and local government legislation, the way in which it defines certain terms and powers, and how it will operate now and in the years to come.

I hold some reservations at the outset that the review into the Tasmanian Planning Commission is yet to be handed down, and the recommendations considered, and yet we are proceeding with the major planning reforms anyway. Again, I understand the unique pressing circumstances that have led us to this point, but I believe it would be a waste of time and resources to pass and implement such a significant piece of legislation only to have to review it again later down the track.

The review directly assesses the structure of the commission and whether it adequately performs as an independent decision-maker and advisory body, that its functions are not undermined by the demands of historically designated roles under other legislation, and that it operates transparently and meets public expectations.

It is mainly the meeting of public expectations that are relevant to the consideration of the major projects bill. As members would be aware, the statewide planning scheme is still with Tasmanian councils to adapt their own planning controls to be consistent with the requirements of the statewide scheme and deliver necessary flexibility to address local issues. I am sure many members here have been waiting for such a long time for the statewide planning scheme.

In the Launceston area I have constituents who, under the current interim planning scheme, are unable to do any development, but I am told that if they wait for the statewide planning scheme, it will then be possible. It is a terrible state of affairs that things have gone on for so long and people are putting developments on hold and sometimes actually selling their properties because they are just so tired of waiting for something they may be able to do one day in the future, if ever.

Ms Forrest - Holding costs are not insignificant, are they?

Ms ARMITAGE - Exactly. The web of legislation that governs local planning in Tasmania - in order to be consistent - needs to share common objectives, and for the purposes of that consistency should contain similar legislative language and construction. It has been raised that some matters being dealt with by this bill do not appear to be consistent with the objectives of the Resource Management and Planning System - RMPS - and the Land Use Planning and Approvals Act 1993.

It follows that, in order to successfully meet its objectives, the major projects bill should be consistent with these other planning laws. By way of example, I raise the wording in clause 12, proposed new section 60W, which provides for a person with appropriate qualifications and experience in commerce and industry, something on which most of us had feedback from the Planning Matters Alliance Tasmania's briefing materials. I agree it is important that a panel member ought to possess commerce or industry expertise, but as a matter of legislative construction, if you are going to prescribe one area of expertise, you should prescribe others.

To this end, inserting a provision that provides for panel members to possess qualifications or experience in environmental science, management, ecology, health, Aboriginal heritage, and historical culture and heritage might be beneficial because that would bring the bill more into line with, for example, the Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal Act 1993 which does prescribe these attributes.

I understand this amendment was negatived in the lower House, but my point is that the major projects bill does not necessarily fit nicely in with other pieces of Tasmanian planning legislation, which could cause interpretive difficulty later down the track, particularly when considering what legislation has primacy over others.

Further to the point of meeting public expectations, concerns about the powers being invested in the minister have also been raised with me. Further to PMAT's briefing documents, I raised the provision in clause 60Q, which empowers the minister to appoint a member of a panel. I understand that in the Government's response to this, they say that the minister is only able to specify qualifications of one of the additional members appointed, and has no capacity to direct or influence who is appointed. I also understand that the panel is required to act in accordance with the Tasmanian Planning Commission Act of 1997, which is insulated from ministerial influence.

I do not see, however, what prevents the minister from prescribing such specific qualifications for an additional panel member that a particular person's appointment becomes a fait accompli. In such a case there is no qualitative difference between a minister explicitly appointing a person of their choosing, and making the appointment conditions so specific that only one person will fit the criteria. This is nothing against any minister, we do not know who ministers may be in the future. It is certainly no -

Mr Valentine - Any colour.

Ms ARMITAGE - Any colour, any minister. It is certainly no slight on any current minister that we have, it is simply a case that could happen in the future. In other scenarios ministerial power has been exercised and the outcomes are the same. Again, I know that this provision was negatived in the lower House, but again wish to bring attention to the levels of power that this bill centralises and invests into a limited number of institutions and people.

As to the longevity and future use of this bill, I believe it is important to retain independent processes and refer again to the Tasmanian Planning Commission review. I believe it would be prudent to wait for this review in order to inform the substance of the major projects bill, as it would ensure the best outcomes for the bill and promote trust in independent, departmental and parliamentary inquiry processes.

As an advocate for our local communities, I strongly encourage the Government and the department to maintain a watchful eye over this legislation as it is implemented, take stock of any unintended consequences and the feedback from our communities and local councils, and maintain honesty, transparency and accountability by amending it if and when poor outcomes eventuate.

A number of amendments are likely to be put forward. I certainly will consider them in view of the advice received in the briefing. I support the bill into committee.

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