This article was written by Leo Dobes, member of the Griffith Narrabundah Community Association, and published in the Canberra Times on 5 September 2016

Chief Minister Andrew Barr has floated his preference for new community consultation processes for major public projects like the proposed Manuka precinct redevelopment. Rather than consulting the local community, Mr Barr appears to be proposing some sort of quota system based on a “demographically representative sample“.

Ignoring for the moment Mr Barr’s apparent ageist preference for the views of the under-40s, it is not clear how a quota system would work. Would it include non-Canberrans like Grocon and the Greater Western Sydney Giants football club, people without tattoos, people born overseas, a token number of left-handed citizens, tree-huggers, public servants, developers and possibly even some local residents?

Consider for the moment three of four members of a family who sit down to watch TV together. One member’s favourite program is Survivor, with their second and third preferences being the Infomercials channel, followed by MasterChef. Other members are likely to have a quite different order of preferences, and may even favour entirely different programs. It comes as no surprise that disagreement is likely over who should select the channel that is to be watched.

This familiar scenario may be intuitively obvious, but such impasses are also the subject of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem; named after US Nobel prizewinning economist Kenneth Arrow. His rather abstruse proof indicates that there is no way of putting together a set of different orders of preferences in a way that will satisfy everyone, once more than about three people and three different choices are involved.

One might therefore be forgiven for speculating that the Chief Minister must have been in the middle of a particularly oppressive “senior moment” when he mused about an extended quota-based community consultative mechanism. After all, the bigger the range of different people with their different perspectives and wishes as to how a project should be carried out – or not carried out – the more unlikely is a consensus. The system would simply not work.

But jumping to conclusions is rarely the best approach, especially where a seasoned politician is concerned.

In a controversial project like the proposed redevelopment of the Manuka precinct there will be a farrago of conflicting views. The various protagonists have different views about upgrading the oval, the number of flats to be built, the appropriation for private gain of community land and heritage areas, the effect on residents of noise, lights, increased traffic congestion and so on.

History and politics, rather than pure economics, provide a more likely source of enlightenment about the Chief Minister’s intentions in proposing an essentially unworkable community consultation process. The strategy of “divide and rule” has a long political and military pedigree, presumably since the dawn of time and in virtually every society. Creating disagreements and discord among groups of potential opponents allows the instigator to gain control over the situation.

Establishing a community consultative group with a wide array of views and interests to debate the redevelopment of the Manuka precinct would thus be a clever, if somewhat devious, move by the Chief Minister. Combined with the lack of any definitive information about the nature or scope of a proposed redevelopment, a community bun fight would be inevitable. Stepping in helpfully to resolve the issue his own way would then be a doddle for Mr Barr.

But a “divide and rule” strategy need not be asymmetric. It will be interesting to see if the inner south (and other) community groups are able to collaborate sufficiently to present a united front. Who knows, they may even be able to turn the tables if they can split the views of the members of the ACT Assembly after the October elections.

Leo Dobes is an adjunct associate professor at the ANU Crawford School and is a committee member of the Griffith Narrabundah Community Association.

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