Sydney is in the middle of a spending spree on transport infrastructure. The city is gobbling up billions of dollars from the sale of the electricity system and other public assets.
You’d think we’d be pleased for once. Instead Sydneysiders are unhappy. Their city isn’t performing. Population growth has costs which seem to outweigh the benefits.
As well, there is frustration that growth is being thrust on us, that we have no choice. A significant part of this frustration is not having a say in the direction of our city, where higher density development will occur, what infrastructure proposals get built, how tolls and fares are determined, and so on.
A common concern is the growing influence of lobbyists over urban development and infrastructure choices.
The power of lobbyists over politicians has long been questioned. Medical experts, for example, say Australian regulations don’t sufficiently rein in the lobbyists employed by the alcohol, gambling and tobacco industries.
The main way lobbyists are controlled in Australia is by registration. But a look at the register of lobbyists held by the NSW and Australian parliaments shows how little we are told. The registers don't identify who the lobbyists meet with and why.
But we can guess. By law, the registers show the activities of the firms paid to act as third party lobbyists, or guns for hire. These firms employ a long list of former politicians and senior public servants, people who can arrange access to their former colleagues and buddies.
The registers also show who the clients are, those who stand to make or lose big bikkies from government actions. Not surprisingly, the prominent clients of the lobbyists are property developers, mining companies, gambling and alcohol interests, and banks.
It is good that the registers reveal these details. But there are omissions from the registers, and many are private sector entities with a keen interest in Sydney’s property and infrastructure boom. For example, property developers like Meriton and Lend Lease, and infrastructure operators like Sydney Airports and Transurban, all employ personnel whose job is to influence government decisions. But folk like these don’t appear on the lobbyists register.
Likewise private sector industry associations, such as the Minerals Council of Australia and Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, have free run of Macquarie Street without public scrutiny.
Missing too are the representative associations, like the NSW Business Chamber and the self-proclaimed think tank The Committee for Sydney, that are underpinned by corporate donors eager for their interests to be advanced.
Sydney’s property and infrastructure boom is an historic opportunity for private firms to make big bucks. A railway line through a large rural holding can deliver a windfall rezoning.
A new metro station on an old industrial estate is pay day for a high density apartment builder. A new outer urban motorway sees logistics firms lining up to buy prime real estate along the route.
The lobbyists – registered or not – back their clients with expert reports proclaiming the merits of the proposals, but the public rarely gets to see the detail. The proposals are discussed at swanky conferences, with select ministers and fly-in fly-out experts on the podium, but the public is rarely invited to attend.
A hearty menu of choices is dished up for government, big splashes are arranged in the media, and the winning lobbyists sing the praises of the ministers.
The losers, though, are the general public. Some vent their frustrations to their local members of parliament about what is happening to their neighbourhood – but most stay quiet because they know power lies elsewhere.
- Professor Phillip O’Neill is Director of Western Sydney University’s Centre for Western Sydney