25/09/2007 - 22:00

Time for relationship building

25/09/2007 - 22:00


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A few weeks ago I wrote about the big plans the City of Perth has and how frustrated many councillors are about any perceptions they are to blame for the current inactivity.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the big plans the City of Perth has and how frustrated many councillors are about any perceptions they are to blame for the current inactivity.

They believe people don’t recognise how much effort is being put in, and money committed, to try and make things happen.

In the end, I suggested a spirit of compromise was needed to break the deadlock and bring the city, which has the ideas, and the state government, which has the power and the money, together to give Western Australians what they want – a vibrant heart.

Last week, at a Property Council of Australia function I attended, the candidates for the lord mayor’s role had a chance to show their wares. Many of them openly expressed a need to work better with the state.

It was music to my ears, even if, as politicians, they are practiced at saying what people want to hear.

All this talk of better state-city collaboration, though, comes from a presumption that the current lord mayor has not worked with the state, and that that is as a direct result of his own actions.

Certainly it seems that the City of Perth and the current government have been unable to see eye to eye on almost anything. Even ideas they agree with – developing the foreshore and the Northbridge Link – have become stalled or delayed due to differences of opinion.

Many believe this is as a result of the political gulf between the Liberal-linked Peter Nattrass, weakened until recently by a fractured council, and a Labor state government, rolling in money and seemingly oblivious to the urgent need to develop cultural infrastructure.

But underneath that seemingly obvious façade, it is worth acknowledging that Dr Nattrass also had issues with the previous state government led by the Liberal Party. The Perth Convention Exhibition Centre is a classic example.

The site chosen was pushed hard by the state government at bureaucratic and political levels, against the wishes of Dr Nattrass, who preferred it was built where the defunct entertainment centre now stands.

We all know his views on the look of the PCEC, which attracted strong criticism when he made them. These days, though, I find few who would disagree that we’ve been sadly let down by what was developed.

And herein lies my concern with what comes ahead.

Will a new lord mayor, even with the best of intentions, make any difference?

The jury may be out and I am willing to be proved wrong, but my gut feeling is that four years hence there will be little improvement in the relationship unless one side gives in.

For all my talk of a spirit of compromise, what that really means is one side or the other signs up to what I believe is reality.

And that reality is this. The state government has the power and money to make anything happen but the City of Perth is the body that really knows what should happen.

If this were a perfect world, the state would give the city what it needs and allow it to get on with the job. Not a blank cheque, of course, but by allowing the local specialists to lead in an area they know best.

Politics doesn’t work that way, though.

Parliamentarians don’t work hard and long to get elected without a desire to use the power they attain, certainly not to someone who only needs a mere 1,500 votes or so to get elected.

Power rarely devolves; you only have to watch Canberra’s battle with the states to know that.

And state governments, especially in suburban Perth, have few reasons to be city centric. By day, central business districts are full of people who live elsewhere.

It often takes real decay for state governments to wake up to the need for rejuvenation. Cities around the world tell this story, including Melbourne, a place many in Perth now envy.

So, with the power residing outside the CBD, it seems to me that if a stalemate is to be avoided, the most likely course of events is for the city to acknowledge the power of the state and let them take control, hoping to influence outcomes at a micro level.

This isn’t compromise; this is capitulation, but it may be the only way anything can be done.

Like the convention centre, the results may not be perfect, but we’ll learn to live with them and they’ll drive new opportunities.

The mistakes that led to the PCEC may well be key forces in the much-needed development of the foreshore. The fact that we have a building which seems to take little advantage of the river, and which leaves visitors isolated from any of Perth’s natural activity centres, may well be a catalyst to creating a foreshore entertainment zone.

Is that a bad thing?

All this brings into question the very existence of the City of Perth.

If the council is not allowed to make decisions or drive change it believes is necessary, should it exist at all?

Do we really need the farce of an election – the number of registered voters for the City of Perth are extremely low – to provide a near powerless body in charge of rubbish collection and car parking?

Worse, can we afford to have another period of antagonism between the city and state, in which nothing gets done?

I challenge all those involved, be they mayoral candidates or key state government players, to consider this issue.

Either allow the city to do its job, or put it out of its misery and get the job done without it.

This city is our showcase and everyone benefits from improving it. Those in the regions need the administrative capacity of a strong centre which, in turn, needs to be vibrant to attract the right people. For those in the metropolitan area, there is nothing fairer than centralising the cultural heartland, allowing public transport to work functionally.

We have to attract and retain talent and business knows that a vibrant central city is a key element to that. We simply can’t afford the CBD to remain fallow for another four years.


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