Your right to know: What, exactly, did NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts say in his “secret speech”?


NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK – OUR VIEW: On 25 February 1956, the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, gave a secret speech denouncing the policies of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. 

Rumours about the speech circulated for years after the fact, but it was not released to the public. Only the supreme leader’s closest allies, his “inner party”, were allowed to be in the room when it was delivered. No official transcript was kept.

Secret speeches aren’t supposed to happen in a democracy. We’re supposed to have an open and accountable government.

Yet on Tuesday 5 April 2022, the New South Wales planning community experienced its own secret speech.

NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts delivered a speech at a lunch event organised by developer lobby group Urban Taskforce Australia.

Like Khrushchev years before, we know Minister Roberts denounced the policies of his predecessor, Robert Stokes.

We know that during the speech, the minister announced that the state government had decided to dump a vital planning reform, known as the design and place state environmental planning policy, or the D&P SEPP.

As The Fifth Estate has previously reported, this broad-ranging policy package set out a best practice principles approach to building walkable communities and sustainable buildings. It included a new Urban Design Guide, a revision to the state’s Apartment Design Guide and an overhaul of the state’s basic building sustainability rules, or BASIX.

Alarmingly, The Fifth Estate understands that the Minister did not consult with key industry stakeholders, such as the Australian Institute of Architects or the Planning Institute of Australia, before making his decision to dump the proposal.

Knowing the reasons why the minister made the decision he did is clearly a matter for the public interest. This is a decision that will have a big impact on a range of sectors, from planning to architecture and construction. It will affect everyone who buys or rents a new apartment or lives in a new subdivision for years to come.

But here’s the thing.

Unless you are part of the “inner party” of developers for that luncheon, you can’t find out what, exactly, he said.

As of today (Friday 8 April), the speech does not appear on Anthony Roberts’ website.

It doesn’t appear on the NSW Liberal Party website.

It’s not on the NSW Department of Planning and Environment website.

It was not sent out through the department’s mailing list.

We asked for a copy direct to the planning department and were told, no, it would not be made available. 

The email we received said:

“Unfortunately, we can’t share the speech with you but please find clarification to your questions below. Let me know if you need anything else.”

Well yes, we need a lot more.

The additional matters we asked clarification on are:

  • To clarify, does this mean that there are still separate SEPPs in place for residential apartment development and BASIX?

“Yes”

  • Does this mean that SEPP 65 remains in force?

“Yes it will remain in force with no change”

  • If SEPP 65 does not remain in force, can you clarify what the relevant SEPP is for the construction of residential apartment buildings?

“N/A”

“Yes it will remain in force with no change”

  • Will the residential design SEPP and the BASIX SEPP still be consolidated into a single SEPP, without the additional changes proposed as part of the design and place SEPP? 

“BASIX will remain a standalone SEPP.”

The closest that the public and many businesses get to knowing what Minister Roberts said about the decision is a single line on a media release that reads: “Following extensive consultation with industry and stakeholder groups the NSW Government will not introduce the State Environmental Planning Policy for Design and Place.”

In short, just like Kruschev, the minister delivered a secret speech to his inner party.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev

Now obviously, we’re not comparing the current NSW government to the murderous brutality of the former USSR’s leaders. But, at the same time, the level of openness and transparency around this major decision is not what we would expect in a modern, democratic country. 

Over the past week, The Fifth Estate has heard from countless professionals, businesses and peak bodies across the broader building, planning and construction sector who are dismayed at the minister’s decision on the SEPP.

For balance, we’d love to tell you why the minister made the decision he did, in his own words, by publishing his speech.

But right now, we can’t. 

Surely, if the minister has consulted extensively with industry and stakeholder groups (as he has claimed) and has set out clear and well thought through reasons for abandoning the policy, there would be no issue in him publishing the speech, right?

We don’t live in 1950s Soviet Russia.

In a democracy, when governments make decisions that affect our jobs, our businesses, our industries, or our homes, then we citizens have a right to know what those decisions were, and how they were made.

It’s time for the NSW state government to be transparent about major planning policy.

And it’s time for Minister Roberts to sit down and have a talk to other industry groups, including planners and architects. Not just the “inner party” of developers.

The Fifth Estate is filing a Freedom of Information Request for a full transcript of Minister Roebrt’s speech, checked against delivery. Once we receive a copy, we will publish it in full. 



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