Words matter: On the degradation of words and expert roles
Dr Renata Bali | 18 December 2017
The misuse of everyday words has become par for the course as the NSW government unleashes its many glossy plans and strategies on the public.
As economist Richard Denniss, author of Econobabble, is fond of repeating: “words matter”.
He is referring specifically to the use of terminology that seeks to hinder public debate on climate change, taxes and our economy. However, the misuse of everyday words has become par for the course as the NSW government unleashes its many glossy plans and strategies on the public.
Words we once rejoiced in with all their subtle variations and innuendos have now taken on a mind-numbing “sameness” and are delivered by repetitive “mantra”, causing us to switch off, tune out and finally ignore them altogether. Take for example Elizabeth Farrelly’s tally of 111 mentions of the word “global” in the Greater Sydney Commission’s recently released Draft District Plans.
In the case of planning, it is unclear if the use and repetition of words is simply badly orchestrated spin or framing, or whether, like the frog that is slowly being brought to the boil, we are being deliberately lulled into a false sense of security. Or is it simply the result of a desperate government trying to sell its half-baked plans to a battle-weary and hostile community?
Consider the word resilience. In common usage, it means “elasticity” or “flexibility”, implying a tendency to “spring back”. Government documents refer to resilience ad nauseum to describe the kind of environment, cities, neighbourhoods that we should aspire to create. However, the reality check is that the actions proposed in the very same plans enable developers and tree loppers to destabilise our ecosystems to the point of no return, without guilt or remorse.
The word vibrant that once captured the essence of “spirited”, “lively” or “energetic”, has come to mean contrived or forced outcomes, as in “we will create vibrant streetscapes”. This bold assertion is accompanied by the expectation that people will flock to these new public open spaces, despite the sometimes obvious overshadowing issues, wind tunnel effects and proximity to major roads.
In fact, the key to vibrancy is organic in nature; it is a buzz or vibe that is generated by a “perfect storm” of environmental, cultural and social stimuli. To insinuate that we can create it at will, anywhere, anytime or in the most hostile of surroundings is the height of arrogance or stupidity, or both.
Trees were once epitomised by the majestic avenue of 150-year-old figs growing along Anzac Parade. However in our brave new world mature trees have become obstructions to the success in the delivery of major infrastructure projects and just more fodder for insatiable wood chippers. Trees have been conveniently redefined as six-inch seedlings to make “revegetation” more convenient and economical. Just don’t mention the word “shade”.
And who could forget the term community consultation? This used to describe genuine two-way community engagement and (shock horror!) incorporation of these views into the final plans. Instead this has morphed into “information sessions” or “drop-ins” where professional spin doctors tell us what is going to happen. It is a one-way street of information transfer. There is an emoji to tell the Department of Transport how you “feel” about its Future Transport strategy. Alternately you may want to fill out a questionnaire asking if you would prefer to “sweeten” that high-rise development with a cafe, child care facilities or more shops. You are invited to have your say, but is anybody listening?
Another word that is much maligned is independent. Commonly defined as “free from outside control”, it has devolved to mean “hand-picked” when used by government departments. When preceded by the words “panel” or “commission”, it tends to devalue the entire assessment process and the roles of the people within it.
Take for example the “independent” Biodiversity Review Panel whose role it was to review the Threatened Species Conservation Act and the Native Vegetation Act and make recommendations for simpler more streamlined environmental legislation. The expertise of the government-appointed panel of four was heavily weighted towards productivity, economic and farming interests. Its sole ecologist was Hugh Possingham, who eventually quit in protest that new laws could potentially double the rate of broad scale clearing in NSW. The result is the recently enacted Biodiversity Conservation Act that does not have scientific or conservationist backing and is presently being challenged in the NSW Land and Environment Court on the basis that it did not properly consider ESD principles.
But surely the department most enthusiastic with the panel approach must be the NSW Department of Planning and Environment, where planning decisions have been divested to panels on the basis that they are “independent” and therefore not subject to lobbying and corruption. The argument goes that this approach increases transparency, integrity and rigour – all good in theory.
However with panels such as the Planning Assessment Commission dominated by state government-appointed experts, and the disproportionate rate of approvals for controversial projects, the public perception is that panels are just a “rubber stamp” for the government.
The PAC has upheld the government’s approval recommendations in 96 per cent of cases. In the case of Crown Casino’s controversial Barangaroo tower, the three individual panel members’ approval track records were calculated as 96 per cent (49 out of 51), 97 per cent (37/38) and 100 per cent (4/4). Clearly a perceived bias is eroding public confidence in the “independence” of the process.
Moreover, following the persistent lobbying by the Property Council of Australia and other stakeholders, it will now be mandatory for local councils to set up Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs) to assess development applications worth $5-30 million. Where presently IHAPS are voluntary and consist of a council-appointed chair, two experts and a community representative, as of 1 March 2018 three of the four panel members will be appointed by the planning minister. The “independence” of the IHAPs is now lost in translation.
While the government argues this measure will curb “inappropriate” relationships between councils and developers, it has completed ignored the potential corruption at state level where the waters are muddied by powerful industry lobbyists. Where the expertise of panel “experts” may indeed be above reproach, their appointment by the minister fuels the perception that panel members are selected to do the government’s bidding. As a consequence, the word “expert” is invariably sullied.
The role of “commissions” in our society is generally held in very high regard, especially when associated with the words “royal”, “police integrity” or “inquiry”. Accordingly, there is an expectation that commissioners, as highly experienced and respected practitioners, should be impartial and independent in their deliberations. However, with more and more commissioners now being delegated to key roles at the Greater Sydney Commission, whose mandate and policy objectives are directed by the minister, they are increasingly being viewed by the public as a “mouthpiece” for government.
So while the GSC commissioners spruik aspirational plans that promise to improve Sydney’s “liveability” and “sustainability”, with green corridors and affordable housing accessible to everybody, the reality check is a government getting on with the job of felling trees, delaying or withholding much needed infrastructure and inflating local property prices.
Spare a thought then for the department’s latest appointee, the Commissioner for Open Space and Parklands, Fiona Morrison. Announced with fanfare by the minister at the launch of the government’s Greener Places policy, her “baptism of fire” came the following day when she wrote a letter to the SMH defending the pitifully small plantings proposed for Westconnex. Although the new policy elevates the status of our urban trees, and has the lofty aim of increasing canopy cover from 14 per cent to 40 per cent, its protection and expansion will be an uphill battle in light of this government’s wanton environmental destruction.
The commissioner has indeed been handed a poison chalice. The issue of green space and trees is an emotionally charged one, tinged with despair and a good deal of distrust. She will have to demonstrate the impartiality of her role through genuine “community consultation”, thereby proving that this latest policy is not just so much “greenwash”. She will also have to defend the government’s newfound definition of “trees” as six-inch seedlings, convince us that the vast majority will survive to maturity, and explain how these will make our city more “resilient” to climate change.
She would be wise to choose her words carefully.
Dr Renata Bali is a Sydney-based ecologist and environmental consultant. She has a PhD in zoology, and has acted as a scientific adviser to the Environmental Defenders’s Office and a researcher for the Better Planning Network.