It’s ironic that at all levels of government in Australia decisions that might have the most impact on your local community are subject to the least scrutiny.

Major public policy decisions at State and Federal levels are made under the spotlight of parliamentary debate and discussed at length in the print and electronic media. That’s what happens when the budget’s being framed, when they’re looking at the future direction for manufacturing industry or discussing some major environmental policy.

But it seems that as matters come down to a local level decision-making becomes an increasingly opaque process.

Not that the Federal Government has too much to do with things at the local level. While there are federally-funded agencies like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that have considerable local impact, issues that will affect your community are mainly made at State and Local government levels and, despite claims to the contrary the processes that are followed when decisions are being made are far from transparent.

We’re told, of course, that there are opportunities to make our opinions known. Unfortunately we’re not always told what the actual issues are.

Around Bowen over recent years there have been a number of matters where submissions have been sought without the people looking for feedback going out of their way to encourage people to contribute. At times it seems like a case of “we’re only doing this because the legislation says we have to.”

Then the decisions are made and, after the process is complete, if anyone raises concerns they’re told that they should have spoken up earlier.

Which examples am I talking about?

For a start there’s the Abbot Point industrial precinct.

I may be naive, but when they started talking about industrial development I imagined we were talking about a relatively small area actually located at Abbot Point. When the detail was made public I was surprised to find that the area involved was much bigger than that, stretching along both sides of the highway almost as far as Euri Creek.

After the initial announcement the area under consideration shrank, but I don’t seem to recall having seen any suggestions about the size of the area involved when the initial announcements were made.

And in all the kerfuffle about the Chalco refinery I still haven’t seen anything on a map that indicates how big the thing is going to be and exactly where they’re looking to locate it.

A visit to the Chalco website doesn’t exactly leave the visitor overwhelmed with useful information.

Then there’s the “People’s Park” affair, where a notice appeared on the corner of the park opposite the Queens beach pub, asking for community input on a proposal to expand Wangaratta Caravan Park across the area where the skate bowl is located.

The ensuing ruckus was enough to sink the proposal, but what would have happened if a couple of people hadn’t stopped to read the sign and taken the time to think about the matter? Had the expansion gone ahead could we have been presented with a situation where the caravan park was “no longer a viable proposition” (a consideration which, if I recall correctly, was being used to justify the proposal to expand it in the first place)?

And when the caravan park ceased to be a viable operation what would have happened to the land? It wouldn’t, by any chance, have been seen as an ideal site for unit development?

Taking the scenario to its logical conclusion, when people started to object to that idea, I suppose they would be told that “no one objected when the caravan park was expanded, so why are you complaining now?”

I make that point because that “No one complained back then, so why are you doing it now?” seemed to be the reaction when concerns about high-rise development and the Town Plan were raised earlier this year (2008).

A proposal to build a high-density four-storey block of units in the middle of Queens Beach resulted in a petition calling for a review of the Town Plan being circulated, gathering over a thousand signatures.

While that was happening the official Council position seemed to be that the current Town Plan was the result of a lengthy process and considerable public consultation and that the proposed zoning had been widely advertised, so why on earth were people objecting now?

The answer to that question is that people almost certainly didn’t notice the elephant lurking in the fine print, and if they did, assumed that the prospect of anyone wanting to build a four-storey high-density unit complex in the middle of a low-rise residential area was too remote to worry about.

We’ve recently had another chance to make our opinions known when the Department of Water and Natural resources announced the Bowen State Land Planning Study, which was the subject of an article on the front page of the Bowen Independent, an advertisement calling for submissions, a radio news item or two, a couple of letters to the Editor and not much else.

And I think it’s safe to assume that no one circulated anything detailing some possible uses for the very substantial areas of undeveloped land involved. If such a document was in circulation it didn’t reach me.

Among the land parcels under review were the block involved in the “People’s Park” controversy, the Col Leather Sporting Complex, the Showgrounds and virtually all unoccupied land between Dalrymple Point and Horseshoe Bay.

Before making a submission to the Study you needed to obtain a copy of the relevant maps, which was fairly easily done through the post or email. After that, however, if you wanted to make a submission you were more or less on your own.

Which is, I’d suggest, one reason why the submissions to the Study will be numbered in the dozens rather than the hundreds.

Given the expected growth in Bowen’s population, I think it’s fair to assume that some residential and commercial developments over the next twenty years will be the subject of considerable controversy.

It would be extremely helpful if some of the “big picture” issues were identified and clearly-elucidated decisions about future directions made before proposals for major residential and commercial developments start flooding in.

Rather than having developers arriving on Council’s doorstep announcing “I want to build this shopping complex/warehouse development/ high rise residential block on this block of land here” we need the situation where the script runs something like this:

Developer: I’m interested in building a shopping complex in Bowen...

Council: Wonderful! Now you’d be looking at a site somewhere around here. (points to clearly-defined zonal map) Or possibly over there. You’ll notice that by locating your complex there you’ll be able to maximise... On the other hand, if you were to choose to go here, you’d miss out on ... but you’d pick up ...”

In other words we want the situation where, rather than dictating their own terms, developers are told what they can do and where they can do it.

We need to know in advance which areas they’re likely to be directed towards and what the ground rules are going to be.

And we need to know that well before the “Bowen Boom” really begins.