Thursday, August 26, 2004

The Orange Grove shopping centre

If nothing else, the present state of play in this case indicates Sydney’s third-world level of legal system and governmental probity. No that’s not a sly cheap-shot about convicts and rum, etc – whatever has happened in the past, being third-world is a simple, frank assessment of the here and now.

The facts, as I understand them, are that the Liverpool Council of the time illegally gave planning permission to Orange Grove developer (and now landlord) Gazcorp. Gazcorp was presumably aware of the irregular (or “corrupt”, if you prefer) status of its planning permission – its lobbying network at one time included political assassin Phuong Ngo. Therefore, I think that Gazcorp’s legal case based on its planning permission being rescinded after the whole thing was built (which in ordinary circumstances would be an outrage, of course) can/should be thrown out of court, without any fuss at all.

Conversely, the Orange Grove lessees, and their employees, all – unless the contrary can be shown – set up in the centre in good faith. Apparently, lessee legal action against Liverpool Council and Gazcorp is still only nascent, while similar action by centre shop employees has not even been talked about, AFAIK. As to why this is so, I’m mystified. The Orange Grove lessees and employees appear to have an extremely straightforward – and in monetary terms, massive – case, in particular against Liverpool Council.

Pre-empting this taxpayer*-funded compensation payout to the innocent victims of Orange Grove should surely be the Carr government’s current number one priority. The earlier it gets sorted out, the much lower the lawyer’s cut will be.

In addition, by realistically costing the likely total compensation payout now, an alternative might emerge – that it would be cheaper to pay out Westfield (and presumably a number of other commercial “rivals” of Orange Grove that might come out of the woodwork) for genuine losses caused by Orange Grove's trading on. That is, keeping the centre open may actually minimise the damage for taxpayers, while at the same time duly recognising that Westfield (and others?) have suffered economic loss by planning rules being flouted.

For this to be a sustainable long-term solution, Westfield’s damages claim would have to be kept on a tight, and once-and-for-all leash. Since Westfield holds a large-shopping-centre near-monopoly in many Australia cities – an arrangement which seems to have attracted surprisingly little regulatory scrutiny – a bit of the old regulator’s blowtorch on this sore spot should assist Westfield in behaving reasonably here.

Finally, if Orange Grove is allowed to re-open/trade-on, this should by no means be confused with giving Gazcorp’s principals a Get Out of Jail Free card (literally or metaphorically). Indeed, “saving” Orange Grove – in the taxpayer’s best interests, and no one else’s – would have to be done under the expectation that Gazcorp would get what’s coming to it (under a first-world legal-system), and no less. The consequent divestment (I’m assuming) of Orange Grove by Gazcorp to a Westfield competitor – and, for once, honest player – would also add an additional layer of virtue to the whole arrangement. Probably not legally, but certainly in the moral sense, ownership of this whole fiasco can be laid at Westfield’s door – its unhealthy monopoly led, tit-for-tat, to an unhealthy (and in fact, criminal) competitor.

* I’m assuming that the size of the payout is going to be well-beyond the collective means of Liverpool’s ratepayers (certainly, no conceivable insurance policy would be coming to the Council’s rescue here).

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