Consumer dreams reduced to oversized concrete boxes
We have always been told that consumers should be allowed to decide where they should shop so why don’t we allow consumers to decide whether a supermarket or shopping centre should be built in the first place?
All too often we hear of protracted and costly disputes about whether a major supermarket should be built in a particular town or city. Sadly, these disputes can turn nasty, especially as major supermarkets have shown a tendency to fight local Councils and even residents through the Courts and have spared no expense in doing so.
Then, of course, you have major supermarkets and shopping centres pushing for the biggest possible development they can build. These oversized developments may be far in excess of what’s needed to service the community and usually look like big concrete boxes.
Surely, consumers and the wider community should not only have an opportunity to veto the development in the first place, but also have a veto right on how the development should actually look once it’s built.
After all, it’s consumers and the wider community who have to live with the major supermarket or shopping centre for years to come. The CEOs and managers of the major supermarket or shopping centre tend to live in palatial homes well away from those supermarket or shopping centre developments that look suspiciously like those in the old communist-bloc countries. Austere concrete boxes were all that the poor old communists could afford to build.
Surely, a market economy like Australia can give us more exciting looking supermarkets and shopping centres that actually add to the physical environment rather than detract from it. Now not every supermarket or shopping centre needs to look like a masterpiece, but aren’t consumers and the wider community entitled to expect something more exciting looking than an oversized concrete box.
The point is that supermarkets and shopping centres are a big physical part of the landscape and those living close by should have a say on whether they are built in the first place and, if so, what they should look like.
If majority of a consumers and the community say no to a new development, then the major supermarkets and shopping centre owners should respect that. They are large companies that are around forever and once built their supermarkets and shopping centres are also there forever.
If those supermarkets and shopping centres are big, oversized concrete boxes they then detract from the appearance of the local area and can create traffic problems. Clearly, the community knows best as to what the local area should look like.
At the very least, the community surely knows better than those corporate management types who may be in their ivory towers away from the where the real people live. Corporate headquarters, like the Federal Parliament House in Canberra, are often all too distant from where the people live, work and struggle to commute on congested roads.
It’s those real people who should be allowed to veto a new supermarket or shopping centre development. And why stop there as voters should be given the ability to veto new liquor stores and even new gambling licences.
In fact, we could easily have a legal framework for a so-called called voter or citizen initiated referendum. That’s where a group of voters or citizens can sign a petition to formally require the holding of a referendum to allow the wider community to vote on a particular issue or, in our case, a new supermarket or shopping centre development.
Isn’t that a great idea that even the free market fundamentalists should welcome. After all, shouldn’t the consumer be allowed to decide? Don’t we want consumers to vote with their feet? So, why not allow consumers the fundamental democratic right to vote at the ballot box. Let’s call it democracy in action.
Now, of course, the apologists for the major supermarket chains and the shopping centres and other free market fundamentalists may say that having a referendum would be costly. Well, having Federal, State and Local elections are costly, but that’s the price we should all be willing pay for our democracy.
Surely, the free market fundamentalists wouldn’t say that we shouldn’t have a referendum or an election because they are too costly? What’s the alternative? Not having open elections like those the old communist bloc countries that specialised in big concrete boxes for supermarkets, housing developments and mausoleums for the old comrades.
Now, letting the people decide whether they want a new development in their community might be seen as populist. Apparently, that’s a bad thing these days. Isn’t it strange that when a politician or independent commentator advocates a policy reform that is popular with voters then that person is immediately labelled a populist? What happened to the notion of `government of the people, by the people, for the people’ that underpins our democracy?
Maybe the so-called `free market theories’ - where the big end of town can do what it wants, whenever it wants, regardless of what the community thinks - are so unpopular that the free market fundamentalists are feeling the cold and are envious of popular politicians with smart policy ideas. Populism with the focus on ordinary people is and should always be at the heart of our democracy.
Let’s not forget that we live in a democracy where people are, within the limits of the law, allowed to have different views. And how do we decide what views prevail? We have an election. Yes, there are different views are about whether we need more new supermarkets or shopping centres, but why don’t we just let the local voters, or people, decide?
There are other benefits of a having a referendum about whether or not there should be a new supermarket, shopping centre, or liquor development. The big end of town would save lots of money that they may currently spend fighting the local community and Councils who oppose the new development.
Instead of huge legal bills being generated for the benefit of the cosy lawyer club, why don’t we allow the major supermarket or new shopping owners to win the referendum by persuading the local voters directly about the merits of the new development?
We could even have formal debates between the big end of town corporate types advocating the development and the local community activists opposing the development. Wouldn’t that be fun to watch? Wouldn’t it be great if the big end of town corporate types came down from their ivory towers and met the people for a proper debate?
Don’t we secretly love watching a debate between the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader in the lead up to the federal election? Well, maybe that’s not for everyone, but at least those interested get to hear the opposing views.
Once a referendum is held on a new development the decision could be binding for a defined period of time. If the new development is wanted by the majority of voters then it’s on its way.
If not, the development cannot be resubmitted for say a period of 10 years. Things can and do change and a new development that’s opposed at one time could easily become popular in future.
You never know, allowing voters to initiate a referendum on policy issues generally may truly empower voters and allow a more direct form of `government of the people, by the people, for the people’ that’s actually popular with voters. What do the people think?
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