Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Published on Tue 1 June 2021 4:46pm

All of us who get to argue in this place for environmental and heritage protection know that we do so on the foundation that is laid through community activism—local people, traditional owners, action groups, preservation societies, history buffs, bushwalkers, artists and amateur naturalists, one and all. It is local people who make the case for protecting the things we will share.

Mr Wilson (4:46pm) – I’m glad for the opportunity to speak on the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Amendment Bill 2021 and, before going further, I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes the Government’s failure to adequately respond to growing calls to review and modernise Australia’s national heritage protection framework for the betterment of our natural, built, and First Nations cultural heritage”.

Labor is supportive of the chief purpose of this legislation, while noting that it does not address broader issues in relation to heritage protection and how that is properly resourced in Sydney Harbour and elsewhere. But we support the fact that this bill secures the role of the trust in protecting and improving public access to the history, cultural significance and physical beauty of some very precious places in a harbour landscape that has no peer. I say that as someone who comes from and belongs to a port city that I love very much. But I accept that there is nowhere on earth quite like Sydney Harbour.

This bill means that the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, which was created back in 2001, will continue to manage 11 key heritage sites in perpetuity, bringing to an end the idea that their management might somehow be devolved within more general state based structures in New South Wales. It’s entirely appropriate, in my view, that these heritage places, which taken together are of national importance, should be managed through a specific Commonwealth level arrangement, remembering that the sites include the National Heritage Listed North Head Sanctuary and Cockatoo Island, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Convict Estate, which of course spans the Australian continent.

Again, to emphasise the way in which our heritage is connected and the way that it makes connections, Fremantle Prison, in my electorate, is also part of that estate, and my great-great-grandfather was once one of its guests, having arrived in WA back in 1863. Those sites speak to a critical point in our history, a period replete with cruelty and dispossession, and it is right that we ensure those places can speak to that part of our history, warts and all, as they say, so that we continue to learn and make progress on the path to reconciliation. Sadly, the terrible mistreatment and incarceration of Indigenous people at the time of settlement has a modern day corollary, and in Reconciliation Week and, frankly, every week we should focus on and do something about the unacceptable and shameful rates of Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody.

On the reforms that this bill contains, I acknowledge the engagement of the minister and her department with Labor through the process to date. We’re grateful that the government has agreed to our suggestion that a requirement be built into the act that will ensure that the trust consults the local community on any proposed leases of longer duration.

As I have said, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust estate is comprised of 130 hectares of land across 11 sites. A number of the sites are layered with stories of First Nations peoples of the settlement-convict era and of cultural, industrial and military activity. All those sequential and intermingled strata of history together make them remarkable places, as places that illuminate aspects of the Australian story. If we take Cockatoo Island of an example of the heritage riches within the Sydney Harbour foreshore era, it is worth noting that, for the Eora people of what we now call the Sydney Basin area, the island was known as Wareamah or the place of women, and it may have been a site of ceremonies and practices led and conducted by Eora women. In 1893, the governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, chose what had come to be called Cockatoo Island as the site of a new penal establishment, and the physical structure of the island began to change substantially. Sandstone was blasted and quarried, barracks and prisons were built and, subsequently, when the island was converted into a major shipbuilding and sustainment precinct, land was reclaimed to accommodate some serious industrial manufacturing infrastructure. The Sutherland Dock on Cockatoo Island, when it was completed in 1890, was the largest dry dock of its kind in the world—210 metres in length with a depth of water over the sill at high tide at 9.7 metres. In fact, it was still the largest dry dock in Australia by the time we reached 1945. The island was the official docking station for the Royal Australian Navy from 1870 to 1913 and had a shipbuilding and maintenance function from 1857 to 1991. For the final 20 years of that period, it was responsible for the sustainment of Australia’s submarines. Amazingly, Cockatoo Island was only opened to the public in 2007. To the extent that it was known to a wider Australian audience before that time was because, in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it became an important activist site as a satellite of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which has been established outside Old Parliament House since 1972.

I note comments from the report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights which point to current regulations of the act in question which provide it is an offence for a person to organise or participate in a public assembly on trust land. Surely that goes against some basic principles that we would expect to be observed almost anywhere and it is certainly a restriction contrary to the relatively recent history and tradition of Cockatoo Island. I’m glad the minister has said the government is in the process of reviewing the regulations to ensure they are consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations. We expect there wouldn’t in future be any restriction upon the ordinary freedoms of expression and assembly.

Across all 11 sites, the trust has the considerable satisfaction and the responsibility of welcoming 1.8 million visitors each and every year, and in that role is charged with conserving the environmental and heritage values of the land while improving the scope and forms of public access. I’m happy to say I’m personally a very big supporter of living and social heritage. It is not enough to only preserve buildings and physical structures, though it’s important to do so; sometimes preserving physical structures can actually be the more straightforward heritage task, putting costs to one side. The harder work is to find a way to keep our heritage alive, and I would rather see a heritage building slightly and sensitively modified in keeping with the principles of the Burra Charter, if it allowed an appropriate use and occupation of that building than see it perfectly preserved in disuse, and that’s because making a space alive in continuation in some form of its historic function can mean you get the best of social and built heritage. On that point, I am very conscious and supportive of the fact that the work of the Trust is not just about conserving and restoring these places; the Trust’s work is also about making it possible to experience the richness, diversity and even the darkness of that heritage, making it come alive, drawing people to it, allowing it to be seen, heard, touched and understood as vividly as possible. Needless to say, that will only be achieved when communities are fully involved and have real agency in the process of seeking the best outcome.

I don’t like to say that the task I’ve just described is to achieve a balance between heritage and development because I think, unfortunately, the language of balance has been corrupted or hollowed out over time in a number of areas and has tended to mean there is an obligation on heritage or on our environment to always accommodate and give way to commercial imperatives, and that isn’t true. Whether we’re talking about heritage or our environment more broadly, we need to get away from an approach that is always prepared to compromise those values in the name of profit or private development. In any case, this bill will ensure that a set of critically important heritage sites within Sydney Harbour will remain publicly owned and managed by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust in perpetuity.

The reforms we are considering in this debate also revise the eligibility criteria for appointment to the board of the harbour trust to better ensure that members have the knowledge required for the future task and that includes heritage, tourism, military service and business development. There are specific requirements going forward that mean the board must include members with local government expertise and with relevant standing as a First Nations representative.

As I’ve said previously, I’m grateful for the way the government engaged with Labor through the bill’s development, including by making some changes that we proposed to improve the mechanisms for community involvement and input, especially around proposed leasing arrangements.

It will come as no surprise that the present state of recognition and protection of Sydney Harbour trust sites was only achieved through decades and decades of community effort. There will always be pressures that work in precisely the wrong direction when it comes to saving community heritage and public land and amenity from the gravitational pull of private ownership and development. Back in the 1990s, when Defence was first considering the disposal of a number of these sites, a collection of local groups came together under the banner of The Defenders of Sydney Harbour Foreshores, and the work of all involved is to thank for the protection and restoration outcomes that have been achieved and that we enhance through this bill.

Anyone can go to Cockatoo Island—as I was fortunate to do at the end of the week before last—and learn about its First Nations history and its convict, military and shipbuilding history, while taking in the incredible vantage that it provides, this great nugget of sandstone bound in fig tree roots soaked in the Australian sun, midstream in Sydney Harbour. The fact that anyone can catch the ferry and have that experience is thanks to a number of people who fought, campaigned and advocated for that outcome. I begin by acknowledging the work of Tom Uren. The trust was established by the Howard government at the turn of this century, but the vision for a comprehensive scheme to deliver protection of the harbour foreshore was first articulated by Tom Uren. He was the minister within the Whitlam government responsible for establishing the Australian Heritage Commission. Tom’s often acknowledged for the stories he would tell about his love affair with the harbour and how that was translated into his tireless work to build support at all levels for the protection of these places. I can say, personally, that Tom Uren’s role in recognising and helping to protect the distinctive heritage of Fremantle, especially in the area that we call the West End, is remembered with gratitude today.

It will come as no surprise to anyone in this place that the member for Grayndler, the Leader of the Opposition, has, from his earliest representative days, been a champion for Sydney Harbour’s heritage. He spoke on the bill that created the trust in 2001, and said:

One of the great things about Sydney Harbour and one of the great things about the creation of green foreshore land that is accessible and available to everyone is that it makes Sydney a more egalitarian city.

…   …   …

Strong protection is needed here because at some point in the future governments under financial constraints will be under pressure to sell land.

And that’s spot-on. He and his office have worked hard these last 20 years in defence of those principles. I don’t think the Labor leader would mind me saying that the nitty-gritty of the groundwork that gives shape to our values and commitments as representatives often falls to our hardworking staff, and in this case, recently, to the super diligent, focused and good-humoured Sue Heath.

I also want to acknowledge the work of the member of Sydney, who has stood up and spoken out about the precious values of Sydney Harbour and the need for proper Commonwealth protection and management of these sites. What’s more, in the debate on the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Bill all the way back in the year 2000, the member for Sydney expressed appropriate caution about the potential for heritage places to be sold or crassly commercialised, either through a failure of protection itself or through a badly framed expectation that heritage should mainly pay for itself. As the member for Sydney said in 2000:

What I will not stand for, and what my constituents will not stand for, is the remaining parcels of bushland around Sydney Harbour being sold off or heritage buildings being overdeveloped to make them attractive for sale or lease.

That is well said, and this remains a line that needs to be held. It is still the case that the trust is expected to be self-funding, yet the government has itself acknowledged how unrealistic and potentially harmful that expectation can be, by providing some $40 million in one-off funding last year alone for work over the forward estimates at North Head and Cockatoo Island. Those works are very welcome.

In supporting this bill, Labor calls on the government to ensure that any future commercial activities that may be proposed with any sites are consonant with their heritage values and with the cultural interests of the including First Nations people. Heritage protection is an end in itself, a public good in itself. These sites were not saved so they could provide exclusive opportunities for enterprises that want prime land, prime real estate, for commercial purposes, especially where such activity is likely to harm or compromise heritage values that belong to us.

All of us who get to argue in this place for environmental and heritage protection know that we do so on the foundation that is laid through community activism—local people, traditional owners, action groups, preservation societies, history buffs, bushwalkers, artists and amateur naturalists, one and all. It is local people who make the case for protecting the things we will share. That has been the case with these sites in Sydney Harbour, and I want particularly to thank community organisations like the Headland Preservation Group for their unstinting work. I acknowledge HPG’s president, Jill L’Estrange, for her energy, commitment, patience and professionalism. I also acknowledge Linda Bergin OAM, who has been a tireless advocate for the protection of these sites since the trust’s inception.

Finally, it’s appropriate in Reconciliation Week to conclude my remarks by acknowledging that the places we speak of in this debate have their deepest heritage in First Nations history and culture. That was a clear theme to emerge from the statutory review of the trust completed last year. Labor supports the imperative to deliver greater emphasis and recognition of the very significant First Nations cultural heritage contained in the site. That’s why I’ve moved the second reading amendment. We should reflect in this debate, a year after the disastrous loss of heritage at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, that Australia still does not have an effective national framework to protect First Nations heritage. It’s more than three years since the government said they would achieve a review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. They committed in their heritage strategy to achieving that by December 2017. It’s nearly 3½ years since that commitment has not been met. We’re still waiting for that review. We’re still waiting for the government’s response to the interim report of the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia into the tragedy of the Juukan Gorge caves, and we are still waiting for the reform that must follow.

Labor is pleased that this bill will strengthen and secure the ongoing primacy of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust as the custodian of 11 places of great cultural and heritage significance. We thank and acknowledge all the people who have fought to protect these places in the past and all those who without doubt will continue that vital community involvement in future. I encourage anyone in Sydney permanently or as a visitor to go and visit these places and make them part of your experience and your story.

Share this article...

Get Involved
Subscribe for updates
Contact Josh