Skip links

working harbour

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 21-Oct-2003

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 13

Wordcount: 1201

A generic cityscape closes in

Elizabeth Farrelly

The argument to restrict the shipping in the harbour doesn’t really wash, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

If Bob Carr and the boys hadn’t already decided to can Sydney’s working harbour, a glance at the show would surely have made the call for them. And a glance is all it would take, for the Maritime Museum’s Sydney’s Working Harbour exhibition is a slim volume, indeed.

It’s the usual stuff, tipped into glass cases like the dead-or-dying contents of a quaint sea captain’s attic. A Conrad Martens here, a David Moore there; the handful of press clippings, the hands-on block-and-tackle (feel the difference!); the miscellany of model boats schooner, steamer, square-rigger, tug, all undated that must have been lying around just

asking for it, really.

But there’s no passion for this most passionately felt of Sydney icons. No intensity, no vigour, no surprise. No hallelujah, and precious little headstuff, either. The clippings, for example, include that old hummer of Jack Mundey as pre-beatification ratbag being delicately feet-firsted from a 1973 BLF rally. Remember that? Green bans and all? The reason we have The Rocks, now, not some high-rise dungeon? It’s a major moment in Sydney’s formative mythology but is there any narrative on the subject, any embroidery or analysis? Poetry, even? Nup, not a whisper.

Same with the objects. Collections of undated iron implements titled dumbly “shipbuilding tools” and “coal shovel” no story, straight to bed are too mute even for mystery, while the pile of old rope billed as “rat’s nest” screams missed opportunity to explore the festering crannies of Sydney’s modern-day plagues. And as missed opportunities go, the timing could hardly be worse.

It’s not the entire working harbour in the Government’s gun, just “some commercial activity”. Just, actually, the bulk of the commercial activity and by far the biggest remaining industrial land use around the city centre. (Read: huge windfall gains as Government rezones city waterfront land for development.)

There’s a lot of emotion around this thing, much of it politically aligned. Even at root, the issue is not simple. It’s nostalgia v econo-rats, visuals v planning, and authenticity v the sanitising push. It’s also centralism v decentralisation; city v regions; houses v jobs; ships v trucks (air quality, traffic flow, road pricing) and the rest.

One side at a time, then. Pros first. It is impossible, for anyone with the slightest romantic or visual tendency, not to sympathise with the pro-working harbour push. It looks fabulous, for one thing. Even the great square container ships, parked like visiting supa-graphics against our matchbox town, or the acres of off-the-shelf Charades and Econovans serried in Jeffrey Smart rows under the Anzac Bridge. That’s in daylight. Night takes stevedoring into some surreal fairyworld, giant spider-cranes sidling the oily seas.

Then there’s the history thing. What is Sydney if not a working port? From those first convict cargoes on, import-export has been our point.The harbour’s grunge-settings and equally grimy politics are our grunge, our grime and we are attached.

We know the sanitising push will sacrifice this authenticity without a backward glance, leaving something uglier. We see that even dirty industry is somehow cleaner, in terms of bullshit-quotient, than the Balmain Shores-style bloatery jostling for its spot. And replacing the smell of salt-mixed diesel with the smooth-skinned cafes and ensuites of the lifestyle set will leave our city poorer, not richer. More global; less real. But there are ironies here.

Sydney is Sydney because of the great wet blessing at its centre. Many a letter home has focused on its natural genius, but the drowned river valley we call Sydney Harbour is as much cultural artefact as God-given. In more than 15 decades of frantic remodelling, we hacked and chiselled, carved and quarried, cut and filled our way through most of the harbour’s fringe benefits, until scarcely a cliff, bay or rocky island remains unreconstructed. .

We can no longer touch nature with such collective confidence, much less reshape it. Perhaps this only enhances the nostalgia. But the harbour’s reshaping was effected by industries and governments with such unmixed rape-and-pillage agendas as would draw aghast gasps now.

Even more extraordinary is that Sydney Harbour, virtually alone among our built artefacts, elicits universal love. And we love it not despite, but because of, the dirt and destruction, the haphazard hubris of its making. We love it as a symbol of our working origins, reluctant as we are to see Sydney’s tough old muscularity dissolve in a flab of leisure: jet skis, plastic pleasurecraft and corporate yachts.

Which, piling irony on irony, gave Carr his opening, offering precisely this emotional ground from which to launch his attack. The argument, in planning terms, is about jobs for the working classes. Almost 30,000 of them. And, goodness knows, Newcastle and the Illawarra need them.

They could have pointed out the lunacy of having container trucks continuing to rumble through city streets, especially now they’re jam-packed with quickdraw litigious residents. They could have pointed out the global pattern waterfront cities (New York’s Battery Park, London’s Canary Wharf) have replaced industry with residence, as some kind of initiation rite.

The Government’s jobs-and-open-space arguments were designed to cut the bourgeois lefties the Tom Urens, Richard Leplastriers and Rod Simpsons off at the knees. So, will the regions benefit, on balance? Will all those wealthy residents on Darling Harbour’s east bank give us the kind of city we want?

No one is likely to argue that Newcastle and Port Kembla don’t need, or deserve, a leg-up. The questions are (a) whether NSW can support three ports and (b) whether those most needing a leg-up are likely to get it this way.

Trouble is, the Government strategy allows Port Botany to fill first, it being the port of preference; only when Port Botany has reached capacity does Newcastle get a look in. That could take decades, especially if Patrick’s proposed inter-modal facility at Ingleburn gets up.

The Government’s new port growth plan is unavailable on the web; meanwhile, all its planning documents talk about maintaining and protecting the working harbour. The regional action plan, Sharing Sydney Harbour (2000), argued that “industrial and commercial maritime uses must continue and be protected and maintained for the economic benefit of the community”, and promised “a viable tenure system that provides a more secure operating environment for maritime industry”, including Sydney Port Corp facilities “at Glebe Island and White Bay”.

It’s the same Government that has approved Botany Council’s plan which, in line with the galloping Green Squarism of South Sydney, welcomes residential development into the previously designated port-buffer zone.

Egad, I’m confused. Does the Government have a plan? Or is the lure of development dollars, followed by thousands of nice new left-leaning city residents, combined with the pull of regional politics (and the ease and efficacy of appearing to act), tempting them into old-fashioned planning by press release? One thing, if I were job-hunting in Newcastle, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.


ILLUS: A truer picture .



the harbour is loved for symbolising and upholding our working-class origins.

Photo: Mayu Kanamori


Join the Discussion