Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
Psst: Sydney’s future is on the line
The State Government has big plans to redevelop areas of the city, but Elizabeth Farrelly is yet to be convinced.
Three planning inquiries are in town. Orange Grove gets the press, mainly for its giggle value, with the assistant Minister for Planning playing Dory (“just keep swimming, uh, I don’t remember, just keep swimming”) and Frank Lowy playing Bruce, the friendly shark. It’s kinda sweet. But the other two – the upper house inquiry into the management of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA) and the Port Botany Expansion inquiry – are, like, serious. Between them, or even singly, they could shape Sydney for decades. But is anyone talking about them? Anyone?
Nah, forget it. The Ports proposal is only the biggest infrastructure DA this state has seen in 10 years. Freight is only the biggest transport issue facing this city – like how we get the fridges and BMWs distributed without terminal sclerosis. And SHFA is only the model for current and future government sell-offs including the Cooks Cove-Kogarah golf course shenanigans and Redfern-no black faces-Waterloo. But what the heck? Don’t think about it. Do NOT get interested. Trust them. It’ll be fine.
The ports expansion gets a real commission of inquiry, at least, and is serious enough for Botany Council to have QCs attending throughout even if the press isn’t that bothered. But the SHFA inquiry is an upper house job and no one seems to be taking it terribly seriously, least of all the MLCs themselves.
The only person treating the inquiry with the respect it deserves is SHFA’s former chairman, Gerry “the Cardinal” Gleeson, who retired ill between announcement and commencement. Still, I, for one, have been hanging on their transcripts. And an entertaining business it is.
What do we learn, from 130-odd Hansard pages? Well, first that SHFA has been either terribly unlucky or just a tad careless, having lurched from controversy to catastrophe across much of Sydney: Pyrmont, the Fish Markets, Luna Park, the Australian Technology Park (ATP) at Redfern and Cooks Cove, Arncliffe. It could be simple incompetence, but some see darker secrets.
The submissions also show a clear divide between the ins and the outs on the communication front of this notoriously occult organisation. To the Government and pro-development witnesses (Waterways Authority, Tourism Task Force, Property Council, the ins), everything SHFA is excellent; professional, focused and innovative. From the community organisations, though, there’s a near-unanimous view of SHFA as obscure, inconsistent, over-intimate with developers and deeply conflicted in its public-interest performance.
Joseph Glascott, OAM, for example, chairman of the Defenders of Sydney Harbour Foreshores, says the authority’s role seems to be entirely that of identifying and selling off foreshore sites for private development. Michael Rolfe, of the Sydney Harbour and Foreshores Committee, sees tension between SHFA’s roles as landowner and ministerial adviser. The Uniting Church’s Harris Centre reports broad community mistrust generated by consultation happening too often after the event.
The Protectors of Sydney Foreshore note conflicts of interest and a lack of probity and transparency, and queries the closeness of the SHFA-developer relationship, SHFA’s excessive secrecy and a lack of financial transparency.
Well, you might shrug, resident anti-development ratbags. But look at the issues. The development corporation is conflict of interest made manifest. Its prototype, invented by Margaret Thatcher in 1981, was the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). Her intention was to sweep away inertia and red tape but the reality, according to British writer David Widgery, was a highly secretive engine of corruption and a government-financed estate agent.
It had the appeal of startling simplicity: making the development corporation both sole landowner and planning authority positioned it to reap huge gains from comparatively minor investment in degraded urban areas. This was meant to generate private funding for public services. But there was nothing like the same incentive towards the services half of the equation. In London, for instance, the LDDC’s residue was the $4 billion Canary Wharf Tower, where low prices and fat tax breaks meant the developer could offer plush office space at half the rate of the City of London, while tuberculosis levels in adjacent Canning Town remain the highest in the UK.
Think that’s funny? The Cooks Cove redevelopment is more comic still.
It’s a 100-hectare site, all green on current maps, adjacent to the Sydney international terminal and currently occupied by Kogarah Golf Club, Barton Park and the St George Soccer Club. Landowners are the golf club, two government agencies, and the Crown. The proposal, cooked up by the golf club, the developer Harrington (now Trafalgar) Properties and the NSW Department of State and Regional Development, is to shift the golf club south onto Barton Park (which is too close to the east-west runway, otherwise they’d just develop that) and replace it with a high-tech business park. Close to the airport, with its own 11-storey hotel and right beside the links. What more could the blow-in businessperson want?
Of course the public loses – bang goes Barton Park, in exchange for two pocket parks and a foreshore walk – but they should be proud, shouldn’t they, to have such a white-collar magnet in the ‘hood?
Will it work? Sure – since it’s being managed by none other than SHFA. It’s not called SHFA, but the Cooks Cove Development Corporation (CCDC). But the CCDC has no staff, no board members and no budget, other than SHFA’s. Who were the board, when the project was being cooked up? Gerry Gleeson, of course, in the chair. Frank Sartor, now member for nearby Rockdale; Greg Robinson, then CEO of SHFA, later ICACed for strange dealings and sacked (by Sartor) as CEO of Sydney Water; and a few colour-by-numbers.
And why would you think it a bad omen that the very same SHFA managed Sydney’s other hi-tech park, the ATP, until it became such a basket-case it needed its own development corp, the even-more-extreme Redfern-Waterloo Authority (RWA), specially set up under the care and control of, yup, Frank Sartor? Surely you wouldn’t worry that Sartor is on record as applying the same attitude to Rockdale’s wetlands as to Redfern’s blacks? Or see any connection between the RWA Act, designed for limitlessly elastic boundaries; the two tech-parks; the Minister-for-Everything’s constituency in Rockdale and ownership of Redfern; and the Government’s continuing hype about the CBD-to-airport corridor as the engine of the Australian economy, would you?
Nah. Don’t worry about it. Trust them. And remember – you heard it here first.
PHOTO: Economic engine room or an eyesore ripe for development … Port Botany.Photo: Louie Douvis