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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 24-Sep-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 17

Wordcount: 827

Hungry rats eye harbour delights

Elizabeth Farrelly

It’s more than a year since Disney abandoned its dream of a White Bay theme park. But, Lord, that’s OK. We’ve got our own Mickey Mouse operation just five minutes by duckbilled dodgem across the choppy waters. And I don’t mean Luna Park.

Consider. A global design competition hijacked, not by some disgruntled designer but by one of the jury, an ex-prime minister, no less, still lauded for his larrikin lingo but known principally for his paradoxical belief that everything good happened before 1788.

Add the handing of Sydney’s most glamorous development opportunity ever to a motley “delivery authority” of estate agents, developers, career politicians and an engineer versed in the malling of airports and the remorseless sanitising of docklands.

See, in your mind’s eye, flotillas of orange plastic lifeboats, bristling with cruise-ship tragics who, being dumped by their 12-storey floating porn-palace in feckless, mall-less, cabless White Bay, must be shuttled to town.

Then overlay a White Bay masterplan just beginning its year-long consultation process; now, when the site has been bleeping red for a decade; when the billion-dollar-a-stop metro that will service it is already being built; when most of the cruise ships meant to dock there won’t even fit under the bridge, five years from now.

It’s all so breathtakingly daft it makes you suspicious. Sounds like, smells like … oo-er, could Mickey Mouse actually be a rat?

It is impossible to believe two uber-persuaders like Paul Keating and Chris Johnson couldn’t convince their bureaucrat-heavy Barangaroo design jury, in March 2006, that the Lend Lease/Richard Rogers scheme was the best. At the time, Keating privately described Thalis’s winning scheme as “ho-hum.” He and Ed Blakely had opposed it, he said, and Johnson, as chairman, had agreed but not argued that way.

That was in private. Publicly, Johnson declared the Thalis scheme “an exceptional vision for Sydney” and gave them the job. The jury report advised adding “elements” from Rogers’s scheme, but the upshot was Rogers got the bum’s rush. And Keating? He kept his real views to himself – for fear, he said, of upsetting people.

Is this plausible? Keating frightened of upsetting people? Someone so passionate about the site he’ll devote years of cloak-and-dagger to seizing control, and he’s not game for a dissenting report? What is really going on?

Keating’s argument is an inside-the-tent-pissing-out one. In truth, though, he has long hated Sydney’s industrial heritage. First he wanted to demolish Woolloomooloo Wharf, then “clean up” Goat Island, Garden Island, Balls Head and Ballast Point. Now he’s eyeing the Millers Point escarpments that are among our most exhilarating heritage remnants. Man-made or god-made, destroying them for a hollow, car-filled pastiche of a 1788 headland is only marginally less heinous than the Taliban’s bombing of the buddhas.

So far, so bad. But wonder this. Behind the smokescreen, what ducks are being lined up?

Keating has always had a strategic and intensely personal take on Sydney Harbour. For years, like the Ancient Mariner, he has buttonholed anyone who’d listen, regaling them with his vision of restoring headlands and moving the PM into Government House. Nice view, if you can get it.

Why, then, was he so easily rolled by a Sartor-picked design jury, forced into selecting a scheme that virtually no one now admits to liking? Call me paranoid, but what if the jury threw the contest; picked the weakest scheme knowing it’d be easily knocked off and handed to a cabinet that, as Keating himself said at the time, would “put high-rise in Hyde Park if they could”.

Is it even possible the design furore – straight lines versus curves, heritage versus nature – is a diversion from some deeper plot?

What plot? Try this. The unused lands at White Bay/Glebe Island are several times bigger than Barangaroo, absolute waterfront. The moment Bob Carr moved the working harbour to a safer electorate, they should have been masterplanned with Barangaroo, as a single bay. By now they should be live and bustling, their waters criss-crossed by fast, frequent, cheap vaporetti. But no. White Bay is a wasteland.

But this does not stop Kristina Keneally shifting the cruise terminal to White Bay, height problem or no. It doesn’t stop her approving a metro that sucks up several hospitals-worth of funding to do little more than link White Bay to downtown, or pacifying the Left’s Verity Firth, whose electorate it is, by seeming to start masterplanning – only with a “consultation” list long enough to defer it for years.

Joe Tripodi, Minister for Finance, Infrastructure and the Fairfield mates, also gets Ports and Waterways. And when it is discovered that the White Bay lands are veined with – good lord! – rail lines, who should gallop in on white horse, brandishing his rip-up-the-tracks bill, but dopey David Campbell?

Keating may be the patsy in all this. The ALP itself may be innocent as a newborn. It’s possible. But I hear chewing. Development by stealth?

It wouldn’t be the first time rats have gnawed our harbour.


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