A Bird Out Of Hand

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Late last month, the NSW Government finally abandoned its complicity in one of the state’s most grievous development errors.

The NSW union movement’s historic "Currawong" property — for a long time a holiday retreat for less privileged members taking a break from the coalface of work and representation — is but a handful of humble cottages and a communal hall, wondrously cut off from the march of time by the surrounding Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, and situated on the shores of Pittwater, by the Hawkesbury river-mouth, in Sydney’s north.

The owner, Unions NSW, has been desperately trying to sell it off, aiming to reap millions by betraying the principles that motivated the purchase of the site in 1949 — as an affordable respite for working families. Following an announcement by the Minister for Planning, Kristina Keneally, Currawong is now to be spared the gang-rape of Labor’s developer mates and will instead be placed, entirely, onto the State Heritage Register. Public access and minimal development is thus ensured — and the singular planning power inherited by Keneally, via her predecessor Frank Sartor’s Part 3A laws, will be ceded once again to Pittwater Council.

It seems that the site, which can only be accessed via water, will remain as either a low-cost holiday destination for union members and their families, or be purchased by government bodies at various levels for incorporation into the park and used as an additional low-impact camping area, akin to the nearby Basin.

Contrast this common-sense outcome with the absurd proposal that preceded it: the building of 25 McMansions on an in-filled floodplain that would be sold privately to wealthy individuals — who were expected not to mind that there was nowhere to park on the mainland and no moorings for their boats once they got home. All this (and a questionable sewerage system, too) courtesy of a couple of fellas who are rather eerily entwined with Labor, Allen Linz and Eduard Litver, trading, in this instance, as "Eco Villages".

Despite the outcome, it’s instructive to examine how events unfolded in order to appreciate this rare instance — of a development that got away from its developers. In a state where Labor runs development pretty much as it pleases, Currawong is the exception that proves the rule.

Plenty of questions remain over whether due process has been followed throughout. Eco Villages’ successful offer of $15 million for the beach retreat was cited by Labor Council boss John Robertson as the highest "unconditional" bid — yet no-one has been able to scrutinise the contracts in order to verify that. After the mysterious withdrawal of a Government offer of $11.3 million (to buy the site for incorporation into the National Park), a company associated with Linz and Litver was engaged to assess tenders for the sale. Despite strong rumours of bids of $25 million and even $50 million, Eco Villages got up.

Additionally, the deadline for the payment of a $1 million deposit that would seal the deal was continually extended by periods of six months by the vendor. There was no commercially apparent reason for this generosity and it has only been in the last week that a Unions NSW representative has confirmed the receipt of a "non-refundable" $1.5 million from the company.

These recent shenanigans are just the tail-end of a farce that began long ago. Whispers that the custodians of the site were considering offloading it for cash go back decades. Yet anyone in the Labor Council (since rebadged as Unions NSW) who may have been tempted, was apparently dissuaded by the prospect of inevitable opposition from both parochial locals and the true believers in the union movement. Then along came Michael Costa, who had no such qualms.

With characteristic subtlety and strategic nous, Costa, then the Labor Council’s president, decided to unilaterally announce a sale — he would divest this prize asset of the organisation he purported to represent to none other than the Guru Maharishi Yogi, patriarch of the Transcendental Meditation movement. In a truly startling piece of ironic symmetry, the sect’s leader intended to redeploy Currawong as an executive retreat. Subsequently, the deal fell through — no-one knows why …

Thus the difficult task of selling out your people lay unfinished until the new head of Unions NSW (and sometime opponent of privatisation), John Robertson, decided to have a red-hot go — arguing that desperate times called for desperate measures. According to Robertson, an immediate sale was vital in order to raise advertising funds to help defeat Work Choices.

You could argue the toss on that one any which-way: the union campaign was far superior to the Howard government’s woefully confused rearguard action — but arguably the policy was so comprehensively rejected nation-wide it seems the populace made up their own minds on the issue from the outset. In any case, however much the extra money might have helped, it’s hard to believe that this urgent need was the real factor motivating the sale, given that the deposit alone has taken this long to arrive.

In all these years of battle over this totemic site, many have wondered how an organisation like the Labor movement, with unrivalled pride in its history and values, could so readily abandon such a potent symbol of struggle and sharing. It has been suggested to me that, within the organisation, a case was being made that positioned Currawong as more the domain of an empowered elite — rather than as a truly accessible communal utopia. If such a distortion of the retreat’s founding ideals was actually occurring, you’d imagine the role of any leader would be to fix that situation. Instead, in a now-familiar state Labor tradition, these complacent, venal mugs saw more benefit in just running it down and flogging it off.

One of the reasons they may have expected to get away with it is Currawong’s location in blue-ribbon Liberal territory. (Although, ironically, the nearby shores of Pittwater are home to far more Labor supporters than anywhere else on the Northern Beaches — two thirds of Scotland Islanders, for example, voted Labor at the last election.) Scant effort has been expended on these seats over the course of this Government. In this context, Kristina Keneally’s decision to reject the development is all the more remarkable — particularly given the state’s tanking finances.

Yet this whole catastrophe could have been averted from the outset. If the development had never been "called in" for determination by the State Government under their draconian and developer-friendly Part 3A laws it would have been forbidden under Pittwater Council’s local planning rules. The local council had also called on the Heritage Council of NSW to list Currawong on the State Heritage Register in 1999 and 2003 — but was knocked back due to "insufficient evidence".

In that instance help arrived courtesy of some thorough, pro-active investigation and research — which will no-doubt stir the hopes of other communities battling appallingly inappropriate developments (hello Catherine Hill Bay). The Department of Planning’s own Heritage Office compiled a report in late 2007 which found that the workers’ retreat met not just one of the seven possible criteria for heritage listing — but five. They were: Historical, Association, Social/Cultural, Rarity and Representation. Further, the independent panel that advised Keneally were so enthused by the uniqueness and composition of the cottages as a whole that they added another: Aesthetic/Technical.

However, this is one of only two instances — out of over 460 — where a Part 3A proposal has been refused. In this case the sheer gall and wanton greed of a presumptuous power elite — deluded by seemingly endless incumbency and precious little accountability — produced a plan so farcically mercenary and ill-conceived that it mobilised mass resistance and ensured — exceptionally — that even those with vested interests could not turn a blind eye.

It is fitting that this beautiful place will be imbued with still more resonance, having survived such betrayal. Currawong will remain a symbol of the egalitarian spirit that’s a part of our heritage, and a testament to values far more enduring than mere private property.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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