It's Our Harbour And Our History

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Middle Head is the long green spine that sits in the heart of Sydney Harbour. Many of us know it as that natural gum tree covered headland we slide past on the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly. On this one headland Sydney’s natural and built heritage are uniquely combined. Together with the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, it is one of the defining features of Sydney harbour.

And its future is in the hands of Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Despite its extraordinary beauty and a national heritage listing, a proposal is currently before the Federal Environment minister to approve the effective privatisation of this beautiful headland with the construction of an over-scale aged care facility. What the Federal Government allows to be done here will be a key test of their respect for Australia’s built and natural heritage. If past practice is any guide, it is a test they seem destined to fail.

Most of Middle Head is a former military site and was kept in public hands only after a desperate struggle was fought by grassroots campaigners across Sydney to stop it being sold by the former Howard government between 1996 and 1998. Final legislative protection was given to the headland with the passing of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Act in 2001. This newly established trust was to “protect, conserve and interpret the environmental values” of trust land and “maximise public access” to the land.

Middle Head and the area in question. Photo: supplied.

Known as Cubba Cubba by the Kuringgai people whose ancestral lands Middle Head is, it has a rich Aboriginal and colonial history and played an important role in Australia military history. It satisfies the criteria for Commonwealth Heritage values on nine separate criteria, with only one criterion required for inclusion.

The site’s Aboriginal heritage includes middens and stone engravings, indicating a long connection to these lands. It is also generally recognised as the location of “Bungaree’s Farm” which was an attempt by Governor Macquarie to introduce local Aboriginal people to European farming methods.

The site’s significance includes an extensive network of military fortifications, tunnels and gun emplacements dating back to as early as 1801. Scattered across the site is concrete evidence of how successive governments fortified Middle Head to defend Sydney from first the French, then the Russians and later the Germans and Japanese.

Now abandoned and surrounded by National Park, the site’s military history is important not just to remember past sacrifices, but also as an object lesson in the value of peace. The peace dividend is on practical display with the AusAid Centre buildings that date to the 1930s and 40s. They represent modern adaptive reuse of basic army weatherboard barracks buildings in a cohesive and beautiful environment.

The proposed private aged care development is substantial in both its size and impact on the heritage of the site. The application is for an aged care facility made up of 93 units with associated services and facilities. To achieve this it is proposed that a number of the existing buildings would be demolished, some would be reused, and a series of out of scale new buildings would be constructed on this site. Almost the entirety of the proposed new development will be fenced and gated to exclude the public.

It is impossible to see how this proposal could ever be consistent with the objects of the 2001 Act to maximise public access and protect, conserve and interpret the environmental values of the site. It seems that the Trust, having been starved of funds to preserve the site since 2009, is desperately looking for private investment.

This short-term push for private funds risks irreparably damaging the heritage value of the site. It could all be avoided by a relatively modest one-off capital injection in the order of $10 million to upgrade the existing buildings so that they can provide cash positive sensitive development on the headland.

Submissions on the proposed development closed on 11 December 2013. The planning proposal will be considered by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. However, given the site’s listing under Commonwealth heritage laws, the development will also require the approval of the Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). This is the same Minister who is proposing legislation that will grant retrospective legal immunity for environmental decisions made on certain mining projects.

Many in the community are questioning what if any protection Commonwealth heritage listing gives in light of the fact the government approved the dumping of 3 million cubic metres of dredging onto the Great Barrier Reef under the EPBC Act. It is also the same legislation under which the Government approved the expansion of the Gallilee Basin Coal mines, development of which is estimated to represent lifetime emissions of 24.7 billion tonnes of CO2. This is more than 60 times the total annual emission of the entire Australian economy.

With these kinds of enormously harmful developments being waved through by the Abbott Government, what hope is there for this small sliver of green at the heart of Sydney? Given the choice of spending a small amount to conserve and protect this site into the future, or allowing it to be overdeveloped and privatised, there are real concerns that once more the Federal Government will side with the bulldozers, and the dollars.

In the heart of Sydney, and slap bang in the electorate of the Prime Minister this is a real challenge to Tony Abbot and his government. The community wants this land with its precious natural and built heritage protected. The question is, is anyone in the new Coalition government listening?

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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