The Guardian • Issue #1977

Green ban lifted on Sydney heritage site

  • by E Lennon
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1977

Despite a four-year campaign, Willow Grove and St George’s Terrace will be removed in accordance with the NSW state government’s plan to build the new Powerhouse Museum on the land.

North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group (NPRAG) Secretary Suzette Mead gave a speech online to more than a hundred CFMEU construction and general NSW delegates. In the speech she highlighted everything achieved during the campaign, despite the outcome.

“We are certain that if the NSW Premier had not mismanaged the pandemic response that you would all be standing with the community today, arms linked protecting Willow Grove. CFMEU and community put up a significant fight and that is a historical achievement,” Mead said in her speech.

“This campaign has laid the foundations for struggles to come against corruption in planning and the alienation of community voice by elected representatives that are meant to represent us, not corporate spivs.

“This four-year-long campaign for community has shown the government that we mean business and will mobilise with our allies far and wide to fight back. I hope that this will inspire other communities to dare to struggle for better outcomes for our heritage and environment for next generations.”

On 24th August, NSW Minister for the Arts Don Harwin announced that the green ban was lifted.

The Minister for the Arts welcomed the news, talking up the business opportunity. What his statement neglects to mention is the history that this proposed museum would erase.

“The union’s decision to lift the ban comes after our lengthy discussions and I welcome it,” Minister Harwin said.

“The government is looking forward to announcing the main contractor for the construction of the Powerhouse Parramatta in the near future.

“Powerhouse Parramatta will be the first State cultural institution in Western Sydney. It will be a magnificent science and technology museum that will delight families and greatly contribute to the Parramatta community.”

Willow Grove and St George’s Terrace are the home of the Burramattagal people of the Dharug nation. The land has been a key part in allowing traditional owners to connect to Country. In colonial times, Annie Gallagher, the homeowner of Willow Grove, was one of the few riverside property owners who allowed Dharug people to access the river and Country. It is a likely resting site for their ancestors.

After Annie’s time, Willow Grove was a maternity hospital. In this era of the site’s history, women from all walks of life gave birth there. This part of its history too adds to the significance of the site.

Last year, an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Assessment found cultural belongings on the site and in surrounding area. When the excavation begins, there is no assurance that any more objects will be preserved or given to the Dharug people.

Meanwhile NSW Government, claims that the decision was made in conjunction with community consultation. It also claims that it will consult “a broad-based community reference group” on the best outcome for Willow Grove’s relocation. It’s quite clear that members of the community have already given the NSW government advice–to leave the site alone.

Other business stakeholders came out to declare victory when the green ban was lifted. The Museum Trust President, Peter Collins, said that the removal of the green ban was the right decision. He said it was right for “many communities of Western Sydney and the NSW economy.” What specific communities Powerhouse Parramatta will benefit; Collins didn’t specify. Mention of traditional owners is absent from most of these officials’ comments. This includes Powerhouse Chief Executive Lisa Havilah who also broadly claimed that it would benefit Western Sydney’s “many diverse communities.”

The CFMEU removed the ban after increased pressure to get the construction industry running after the NSW government restricted it in lockdown. This, combined with residents’ inability to protest dealt the final blow to the campaign to keep Willow Grove by the river.

“The leadership shown by the CFMEU in this struggle is a beacon for the entire union movement. The MUA was proud to stand in support of the CFMEU Green Ban, as we will every single time we are called upon to do so,” said MUA Sydney Branch Secretary Paul Keating.

NPRAG Secretary Suzette Mead went on in her speech to underscore that the effort was not in vain, despite the negative outcome.

“The fight shown by Parramatta locals is exceptional,” she said. “It is this principled, fighting spirit that inspired the Union movement to get involved. The CFMEU decision to back them with a Green Ban is a demonstration of their deep commitment to community-control over our public spaces and a rejection of the rampant developer greed rife in NSW.”

The Willow Grove campaign exists within a strong history of union green bans in NSW, most famously the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) green bans in the 1970s that saved many heritage, cultural, and natural sites across Sydney. Political and financial motivations to lift green bans push back and sometimes succeed. However, green bans remain an important tool in standing up to governments and taking important sites out of private hands.

In 1981, Jack Mundey wrote on the importance of environmentalism in the struggle for socialism.

“Ecologists with a socialist perspective and socialists with an ecological perspective must form a coalition to tackle the wide-ranging problems relating to human survival,” wrote Mundey in his book The Green Bans and Beyond. “Such survival is based on a way of living in harmony with the rest of nature. My dream and that [of millions] of others might then come true; a socialist world with a human face, an ecological heart and an egalitarian body.”

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