Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

  • June 1, 2021

It is with great pleasure that I speak about the bill before the House this afternoon because this legislation, this amendment of the legislation establishing the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, is one of the most important reforms, one of the most important pieces of legislation, for the future of the great harbour that is Sydney Harbour, a part of which I have the great pleasure of representing in this House. I say that for the single reason that through this bill we resolve years of debate about the ongoing role of the Commonwealth in protecting these sites in perpetuity for all Australians. With this bill that debate comes to a close, with the government making a determined decision to ensure that these sites do remain in the hands of the people of Australia, under the custodianship of the Commonwealth and the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, for all time. That is an appropriate outcome because the sites that are managed by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust represent some of the jewels in the crown that makes Sydney Harbour the most incredible place and the most incredible harbour of any capital city in the world.

The sites managed by the trust encompass the full suite of Australian history, starting with the incredible legacy of tens of thousands of years of Indigenous activity around Sydney Harbour. These are sites that were of significance both culturally and also in the day-to-day lives of the Indigenous communities of Sydney Harbour. It is appropriate for that reason alone that they’re recognised for the value we place on them today. Over the last 230-odd years they have also borne witness to the development of Sydney as the city that it has become. Each of these sites has a unique and incredible story, representing the military history, the built history and the history of Sydney Harbour as a working harbour in a way that very few other sites around the harbour today reflect.

I think about the broad suite of the properties managed by the trust. There’s the incredible beauty and the military and Indigenous history of North Head, through to the places of Georges Heights and Chowder Bay in Middle Head, which again reflect those values. There’s the Macquarie Lighthouse, in the eastern suburbs, and the Marine Biological Station, a place of incredible beauty in itself, representing some of the early marine science that was occurring in Sydney. In my own electorate, there are places like Sub Base Platypus, which started its more modern life as a gas station and has been a military facility—it even had a torpedo manufacturing factory—and a submarine base. And then there’s the western-most property, the Woolwich Dock, which, again, has such a rich history of the life of our city.

Perhaps the site that encapsulates all of those things in the most dramatic way is Cockatoo Island. This gem on Sydney Harbour has a rich Indigenous history and an incredible built heritage. There are convict facilities which today ring with the sounds of the convicts that endured their sufferance on this island. You can still visit the cells where people were held in solitary confinement in the most appalling conditions, but in buildings which today we cherish and value so much. It also had a role as a dock, particularly in the life of the military in Australia, and in its modern incarnation is attracts people for a range of activities, from the arts to camping and to events and functions which have brought this island alive in a way that merely 20 years ago would never have been dreamed of.

These are phenomenal sites, and to have the opportunity to participate in the development of this bill, as I have, to ensure that these sites do become a perpetual part of the life of the Commonwealth of Australia is an exciting one for me, because it’s a long-held view of mine that transferring these sites to others, be they local councils or the New South Wales government, would be a missed opportunity to preserve them as part of the nation’s historical legacy, the nation’s great gesture of inheritance to future generations. This bill is an important one for me, and I’m so thrilled that the Minister for the Environment has been able to accept some of my views but also engage with me throughout the development of this bill.

The bill reflects the 20-year history of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. It is worth thinking about the fact that, as we consider and debate this legislation today, it is 20 years since the trust legislation was formally enacted. I really want to mention and pay credit to those that were involved in the early stages of the development of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, because, like so much of our harbour, these sites came very close to being lost. They came very close to being permanently alienated from Australians, and it was really through the incredible community activism of some great people, who were passionate about the suburbs they lived in but even more passionate about the natural environment and the built environment of these sites, that we saw community action reach a crescendo that knocked on the doors of this building and was heard by the Prime Minister of the day, John Howard, who established the trust. I think it is probably one of his most important legacies—it’s certainly the most important legacy for the city that has been his home throughout his life. I know that Mr Howard is exceptionally proud of the role that the trust has played in the years since he established it.

That community action was led by a number of greats. It’s hard to list them all because it was really a mass movement, but I do particularly want to acknowledge people like Linda Bergin, Don Goodsir and Peter James, who were intimately involved in the Defenders of Sydney Harbour Foreshores and the Headland Preservation Group. I also want to particularly acknowledge people like Kevin McCann and Peter Lowry, who are great friends of mine. Kevin went on to become the first chair of the trust. He and Linda Bergin were the two that came knocking on the door here on behalf of their communities to advocate for the trust’s establishment and the protection of these lands.

I also want to acknowledge the great leadership that, in those early days, was provided by the trust staff. Gosh, they were visionaries; they really were. Led by Geoff Bailey, they established this small agency. When Geoff moved into the office first allocated to him, it was so small he didn’t even have a key. I think he had to climb through the window to get into that office on his first day. But what he built was a nimble and vibrant and future-thinking organisation that recognised that it had a phenomenal opportunity to establish best practice in the use of these former defence lands.

The whole establishment of the trust came about because the land was under threat. With all due respect to the Department of Defence, which does such a great job of keeping us safe, it’s fair to say that it does not part with the lands it owns—particularly for no commercial return—all that easily. There were plans being proposed by the Keating government, I think, by then defence Minister Beazley, to sell off some of the lands for development of housing. There were other, less defined plans which would have seen these sites alienated from the community. The trust brought an end to any suggestion that that would occur.

So I am thrilled that today we have the opportunity to make the life of the trust permanent. I want to thank, for its development, the modern iteration of those early activists, some of whom are still involved today. Your commitment to Sydney Harbour gets in your blood. It’s that sea salt that flows through you that drives so many of you to fight battle after battle to protect what’s so precious. Many of the names I just mentioned are still involved in the cause today, but I particularly want to acknowledge the work of the Headland Preservation Group, currently led by Jill L’Estrange, who engaged so effectively and so well with the Minister for the Environment on this legislation.

What was really the genesis for this particular bill was the review of the trust’s operations which was established by Minister Ley and led so well by Carolyn McNally and Erin Flaherty. I want to thank them for providing the foundation for the issues we’re discussing in this legislation today.

What this bill does is one simple thing—and it removes any suggestion that the trust is a transitional body and that this land would somehow be lost to the Commonwealth and transferred to other levels of government or maybe even the private sector. It says the trust is here to stay. It also has a number of other important reforms which will enhance the operations of the trust, and I want to mention three of those very quickly.

Firstly, the bill does reform the board of the trust. It makes more explicit the skills that are expected of, effectively, the trustees of this land. It makes clear that the board must have experience in areas like environment and heritage conservation or heritage interpretation; Indigenous culture, where, personally, I think the trust can do so much more; land planning and management; business financial property or asset management; tourism or marketing; military service or the law. Some of these were part of the original specifications that were expected of the board, but I think that the clarity resulting from the review that was done is a really important step in making sure that we have trustees that are equipped to manage these sites for all their values. I’m pleased that, as part of that, the trust’s membership still must contain someone of Indigenous background and also someone who brings local government experience.

Another reform that is encapsulated in this bill is to do with the leasing of the lands. It makes clear that standard leases issued by the trust can only be for periods up to 25 years, including options that might otherwise extend those leases. But what it does do is recognise that, in some cases, there will be leases that involve capitalising on the interests of those outside government to restore, protect and use these buildings. On rare occasions, they might require leases longer than 25 years, so it envisages a regime where leases can exist for up to 35 years, but under very strict conditions. What this bill does is lock in a requirement—really, for the first time—for the trust to consult with the community before proposals for longer leases are developed, but still ensure that any proposals for longer leases are disallowable instruments by this parliament. But, as part of that, it makes the process more practical because it allows the trust to bring a proposal to the community and, ultimately, to the minister and the parliament so that those steps are gone through before detailed negotiations are entered into. It therefore makes it an easier process for the trust to negotiate with potential leaseholders.

The bill also makes one very practical change, which is to reform, after 20 years, the threshold for which the trust has to seek ministerial approval for contracts. It extends the current $1 million threshold to $5 million, which will make the trust more effective in being able to manage these sites.

I want to again thank the minister for the way in which she has engaged not just with me and others like the member for Wentworth, who’s here with me today, but more importantly with the community. I know that the community have appreciated the fact that her door has been open and that she has taken on board their suggestions. Phil Jenkins from Hunters Hill, another one of the long-term defenders of these lands—and someone I haven’t always agreed with on this or many other issues, I have to say—rang me as this legislation was being introduced and said, ‘We really enjoyed the relationship that we were able to develop with the minister in the development of this legislation.’

To all of those involved: thank you, not just for your involvement in this legislation but for what you have been doing on behalf of our community and on behalf of all Australians to ensure that these sites, dating back tens of thousands of years through to the modern time, will have a life and that we’ll continue to protect the incredible natural, Indigenous and built values and history of these sites. In many cases, with the sites having been locked up as defence bases, many Australians are enjoying these sites for the first time. But it’s not just for this generation. Every single generation of Sydneysiders, Australians and visitors to our city to come will be able to explore and understand these amazingly incredible parts of Sydney Harbour. I commend the bill.

Watch the full speech here