Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

  • March 4, 2020

This evening I rise to reflect on what I believe is one of the most important statutory bodies established by the Commonwealth government and the Australian parliament. I refer to the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. I say that it is one of the most important because this trust, established almost 20 years ago in legislative form in 2001, has the incredible responsibility of preserving, protecting and ensuring public accessibility in the hands of Australians in perpetuity to some of the most important local national and international sites in Australia. I refer to those sites that it manages around Sydney Harbour.

I want to make these reflections tonight because the government has established a review after 20 years of the functioning of the trust. It is important, as a local member for an electorate that includes two of the trust sites, that I set out some of my own views. Firstly, I want to say I think that the trust, as it is currently formed, has done an outstanding job in managing the sites that it has responsibility for. From its first chair, Kevin McCann, through to the current chair, Joseph Carrozzi, with the incredible staff that it’s had, particularly its inaugural executive director, Jeff Bailey, and his team including Nick Hollo, it has made sure that these jewels on Sydney Harbour have been protected in the way that was intended by the Howard government at the time.

I do want to reflect briefly on its history because this trust, this legislation, came about through community action. It came about because of concerned citizens who wanted to see Sydney Harbour’s foreshores protected as they should be. It came about because of actions of dedicated local residents, people like Kevin McCann; Linda Bergin; Peter Lowry; Barry O’Keefe, who fought Kim Beazley’s proposals to sell off part of HMAS Penguin for housing; and the late Don Goodsir, who was such a driving force. They came together and, with the support of then Prime Minister John Howard, in what I regard to be one of his most significant legacies for the city of Sydney, determined that these former Defence lands should be protected in perpetuity in the ownership of Australians and established a trust to achieve those goals.

The trust was established in 1998, and I remember it well personally because at the time I was a—very much younger—advisor to the environment minister and had a hand in the drafting of our election policies and the legislation that followed. At the time, when he announced the trust on 5 September 1998, John Howard said: ‘I am particularly proud of this announcement as a person who has lived all of his life in Sydney. Like any other Australian, I am immensely proud of the beauty of the city of Sydney. I am immensely proud of foreshores of Sydney Harbour. It is an asset that belongs to all of the Australian people.’

The trust has been vested with a number of sites over the years, including Sub Base Platypus and the Woolwich Docks in my own electorate. It has been a model for the management of these sites, under the visionary leadership of those who have led it.

Since then, we have had calls for a review, which have been acted upon by the environment minister. The review is currently being undertaken by the former secretary of planning for New South Wales Carolyn McNally together with former executive director of Infrastructure New South Wales Erin Flaherty. I wanted to say a few things about the direction of that review. Firstly, I want to say that I hope that that review finds that the concept of this trust—that these lands should remain in the ownership of the Australian people for all time under the care of the Commonwealth government—should remain its driving principle, and that trust must remain the manager and the controller of these sites. I also want to say that the trust currently has a sunset clause of 2033. My strong view is that that sunset clause should be lifted. These sites should remain in the hands of the Commonwealth and not be transferred to either state or local government agencies. Thirdly, I want to say that the management of these sites must remain in the hands of the trust. While some of these sites are leased to other users to make sure that their old buildings are adapted appropriately, management control on behalf of the Australian people must remain with the trust.

Finally, I also want to emphasise that, whatever emerges from this review, it is absolutely essential that the trust continue to ensure that not only the natural environment but the built heritage of these sites is protected. I know there is some concern that some of these sites could be redeveloped. I think that is misplaced, because the heritage of these sites is just so valuable. These are precious assets which we are custodians of on behalf of the Australian people, and long may that continue.