Heritage forum speech by Meredith Burgmann

In Parliament |

The Hon Meredith Burgmann is the former President of the NSW Legislative Council and co-author with her sister Verity Burgmann of 'Green Bans Red Union – the Saving of City'.

This speech was delivered at '40 Years of the NSW Heritage Act - A Forum' on 18 April 2017.

The Green Bans, the Builders Labourers Federation and the fight to save Heritage in NSW

I acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of the Gadigal people of the great Eora Nation and pay tribute to their elders. 

It’s important to remember that the Builders’ Labourers saw their commitment to Aboriginal rights as a crucial part of their union activity. They were one of the first unions to campaign for land rights and the first to appoint two Aboriginal organisers – Kevin Cook and Ray Peckham. 

I’ve been talking a lot lately about green bans, because of the recent reissue of the second edition of our book after 20 years. The book was originally called Green Bans, Red Union: Environmental Activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers' Federation, but we renamed it Green Bans, Red Union: The Saving of a City. Because, in retrospect, the saving of Sydney was the most important thing that the Builders’ Labourers did. 

I’m going to give a brief rundown of the late 1960s and early 1970s period, known as the Green Ban Era. 

I also need to comment that I believe that people, i.e communities, are an integral part of heritage. 

So what were the green bans? These were bans placed on building activity by the Builders Labourers' Federation (BLF) and the Federated Engine Drivers and Fireman’s Association (FEDFA), between 1971 and 1974. There were eventually 40 Green Bans and they held up $5,000 million worth of building activity in 1974 dollar terms. 

The best known green ban is probably The Rocks, (and it’s important to note that the person in charge of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority which produced that terrible 1963 high rise development plan which you have before you, was Colonel McGee and an interesting piece of trivia is that he is Miranda Devine’s uncle). 

There was also Woolloomooloo, Glebe, Victoria Street, Centennial Park (we forget that Centennial Park was slated to be a giant sporting complex) and Kelly’s Bush, which was of course, the first green ban. It’s important to note that every single one of these bans was physically defended. 

The Builders’ Labourers were in fact cutting their own throat, because they were refusing to do available building work (which can be done during a building boom but is another matter when there is a downturn in the industry). Eventually, as the industry began to soften, the Master Builders bribed the union’s National Secretary, Norm Gallagher to come into New South Wales and close down the New South Wales leadership. 

The NSW BLF as we know it went out of existence in March 1975. 

My PhD supervisor used to refer to this as my Shakespearean tragedy theory of the Builders’ Labourers. 

What were the circumstances that brought about the need for green bans? 

The Robert Askin Government in New South Wales had been in power for a very long time. It was very corrupt. Hot money was pouring in from the United States as questionable investment in a huge building boom that began first in Sydney and later in Melbourne. High rise construction was taking off in the CBD because of changes in building technology. Combine all this with the prevailing view that slum clearance was a good idea and you had the ingredients for untrammelled and inappropriate development in the city. 

There was a weak National Trust, and an even weaker Royal Australian Planning Institute. The Institute of Architects was just beginning to show some muscle. 

But the main problem in defending heritage was that there was no heritage or environmental legislation at all in New South Wales, or in Australia. And very few legislators were actually interested in heritage as an issue. 

The activists around the Builders’ Labourers were first of all the Resident Action Groups. This period saw the formation of the first Resident Action Groups. Paddington and Glebe argue as to which was the first of the RAGs (as they were called) to be formed. Paddington was formed around the fight to save Jersey Road, and Glebe’s main issue was the threat of the western and north western distributors. 

There were Resident Action Groups in Woolloomooloo, Victoria Street, even Hornsby and Hunters Hill. There were also Resident Action Groups in parts of Newcastle and Wollongong. 

The fussy middle class had started to move into the inner city, which is where most of the pressure from developers was occurring. And these NIMBYs were desperate for help in their stark situations. 

Many of those in the Resident Action Groups were also left activists who’d been involved in anti-Vietnam War activity. The emergence of the New Left, which believed in participatory democracy and direct action, and ‘the personal is the political’ fed into activist ideas about local community. 

Residential action seemed a logical extension of activist views about democracy participation and empowerment of community. 

These activists had also been involved in anti-Apartheid activity, land rights campaigning, and the beginning of the women’s movement. They were looking around for other things to be involved with, and automatically were attracted to what the BLF was doing. Because the BLF was not just about the green bans. 

The BLF leadership were very interested in democracy within the union. They fought very hard to make certain that their union membership was totally involved with all their decisions. They were very involved with racism issues. A huge percentage of their membership were from non-English speaking backgrounds. As I said before, they were very involved in Aboriginal land rights; they were involved in women’s issues; they even put a ban on Sydney University in support of a women’s study course. And they also had a pink ban on Macquarie University, because one of the Macquarie colleges had expelled a gay student. 

Even elements of the old Sydney Push became involved with green ban activity. 

Coincidentally, my house was affected by the two expressways that would have trifurcated Glebe. But that was not the main reason why I became involved with supporting  the green bans. For me, it was more about resisting naked power and corruption. 

A very important political event that was taking place was the split in the Communist Party of Australia. After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Moscow line comrades left and formed the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA). The de-Stalinisation of the party was crucial. It allowed people like Jack Mundey to take an independent radical position and start looking at issues like ‘ecology’, which was what we all called environmentalism at that stage. 

And the BLF activists endlessly debated the various theories of heritage. I remember Bob Pringle always talked about the need for the ‘continuity of architecture’, which of course means that delicate balance between the old making way for the new, but also keeping those elements of the old that you need in order to keep a sense of community. 

There were lots of discussions in the pubs about the difference between working class and middle class green bans and ‘why should the BLF, as a workers’ union, impose a green ban so that middle class women could have more green space in their already beautiful suburb?’ 

By the end of the green ban period, 40 green bans had stopped $5,000 million worth of development. About half of this stalled building activity was to do with saving historic buildings. 

There’s a famous George Molnar cartoon which is actually in our book. It depicts two builders’ labourers sitting down having smoko, saying ‘Everybody out, I don’t like the cornice.’ Some commentators considered this cartoon was demeaning to the builders labourers, but the BLs themselves loved it. They did like to think of themselves as being involved in the saving of our historic heritage. 

And don’t let people rewrite history. It’s interesting that some media outlets, such as the Sydney Morning Herald now write as if they always supported green bans, whereas we know that there were five editorials in a very short period which all called for the gaoling of Mundey, Owens and Pringle. There are also people within the left today who organise green ban events, particularly around Juanita Nielsen, who in fact were part of the Socialist Party of Australia, a party which opposed every single green ban on the ground that environmental action was not about the working class, and that this sort of activity was ‘left adventurism’. 

The essence of the bans was that every ban had to occur at the request of the community, and had to have the community involved. Every ban had to be voted on by a general meeting of the union... and every ban ended up being physically defended. 

This physical defence is the main difference between the bans of this period and later bans, which have often been used as a strategic exercise to gain time, so that other solutions can be found. 

So, as I always tell excited residents or obsessive Trots who tend to be my audience at book events, what is always needed at times like these is a party that can form government and can legislate to fix the problem. Just as we activists set up the preconditions for the end to South African sporting tours, the withdrawing of troops from Vietnam, the passing of anti-discrimination legislation and so on, we also did need government action to take place too. 

The two political figures who were important in the green ban story were Tom Uren and Neville Wren. Tom Uren, most people recall was heavily involved, but Neville Wran is not connected with the green bans quite so readily. 

Even Jack Mundey knew that the green bans could only hold up work for just so long. I recently talked to him about this and what amazed me was how clearly he recognised at the time that sympathetic government figures were also needed. 

Tom Uren was the Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam Government. He literally saved Glebe, he bought the 900 houses in the Glebe Estate  and converted it to public housing. He intervened in The Rocks and Woolloomooloo. He even bought ‘The Block’ for the Redfern Aboriginal activists. Redfern activists always refer to that as the first successful lands rights claim. They loved the BLF leadership. 

But Neville Wran’s involvement is less well known. 

I remember when he was a mere MLC he came and spoke at one of our biggest protest sites in Fig Street, in Ultimo, where we were trying to stop the western distributor. Well, we actually did stop it of course. 

Neville Wran and Jack got on well. However, I might add that he was not the only Premier that got on well with Jack. Remember that Bob Carr made Jack Chair of the Historic Houses Trust. Jack used to love to remind me that it was a right wing Labor Premier who had given him his only government job. 

The Wran Government was elected in 1976, and in 1977 the Heritage Act was passed. Both the Heritage Act and the EP&A Act of 1979 were a direct result of the green bans period – the chaos and violence of the contests that had happened as a result of the builders’ labourers direct action against the developers. 

Another part of the important alliance between the Builders Labourers leadership and sympathetic Labor Party figures was that the now-threatened Sirius building was purpose-built for public housing as a direct result of a deal done between Jack Mundey and Neville Wran. 

Professor Paddy Troy, director of the Urban Research Unit at ANU, who’d been an advisor to the Department of Urban & Regional Development during this period, stated quite simply that it would be “Hard to overestimate the importance of the bans, because of their subtle influence in transforming the culture of urban planning in ways that now evince greater sensitivity to the proposed developments well in advance and to seek approval from the people affected.” 

He also spoke of the way the ideas embodied in the green bans movement were picked up internationally. I want to embroider this part of his statement. It’s really important that we in Australia understand how important the green bans period is seen internationally. Even historians are not fully aware of the influence the green bans have had overseas. 

One of the main reasons our book has been reissued after 20 years is because of interest from overseas academics and unionists. In fact the book was selling for $200 on Amazon and $300 if Jack had signed it. When I mentioned this to Jack, he said, ‘Oh, have you got any books left?’ and I figured he thought we could get a bit of a cottage industry going. 

And finally, the men and women of the builders’ labourers did indeed save a city, as our book points out, and every day all of us benefit from that.