Speech by Labor Leader Luke Foley on 40 Years of the NSW Heritage Act

In Parliament | 18.04.17



40 Years of the NSW Heritage Act - A Forum

Jubilee Room, Parliament of NSW

Tuesday 18th April, 2017

[check against delivery]


Good morning.

For some reason, on the way here, I thought about Britain’s Royal family.

And the way they curate their heritage – compared to what we have in NSW.

They have centuries of tradition.

A family defined by heritage.

Buckingham Palace survived sixteen attempts to bomb it in World War two.

Because the enemy understood – attack heritage, and you destroy spirit.

Buckingham Palace isn’t at risk.

Today – or anytime in the future.

But what if it was in Sydney?

Wouldn’t the development at all costs brigade find the site irresistible – for a high rise?

I will outline for you shortly, a new plan to restore heritage to where it rightly belongs, in the administration and governance of NSW.

Because what we started all those decades ago, needs re-examination, in the light of our experience.

We’re here this morning to celebrate an anniversary that Labor is justly proud of.

But I’m also sounding a warning.

I don’t often quote Winston Churchill, but in this case it’s appropriate.

His line:  when eagles fall silent, the parrots jabber.

So when we, the defenders of our heritage, are silent – the rapacious try to take over in this town.

They jabber about the benefits.

While destroying the very fabric of the place.

They even have a Saint of the Catholic Church under threat at the moment.

Saint Mary McKillop’s convent is facing a re-zoning proposal, in Canterbury.

The late Victorian home was bought by her and the Josephites in 1910. The date the first NSW Labor Government came into office.

Now it’s in a zone earmarked for demolition.

The Rocks – one of the most culturally significant areas in the country – isn’t safe of course.

There are loopholes some are desperate to exploit.

For a place that one in three visitors to Australia likes to see.

They didn’t come here for skyscrapers.

I won’t go through all the current threats, but among them:

  • The fight to save the Sirius Building. Where we have working class people being cleansed from the city.
  • Thompson Square in Windsor. Australia’s oldest town square. And now into 1300 days of protest, to save it.
  • The Butterfly Cave in West Wallsend, a place I’ve been to on more than one occasion, a very special place for Awabakal women.
  • Overdevelopment around the Parramatta Female Factory.

So many threats.

The name Joh Bjelke-Petersen is synonymous with a certain kind of government, of the wrecking ball and the bulldozer.

Australia breathed a huge sigh of relief when Bjelke-Petersen fell, and the National Party collapsed a few months later in Queensland.

If you see similarities today with the current government in NSW you aren’t wrong.

Consider this.

The social fabric and image of Sydney is being changed forever – even as we speak – by this Government’s wrecking balls, bulldozers – and machines that have turned thousands of trees across this city into wood chips.

Many ancient trees, including the Heritage trees planted in honour of the Anzacs, on Anzac Parade.

Look at the heritage-listed Federation suburb of Haberfield.

If you grew up in Sydney, you wouldn’t recognise it today.

You’ll recognise it less tomorrow, and next year.

I believe in progress.

Because heritage and development are not enemies.

A Labor Government forty years ago took action to preserve and protect this State’s valuable heritage.

Because once that heritage is gone, it is gone.

Our current Heritage Act reflects the time of its conception and passage into law. It reflected the struggles that were going on.

It was brought into existence by extraordinary people.

In the 1970’s there were no heritage and few environmental protections written into law.

It led to unprecedented community action and -famously in New South Wales - the world’s first collaboration between community groups and a union - to put the Green Bans in place to stop the destruction.

The first Green Ban - Kelly’s Bush.

Where in 1971 a group of 13 women gained the support of the Builder’s Labourers Federation lead by Jack Mundey to prevent construction by AV Jennings on the last remaining area of native bushland on the foreshore of the Parramatta River.

What followed was a range of bans including:

A proposal for a car park under the Royal Botanic Gardens - that would have killed the fig trees.

Attempts to build concrete stadiums and swimming pools in Centennial and Moore Parks.

The most famous green ban of course was down at the Rocks – over a plan to remove big parts of it.

It saved the oldest buildings in Australia.

And removed the threat – until recently – to the low-income residents: the cleaners, sailors, wharfies, pensioners, shop assistants and others who lived in this traditionally working-class neighbourhood.

Against that background in 1973 the Whitlam Government established the Hope Inquiry into the National Estate.

Under the watchful eye of another boy from Balmain, the Minister for Urban and Regional Development Tom Uren, the Hope Inquiry led to the Australian Heritage Commission Act.

And from this landmark law, the 1977 NSW Heritage Act followed.

90 pages long, 12 months in the making, with Neville Wran as Premier, the Bill was drawn up by the Minister for Environment and Planning Paul Landa - with much input from Frank Walker and Jack Ferguson.

It was, and I quote:

“To facilitate the identification and conservation of the State’s environmental heritage being those buildings, works, relics or places having historic, scientific, cultural, social, archaeological, architectural, natural or aesthetic significance for the State.”

Neville’s government understood the importance of buildings and the importance of cultural heritage - that help tell the story of a society and its people.

Under Wran, heritage was part of an unspoken compact that the Premier and Government of the day are the keepers, the conservers, and the guardians of the heritage of our State.

Jack Ferguson, as Minister for Public Works restored the Hyde Park Barracks and The Mint,

‘With a craftsman’s loving eye for the work of the convict masons and bricklayers’, as Graham Freudenberg put it.

Of course, a world heritage listing followed.

The Wran Government established the Historic Houses Trust through the Historic Houses Act, restoring and opening to the public:

  • Vaucluse House
  • Elizabeth Bay House
  • Elizabeth Farm & Meroogal
  • Rouse Hill House and Farm
  • Rose Seidler House

Sydney Observatory became a public observatory – the Government invested in restoring the sandstone exterior, interiors and gardens.

In 1983 Wran announced that Kelly’s Bush would be set aside for full public access - on a permanent basis.

In 1983 after the discovery of the 1788 foundations of the first Government House, he stopped proposals for an office block to be built on the site.

And in a reflective 2010 interview Neville said:

 “I’ve always thought we Australians don’t know enough about our own history. These heritage objects are owned by the people and should be enjoyed by the people.”

Wran and Ferguson provided record amounts of money to renovate and restore public buildings.

The work continued under Carr.

Who’d been a Minister in Wran’s Government.

As Heritage Minister in Barrie Unsworth’s government Bob Carr ordered local government to list heritage items.

And made state agencies develop plans to manage and conserve them.

Of course as Premier, he added millions of hectares to the National Parks Estate and established a $30 million state heritage fund.

Continuing the important listings with:

  • The Opera House
  • Jenolan Caves
  • Cronulla Sand Dunes and Wanda Beach Coastal landscape - recognising the Kurnell Peninsula as the site of the first meeting place between indigenous people and those from Britain
  • Ocean pools were listed at the Entrance, Wylie’s Baths at Coogee and the Bogey Hole in Newcastle
  • Miller’s Point and the public housing as a conservation area.

And Bob Carr is justifiably proud that he appointed Jack Mundey and then Jill Wran as Chairs of the Historic Houses Trust.

Carr’s Government also did something that stands to its great credit.

It stopped a proposal for a hotel behind Hyde Park.

Today, of course, we face the prospect of the Land Titles building, established by Governor Phillip and sold by Premier Berejiklian, becoming a hotel.

The contrast with the Wran and Carr government eras is profound.

Which is why we need to re-double our efforts to preserve our heritage.

State Labor, forty years on, re-commits to facing the challenges.

And commits to boldly acting to protect our State’s heritage.

Today I would like to outline Labor’s five-point plan for restoring the rightful place of heritage into the work and decisions and the very mindset of the NSW Government.

First, a government I lead will develop the first ever NSW State Heritage Strategy.

This will be a ten-year strategy, developed by the Premiers Department in conjunction with the Heritage Council.

It’ll require the input of all of the state public departments and agencies.

And include a Heritage Summit.

Preparation of the strategy will include:

  • A review of the 1977 Heritage Act to ensure its powers and responsibilities meet the needs of coming decades.
  • A review of the s170 Heritage and Conservation Registers of NSW Government Agencies and the management of the assets listed on the register.
  • A review of the interaction between state planning laws and planning policies and the Heritage Act.
  • And a review of the funding support and incentives for heritage conservation and maintenance.

Once finalised New South Wales’ first-ever State Heritage Strategy will give the Government a roadmap for:

  • Legislative reform to conserve our heritage
  • Better coordination between agencies
  • A world-class system of incentives, policies and support so that heritage conservation has the resources to tell our stories and connect our community. 

I want the heritage protection developed through this Strategy to ensure education about our history and heritage is central.

The strategy is a big undertaking – it will take time, and involve public participation.

But I will take immediate action to restore some balance to heritage protections that are being ignored or perverted by the current Government.


Labor will restrict the use of the economic hardship provision in Section 32 of the Act to make it clear once and for all that consideration of economic hardship as a result for listing is intended for individual property owners - and not the NSW Government.

The Sirius decision would never be made by a government I lead.

It is both perverse and preposterous that a State Government swimming in stamp duty revenue from a property boom could plead economic hardship to flog off the Sirius Building.


A Labor Government will stop a Heritage Minister ignoring out of hand a recommendation from the Heritage Council to list an item on the state heritage register.

Before the Minister makes a final determination, a Planning Assessment Commission hearing must occur – with full public input and participation.

This will allow the advocates for preserving a particular building or other piece of heritage another opportunity to make their case and build support.


We will strengthen the Heritage Council.

Labor will ensure that the Heritage Council directly reports to the Minister for Heritage.

We will dis-entangle the Heritage Division from the Department of Planning, by restoring the Office of Heritage within the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

This will signal that a Labor Government is serious about the preservation of our heritage.

Under the current Coalition Government, with the drive for development at all costs, heritage issues have been pushed into the background, neglected, belittled and denigrated all too often.

And fifth:

As a statement of our commitment to the preservation of our heritage, the Premier’s Office and the Cabinet Room will be housed in one of Sydney’s pre-eminent buildings, the Chief Secretary’s building, on the corner of Bridge and Macquarie streets.

This was the building described in the Sydney Illustrated News of February 1891 as a “veritable poem in Sandstone that adorns the northern portion of Macquarie Street”

It was the seat of colonial administration.

Having the seat of government in the same building nearly 150 years after construction commenced would say a great deal about our commitment to conserving heritage and making it a dynamic part of our contemporary society.

Of course, the Coalition Government has sold off two other great sandstone public buildings on Bridge Street – the Department of Education and the Department of Lands buildings.

So this is about making a statement.

The Premier and the Cabinet should work from that great public building of the Victorian age, the building Sir Henry Parkes ran the administration of the colony from, not in some rented office space in a B Grade building somewhere else in the city.

When you are sworn into government, you become the keeper of the civic tabernacle.

It’s not in any executive order. It comes with the job.

This government simply doesn’t understand what belongs to the civic domain and what belongs to the balance sheet.

We do.    

We understand the importance of heritage in all of that.

Respect for our past, in all its forms will be central to Labor’s policy agenda.

We lost, in the 1960’s, some very important sandstone elegance, at one end of Bridge Street.

The original Royal Exchange building of 1857.

It was the building where the first Morse telegraph message was sent, in 1857.

The first telephone call made, in 1880.

And electric light services introduced, in 1882.

Demolished, and replaced.

But I’d like to end on an optimistic note.

In 1959 a plan was pushed – and taken very seriously – for the Queen Victoria Building to be demolished, for a carpark.

As we can see with today’s QVB if we as a society, under our laws and our government, if we value heritage we can preserve, restore and make a building an outstanding success.

A place whose foundation stone was laid 197 years ago, this month.

That’s a heritage outcome we can live with, on this 40th, or any other anniversary.

Thank you.