Saving our heritage

8 September 2021 | Posted In: #140 Spring 2021,

June marked 50 years since the Green Bans saved a significant proportion of Sydney’s historical buildings and parklands from destruction and high-rise development. Alec Smart reports.

The Rocks, Sydney’s historic harbourside district, would have been a very different landscape if developers and politicians of the 1960s-70s had their way. We would have seen a Hong Kong-style shoreline dominated by tombstone-like tower blocks: the city below enshrouded in shadows; streets congested with traffic. However, thanks to the Green Bans that prevented demolition of historic properties, implemented in December 1971 by Jack Mundey of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), The Rocks and other important heritage buildings and parklands across the city were saved from conversion to high-rise offices and apartments.

At the time the original East Rocks redevelopment scheme was announced in 1960, the National Trust — established in 1945 to “actively protect and conserve places of heritage significance for future generations to enjoy” — only asked for three historic buildings in The Rocks region to be preserved.

A hint of the tsunami of building work planned for the environs west of Sydney Cove was revealed in a 1964 NSW government documentary City of Millions, which envisioned bold new skyscrapers to irretrievably alter the city’s heart and skyline. The narrator of the film, J. Griffen-Foley, enthused that the once “ruffianly-infested” Rocks area (which was indeed occupied by criminal ‘push’ gangs, albeit from the 1870s-90s) would undergo a “rebirth”. “The Rocks has long been a backwater, picturesque, here and there, but outmoded,” Griffen-Foley declared in an upper-class English accent. “All this is to be swept away and replaced by a well-conceived group of office buildings and apartments and skyscraper hotels,” he enthused.

The film showcased a 3D all-white model revealing the conceptualised future of The Rocks and Sydney Cove. It featured four office skyscrapers looming behind the Maritime Services Board building (now the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia). Further north was a collection of 12 lesser-sized multi-storey residential towers interlinked by promenades and planted with occasional trees.

Environmentalists upset by the current enthusiasm for high-rise developments, promoted by the NSW Liberal-National government, should note that this 1964 projection was overseen by the then-ruling Australian Labor Party, which had run NSW since May 1941. The ALP narrowly lost the next state election in May 1965 to the LNP, which — led by zealous property developer Robert Askin — ushered in a decade of almost unrestrained destruction of irreplaceable communal heritage. Premier Bob Askin’s ten-year reign saw a massive increase in infrastructure and public works programs, which he achieved through a combination of political manoeuvres, close relations with property developers and probable links to organised crime.

This he managed by moving municipal electoral boundaries (effectively reducing the power of the rival ALP), and abolishing Sydney City Council in 1967, thus minimising political resistance to his schemes. Askin also became suspiciously wealthy as a result. The Australian Taxation Office audited Askin’s multi-million-dollar estate after his death in 1981, and although they found no obvious signs of criminality, they determined that a substantial part came from undisclosed sources — likely facilitated by corrupt NSW police commissioner Norman Allan.

In 1971, Askin oversaw the destruction of the 1889-built Australia Hotel and the 1875-built Theatre Royal, both on Castlereagh Street, to make way for The MLC Centre, a 68-storey octagonal skyscraper. However, that same year, Askin met his match with Jack Mundey, a principled and highly intelligent union activist and environmentalist whose name is synonymous with the implementation of Green Bans.

A Queenslander, Mundey arrived in Sydney in 1948, aged 19, and played for the Parramatta Eels rugby league premiership team for three seasons. But instead of pursuing a career in rugby, he found employment as a metalworker, then a builder’s labourer. Mundey joined the BLF in 1957, a nationwide union that utilised the Eureka Stockade rebellion flag as its logo, and in 1968 he took control of the NSW branch.

Under Mundey’s stewardship, the NSW BLF evolved from a trouble-prone minor organisation reputedly run by gangsters, to become a more ethical and very powerful force in the NSW construction industry. Mundey rose to national prominence when he formulated the Green Ban policy, along with fellow leaders Joe Owens and Bob Pringle. They embraced libertarian causes such as Aboriginal rights, women’s liberation and a better deal for pensioners, and in turn demanded higher wages for construction workers and women whilst aligning themselves with the anti-Vietnam War movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

The NSW BLF — which at the start of the 1970s had around 11,000 members — insisted that construction workers’ labour should be utilised for the benefit of all. They actively promoted a ‘new concept of unionism’ embracing social responsibility. Through this policy the BLF tried to influence developers and decision-makers in the halls of power to prioritise the construction of affordable housing, hospitals and schools — instead of high-rise offices and luxury condominiums. Needless to say, this ethical policy created enemies among those with vested interests in the latter, such as corrupt politicians and civic leaders whose hands were in the pockets of developers and organised crime.

One of the highest profile victims of the backlash was journalist Juanita Nielsen. Ms Nielsen, a great-granddaughter of property tycoon Mark Foy, was owner-publisher of Kings Cross independent newspaper Now, which championed the BLF’s Green Bans. Through Now, Nielsen campaigned to halt development work on high-density housing schemes around Kings Cross, Potts Point and Woolloomooloo. Unfortunately, Nielsen was soon to disappear — with available evidence pointing to her likely murder on 4 July 1975 in the Carousel Club in Kings Cross, a nightclub owned by organised crime kingpin Abe Saffron, aka ‘Mr Sin’.

When she disappeared, Nielsen was purportedly about to publish an exposé detailing links between organised crime, NSW police and developers. Her body has never been found. (Juanita Nielsen’s two-storey white 1840s terrace house at 202 Victoria Street, Potts Point, is now heritage-listed.)

From the first Green Ban endorsed on 16 June 1971 — on Kelly’s Bush, a sock-shaped section of bushland on the Woolwich peninsula — BLF-registered construction workers and affiliated unions refused to work on projects identified as environmentally or socially malevolent. The bans were usually enacted as a result of approaches from community groups and residents’ campaigns and initiated by elected representatives of the building site labourers.

The BLF essentially represented the unskilled and semi-skilled workers who did the hard graft on construction projects (including cartage, concreting, digging, erecting scaffolding and operating machinery). These heavy-duty contract employees, often illiterate and assumed easily replaceable, were the bedrock of the construction industry. United over a common cause, they wielded significant power.

Askin’s massive building and infrastructure boom, fuelled by international investors (and organised crime), relied upon this army of ants to construct the new office-block skyscrapers, shopping precincts and luxury apartments that were rapidly spreading across Sydney’s urban landscape from the 1960s onwards. The BLF used its leverage to demand that their ants work on ethical investments.

Fifty-four Green Bans were decreed from 1971 to 1975 in NSW. This defiance took place when the National Trust and the Royal Australian Planning Institute were underfunded and toothless, and there was virtually no heritage or environmental protection legislation in NSW. (In February 1971 only five buildings in The Rocks had been listed on the National Trust Register.)

Despite the significant inconvenience and massive financial losses to developers and vested interests, the Green Bans were vital in rescuing neighbourhoods from Askin’s juggernaut of bulldozers. Many sites rescued from wrecking balls are now major attractions, contributing millions of dollars in tourism revenue to the NSW economy each year. Mundey and the NSW BLF’s Green Bans inspired similar actions worldwide, and, significantly, the word ‘green’ was adopted across the globe to describe environmental awareness and preservation.

Resident action groups — first in Paddington and Glebe, then Woolloomooloo, The Rocks, Surry Hills and Potts Point — preserved not just properties but whole suburbs. Some, like Glebe, Pyrmont and Ultimo, were scheduled for subdivision to make way for major highways. Others, such as The Rocks, Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo, faced mass demolition of old terrace houses for replacement with high-rise apartment towers.

Askin retaliated to Mundey and the NSW BLF’s influence by financing the BLF’s national treasurer, Norm Gallagher, to impose a coup on the Sydney leadership. The notoriously corrupt Gallagher (who was later jailed for 18 months for accepting bribes), was a leading member of the Communist Party of Australia, and a Maoist who opposed environmental activism as a ‘diversion’ from class struggle. Yet Gallagher was content to dance to the conservative premier’s tune.

In October 1974, Gallagher, supported by a team of henchmen, promptly dismissed the NSW BLF executive and the leading trio behind the Green Bans: Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle. Although the membership opposed his action, Gallagher refused to attend discussions with the rank-and-file union members.

Gallagher then cancelled several of the BLF’s democratically-decided Green Bans, including the one halting construction work in Victoria Street, Kings Cross (that Juanita Nielsen was actively campaigning against); forced labourers to work without umbrellas in the rain; and brought in scab labourers to replace dissenting construction workers. However, despite Gallagher recreating a safe climate for Askin to operate unopposed with his building schemes, it was the revelation that organised criminals were involved in NSW construction projects that ultimately shone a spotlight on a dirty industry and weakened Askin’s powerful influence.

On 14 May 1976, the ALP won the NSW elections and new premier Neville Wran redirected state investments away from high-rise offices and apartments into public transport. Although it was later revealed Wran was also closely linked to organised crime, his government introduced two key acts that facilitated environmental and heritage protection. In 1977, the NSW Heritage Council was formed and empowered to provide permanent protection to buildings and parkland via conservation orders via the Heritage Act 1977.

In 1979, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act strengthened and extended their conservation powers. This reduced the dependence on builders’ unions like the BLF to act as a de-facto defender of the state’s history and parklands, and thus decreased the need for implementing Green Bans.

Mundey remained active in politics and environmental protection, including life membership of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Working with Wran (who remained in power for another decade), they halted major construction projects that were scheduled to decimate several neighbourhoods, including Glebe, The Rocks and Woolloomooloo. Mundey accepted an appointment as chair of the Historic Houses Trust, which he oversaw from 1995 to 2001. On 1 May 2009, in honour of his extraordinary leadership, the pedestrianised zone at the intersection of George Street and Argyle Street, The Rocks, was officially renamed ‘Jack Mundey Place’, with enthusiastic endorsement by the National Trust.

This brought a full circle to Mundey’s direct action to save Sydney’s heritage, because it was near here at Playfair Street on 24 October 1973, during the ‘Battle for The Rocks’, that Mundey was arrested by NSW police for preventing demolition work. In April 2015, aged 85, Mundey revealed, “Of the things that happened in my life, the Green Bans were the most important, because they brought together the enlightened upper-middle class with the progressive working class around issues that hadn’t been raised before.”