Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Book review: Green Bans Red Union, Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann (2017)

Subtitled ‘The saving of a city’, this book started out as a doctoral thesis and was first published in 1998. When Meredith Burgmann was elected to the NSW Parliament to represent the ALP in the lower house she had things on her plate that prevented her from turning it into a book and so her sister – political scientist and labour historian Verity Burgmann – agreed to work on the book. This is their second edition. The book chronicles the changing fortunes of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (NSW BLF) during one of the city’s construction booms – from the mid-1960s until 1975 – at which point in time the NSW BLF was finally deregistered in the face of stubborn government, media and industry opposition to its tactics. The story substantively starts in 1968 when Jack Mundey was elected secretary of the NSW BLF.

The first of the “green bans” ranged the BLF against developer AV Jennings over a piece of pristine bushland in Hunter’s Hill called Kelly’s Bush, when the BLF for some years had been publicly visible as a champion of progressive social causes. Local residents approached the BLF in mid-1971 and talked with them with a view to asking for their help to stop the development from going ahead. These were middle-class housewives who lived in relative comfort but the union took on their cause and refused to work on the job and the developer capitulated and agreed to abandon its plans to build 25 homes on the land in question.
It was not simply that the NSWBLF pledged itself not to provide labour for the destruction of Kelly’s Bush; its industrial power and its preparedness to use that power deterred the developer from even attempting to find other labour for that purpose. When Jennings reacted initially to the union ban by declaring it would build on Kelly’s Bush using non-union labour, builders labourers on a Jennings office project in North Sydney sent a telegram to Jennings’ head office: ‘If you attempt to build on Kelly’s Bush, even if there is the loss of one tree, this half-completed building will remain so forever, as a monument to Kelly’s Bush’. The union executive assured Jennings that any attempt to violate Kelly’s Bush would indeed result in the withdrawal of BLF members from all Jennings building sites. This ‘firm action’ had ‘a sobering influence’ on AV Jennings. The Battlers [for Kelly’s Bush, the residents’ action group] could see that the union’s decision ‘frightened the previously tough developers’, who ‘were accustomed to buying what they wanted’. Premier Askin, who had sweet-talked the Battlers, now condemned the unionists, who had kept their promises.
From the point of view of posterity, now, 40 years after the facts recounted, the stakes were even higher in fights against the state government in The Rocks – which was to be redeveloped with high-rise offices and hotels by the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority – and Glebe – which the Department of Main Roads wanted to split in two for the easement for the planned Northwestern Expressway.

In Woolloomooloo also, the BLF supported local residents. Here, developer Sid Londish wanted to raze part of the suburb – which had not yet been gentrified – and build high-rise apartments. There was also the plan for the Eastern Suburbs Expressway to Bondi Junction which would have led to significant parts of the eastern approaches to the city being flattened. And in Victoria Street, Potts Point, there was the sinister developer Frank Theeman who wanted to build apartments where 19th century Victorian houses stood. There was also a state government plan to build a sports centre at Moore Park including a swimming pool on part of Centennial Park, and a plan to build a carpark under part of the Botanical Gardens near the Opera House.

These are a few of the more noteworthy matters the BLF adopted as causes for its militant union action, and we should be thankful to them that none of these projects went ahead. As well as supporting the goals of residents in these areas, the BLF also took the unprecedented step of relying on National Trust listings to decide which projects would go ahead, and which would not.

The book’s subtitle is indeed accurate. Large parts of Sydney’s valuable natural environment and heritage were threatened by profit-hungry developers aided and abetted by corrupt state premier, Robert Askin, who would use the police to remove tenants from properties or to harass union members on building sites. The press was largely ranged against the NSW BLF, including the Sydney Morning Herald. Naturally, the Australian and the Daily Telegraph – organs of arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch – were also vocal against them. (The DT was owned by Frank Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press until 1972, when it was bought by News Limited. Sir Frank’s son Kerry was also against the NSW BLF, which is germane as the Packers ran Channel Nine.)

Askin lost power in 1975 and the new government of Neville Wran quickly moved to prevent developers from knocking down heritage buildings. From the book:
With the Askin Government at last defeated at the polls, the Wran Labor Government from 1976 embarked upon significant legislation to protect heritage more adequately. In its first year it announced the preparation of laws under which developers would risk six months gaol plus $10,000 fines for demolishing historical buildings, and if a developer did damage an historical site the government would have the power to ban all development on that site for ten years.
The New South Wales Heritage Act was passed through Parliament in 1978. In 1979, the Wran government also enacted the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act and the Land and Environment Court Act.

This is a superbly-written book that is by turns engaging and gripping. It does have the peculiarity that it relies a little heavily on acronyms – which I also found in China Mieville’s October (reviewed on this blog in October); it seems that those whose views rest on the left in politics have an affection for abbreviations. You are unwilling to turn to the list of abbreviations when reading the Kindle version because the navigation between pages is so poor on the Kindle, but you need to look up “BTG” (which stands for Building Trades Group, a part of the trade union movement that the NSW BLF belonged to).

Above: An illustration from the book shows Jack Mundey being arrested during ‘The Battle for the Rocks’, October 1973.

No comments: