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Jack Mundey talks to Geraldine O’Brien about challenges to conserve Sydney’s heritage

‘O'brien G. 'Jack of Spades’, insites: newsletter of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Winter 1998

There was a time, back in the early '70s, when then-National Trust director John Morris phoned then-Builders' Labourers' Federation leader Jack Mundey to arrange a meeting. Mundey suggested they meet at the Federation's office; Morris demurred. So Mundey suggested he front up to the National Trust office; Morris was appalled.

Eventually they met in the bar of the Royal George, on Sussex Street. Elaborate signals for recognition had been provided by Morris – totally unnecessarily, as it happened, for when Mundey arrived, the only person in the saloon bar was the promised "red-bearded, with glasses, in a check sports-jacket' John Morris himself.

Why all the secrecy, Mundey wondered?

"Oh Jack,' said Morris, "the more conservative supporters of the National Trust just wouldn't understand."

Communist union leader and leader of the National Trust became, and remain, firm friends. Both have dined out on the tale but its real moral is how the times have indeed 'a changed,' just like the song promised. And yet, in some respects, they remain disturbingly familiar.

Jack Mundey, now chairman of the Historic Houses Trust, concedes that the "concrete and glass" keeps sprouting in Sydney, with "more and more space going for expressways and the great god car'.

"We've got to fight hard to keep what we've got."

And even he is not sure just how that can be done: "I don't know... I'd like to think civic awareness is a cyclical thing, and I hope that again people will start getting concerned as they were in the 1960-1975 boom when Sydney was just about destroyed..."

It was that boom period, with its attendant notion that "all progress was good," which gave rise to determined resident action which, in turn, was reinforced by the world-renowned "green bans".

It began, famously, with Kellys Bush, –"Hunters Hill?… But we haven't got any members there" Mundey remembers builders' labourers saying – and continued in bans on Victoria Street, The Rocks (thereby saving Susannah Place), the expressway that would have obliterated 25,000 homes through Glebe, Annandale, Leichhardt and out to Concord (thereby saving Lyndhurst) and the Pitt Street Congregational Church (which the Minister wanted replaced with a 20-storey building).

In Martin Place there were bans on demolition of the bank on the George Street corner, on the National Mutual building on the Pitt Street corner and on the George Street Societe Generale – in total bans between 1971 and 1975.

The union was selective in applying the green bans, Mundey says: "There always had to be an approach to the union from the community, there had to be genuine widespread concern and public meeting held to request a ban."

Even so, the Askin government damned it as industrial anarchy and the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that "Mr Mundey and his men" should stick to demolishing and building what they were told.

It is almost impossible from this perspective to remember just how draconian some of the proposals were and just how wedded the decision-makers were to the glory of 'progress'. The first scheme for The Rocks proposed bulldozing the lot, then the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, with the emphasis on 'redevelopment', agreed to preserve some token buildings.

Woolloomooloo was to be razed, and there were bitter battles over Centennial Park which brought even the normally reticent Patrick White to the barricades.

But backing resident outrage was the force of the union bans and sadly, given "the enormous hostility of this present [Federal] government to trade unions, it's hard to see any union breaking new ground in that way now," Mundey says.

"But there are groups of young architects questioning the logic of the bigger architectural firms in Sydney's development; there's growing concern in the community as shown in the campaigning for the harbour foreshores, and there's a stirring among people over indecent development in this city."


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