Skip to content

Teaching Heritage

Board of Studies NSW

Dept House Banner
Contact Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size

Section markerTranscripts


Peter Garrett’s 1999 National Trust Annual Heritage Festival Lecture

Garrett, P. ‘National Estate or Real Estate: Crunch Time for the Harbour City’, 1999

"National Estate or Real Estate; Crunch Time for the Harbour City"

Distinguished guests, supporters of the National Trust, fellow citizens.

The National Trust has headlined its Heritage Festival activities "Towards 2000 the Century in Review" and I have responded with an answer of sorts with the title for this lecture "National Estate or Real Estate; Crunch Time for the Harbour City".

It is a great privilege to be invited to speak with you this evening, for the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Trust are organisations who share a common mission, which is to advocate and empower the maintenance and preservation of heritage. Broadly speaking, ACF concern itself with natural, the Trust with cultural, but there are overlaps and merging, for the definition of heritage as that which "...encompasses the built and natural forms which are expressions of a continuing culture", is as broad as the society and environment which comprise it is broad. Basically we aim to serve the community interest, to discharge a responsibility to earth and culture in the context of a civil society, and I believe this is work worth doing.

Now Sydney, the first city of Australia, is at a crossroads. In the blink of an historical eye, the most extraordinary metamorphosis has taken place. What was once a collection of tents, a military encampment by a small creek, is now a world city, with a harbour the envy of all. The cathedral spires which dominated European cities for centuries were here very quickly passed by skyscrapers in their dozens, as the city of a mere two hundred and ten years grew at a breakneck pace.

There are now over four million people living in the Sydney basin, 4.7 million in the greater metropolitan area. The population has more than doubled since World War Two. The phrase that best describes the past 100 years is 'spectacular growth'. Growth in buildings, as the city stretched upwards, in suburbs as it spread outward. Growth in roads and vehicles, growth in shopping centres and infrastructure, growth in income. The impact of the city is immense, with an ecological footprint – the total amount of productive land and water required to produce the resources and accumulate the waste of the the city's population – stretching as far afield as Coffs Harbour to the north, past the Shoalhaven in the South.

But as many a planner and politician can attest, the dynamics of urban growth consistently overwhelm the level of effort required to preserve natural and cultural heritage. It isn't that we don't think historic buildings should be preserved, or rivers brought back to health, most of us do. But we seem unable to curtail or mediate this dynamic force.

The result, an environment that is in trouble. Some would say this message has lost force for want of continuous repeating. But in the same breath we might observe the same fact about our heritage. In the case of the environment, and tonight I mean the environment of the Sydney Basin, the evidence is that it is in a state of extreme stress. No one seriously disputes this fact, and many residents experience it as worsening air quality, vanishing bush, suburban overdevelopment, highly congested roads, threats to water supplies, noise pollution and so on, all which mar their place of living.

All this within the space of a generation, and despite the traumas of a city, that the Premier Mr Carr describes as "... bursting at the seams..." it is anticipated that a further half million people will be living here within the next twenty five years. It is not easy to conceive of such an increase in numbers but without reservation we can say that if we take a "business as usual" approach to planning, the effect on the environment and on our built and natural heritage will be great.

For the citizen seeking a means of expression there is the letters page of the Herald or the Telegraph, talk back radio, a vote every four years, the local residents action group and finally the street, perhaps the chalk mark "Eternity" needs a twenty-first century partner of "Ecology".

The letters page.

Dear Sir/Madam

"For many years now, as a resident of this great city of ours, I have watched the metamorphosis (Mr Garrett mentions in his speech), of Sydney from big but pleasant town to the behemoth, monster, hideosity she is today. This city is no butterfly, and I'm like Leunig's character Curly, watching the sunset on channel 99 again, earplugs superglued to my ears, 'breathe rite' oxygen tank in the corner. Unfortunately I have a dislike, I wouldn't describe it as a phobia, of large shopping centres. It's partly the music, partly the crowds, that makes me feel uneasy but there is no corner store nearby anymore and as I don't drive a car, well frankly I feel like I'm being discriminated against. Although a friendly bank manager helped me get a very generous credit card limit, do you know my little house in Chippendale has nearly doubled in value in three years without me lifting a finger, but I still feel upset and powerless at what is happening to the city I grew up in. Can you help me?" signed Dazed and Confused.

Before we can try and answer the letter we need to peer into the past.

In "An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales" we read "But strange as it may appear they also have their real estates. Ben-nil-long, both before he went to England and since his return, often assured me that the island Me Mel (called by us Goat Island) close by Sydney Cove was his father's and that he should give it to By-gone his good friend and companion. To this little spot he seemed much attached; and we have often seen him and his wife Ba-rang-a-roo enjoying themselves on it. He told us of other people who possessed this kind of hereditary property which they retained undisturbed."

This is one starting point of any consideration of heritage in Australia. Two centuries later, without any monies changing hands and without agreement or settling of terms, the original owners, and their memory, have been removed. That same real estate is now our real estate.

In the words of High Court judge Justice Brennan, "Their (the aboriginal peoples) dispossession underwrote the development of this nation". This 'volte face' is both dazzling and confronting. The land of another people, who expected that their children would continue to enjoy it, has become for the most part, the province of a new and rich settler society.

Less than twenty years ago, if my memory serves me well, I was singing in this theatre, performing with other bands in a setting so different from the places we would ordinarily play, namely the smoky crowded clubs and pubs of the city. It was exhilarating. In part because it was so unusual, as the scale and decor spoke of a different time. But as well, because it evoked the image of an earlier generation; of a people capable of producing beautiful expressions of their era, who devoted time, resources, imagination to creating a performance space like this State Theatre.

From the perspective I have, which I admit is limited, many of the inner city pubs and venues, which nurtured young talent, which shimmied then shook and raged, have fallen under the hammer. The Bondi Lifesaver, The Regent Theatre, The Paris Theatre now part of the hideous Whitlam Square, all passed into legend. Mind you the songs have changed too. From "Where have all the flowers gone", or "The day paradise put up a parking lot..." these plaintive calls of the 60's, have become more confronting and strident. Today it's "How are we gonna survive unless we act a little crazy..." (Seals) or Oz band Living End who simply shout in 1999, "All torn down, all torn down...they got no reason, they got no reason."

This breathtaking pace of change has been fuelled by ever increasing economic growth and immigration booms and busts, fads and fashions, the realignments of national and international politics and, the resulting transformation of a city and its suburbs, has been detailed in the exhibition "Demolished Houses of Sydney" currently on display at Hyde Parks Barracks and reviewed just last weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The remarks attributed to the holders of the exhibition and highlighted by the subeditors – one wonders if they agree – that "Greed and Sydney seem to go together. They come in many guises. The greed of the property owner, the developer, the car, old and new money..." underscored the familiar tale of heritage lost and history wiped out.

Yes, thanks to isolated cases of farsightedness and resolute campaigning by Jack Mundey and others the city still has some heritage; Macquarie Street, the Rocks and fortunately a harbour without parallel. This magnificent reach of water that entranced the explorer, and which performs the same alchemy for resident and tourist alike, has a geographical beauty stronger than all the buildings around and upon it, this great national asset saves the city from being a concrete jungle.

I reckon the point about memory and history is that it must live somewhere other than in a book if possible. That the past is void of meaning without pathways for exploration, compass points to follow, stories to tell, paintings to view, songs to listen to and to sing, a visit to the old shearing shed or the colonial monument. All these tangible things provide the expression of a society, without which the imagination withers and with it the capacity to respond, to understand the present by knowing a bit about the past.

The original idea of heritage is that of inheritance, the passing down from generation to generation of land and the myths that accompany generation baton-changing. It is possible to see the Australian experience in terms of land, and land use. Firstly the forced acquisition of other people's land, then the gift of that land to a convict class, and then the acquiescence to unregulated settlement by the squatters attended by the quick-time changes wrought on the landscape, and finally a just as speedy erection of cities and suburbs in a matter of years, not centuries. This story can be read as a tale of land stolen, occupied, bought and sold, a story of betrayed and then commercialised inheritance.

Land has always been the ultimate heritage of families and tribes and nations, and here it has become the means, especially built land, by which successive generations got ahead. Until the explosion in investment by Mums and Dads in shares, land/buildings was the single biggest source of individual wealth in Australia. The past decade, like eras before, has been a time of sub-dividing, adding value, renovation, making the place of investment your primary place of residence and watching real estate values soar like the Darling Harbour fireworks.

If the primary activity of the nation was erection, improvement and expansion of buildings and land then, with few exceptions, the perceived or actual worth of the land was the only criteria by which it could be judged, and if the buildings were in a vernacular that was of another place and time, and were worth more demolished than standing then down they came.

How else to explain the extraordinary, and well documented losses of this city; the terraces that faced Hyde Park from the south, the wharves at East Circular Quay, the Australia Club, the Rural Bank in Martin Place, the string of hotels with verandahs which met the visitor at Manly, "a thousand miles from care", and numerous others.

The final irony now apparent as the infamous "toaster" imposes its ugliness upon the entrance of the city and at the same time is lauded as having the distinction of being the most expensive real estate in the world, courtesy of the spectacular views and central location.

In this sense, the large question mark which adorns the facade of the National Trust at Observatory Hill is a query not only about whether we value heritage sufficiently, but whether we can practically exercise a lasting duty of care for the whole of our inheritance including the natural environment.

There is a recent figure in Australian political history who provides an illustration of this and points to the linkage which exists between the ACF and the National Trust.

I'm thinking out of NSW, of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, who as a young Queensland farmer pioneered a method of large scale land clearing – a huge, heavy chain anchored by iron balls, dragged taut between two equally large bulldozers – which accounted for the loss of much of the central Queensland brigalow belt with fatal consequences to habitat and soil.

The same Bjelke-Petersen, early in his reign as Premier of Queensland, oversaw the destruction of many of the finest colonial and post-colonial buildings of Brisbane, including the unique Cloudlands Ballroom. Built in the 1920/30's I guess, this graceful white structure with sprung wooden floors and balcony perched on top of a hill overlooking the river and inner city suburbs of Brisbane. It was greatly used during World War II for dances where visiting servicemen came to woo local girls, much to the chagrin one imagines, of local boys. Cloudlands continued to be the location where dance bands, jazz groups and rock bands performed and where the sparks of many enduring relationships were first ignited.

The very same groups who I performed with in this State Theatre, a year later, also played there in the beginning of the eighties. But early one morning the bulldozers moved in, as they did on the much admired Bellevue Hotel, and another living landmark was gone.

Later in the Bjelke-Petersen term, his government aggressively contested the nomination of the North Queensland Wet Tropics including the Daintree Rainforest as worthy of inscription on the World Heritage list – akin to the Australian Heritage Commission's list of places that are worthy of being included as part of the national estate.

This is the highest accolade that a site or region can be given by the international community. The ensuing campaign to secure both listing and subsequent protection of Australia's Wet Tropics was waged on a number of fronts as campaigns of this kind must be. The forest blockaders chained themselves to the trees of the rare and precious rainforest, and for that we are eternally grateful.

The Australian community, including the people of NSW spoke out for the rainforest and the Federal Government of the time, the Hawke Labor government, ensured that the legislation was enforced and appropriate compensation and funding arrangements made.

It is a sobering fact that the Federal Government of today would not likely take such positive action. A glance toward the imbroglio over the Jabiluka mine in Kakadu National park, whose World Heritage listing is for natural and cultural values, is sufficient confirmation of this. And yet, as postscript, we should note that successive Queensland Governments have as do Governments in other states, made much of the World Heritage badge, enthusiastically highlighting this fact in tourism promotion and reaping the economic benefits that follow.

The introduction of heritage legislation designed to record, identify and preserve places considered of genuine natural and cultural value happened before the iceberg-like economic rationalist mindset floated across the ocean of common sense. The idea that a value can be attributed to an ecological system, or a historic building, other than what it is worth if sold or exploited at this moment in time, struggles to achieve legitimacy in the face of grim beancounters and free marketeers.

The original motivation for heritage legislation, whether national or international was an understanding that some special places, called properties are "..the product and witness of the different traditions and the spiritual achievements of the past and thus an essential element in the personality of the peoples of the world". And so too for natural environments of distinction. Governments as a consequence, have a duty " ensure the protection and preservation of the cultural heritage of mankind".

Nothing could be clearer. But despite the existence of such legislation, and despite continuing expression by majorities of the population about the desirability of same, we continue to face the sure disintegration of parts of our national estate, indeed I wonder whether the Heritage Commission itself will survive the term of the current Federal Government. This reluctance is caused not only by the "historical amnesia" Robert Hughes referred to in last year's Heritage lecture, but also due in part to our attitude towards land, (my home is my castle), to the primacy of real estate, and property rights and the hold they have over our pocket books, our political leaders, as well as our imaginations. All these factors and others I haven't considered, contribute to the problem.

I want then to identify some of the decisions of Government, both Federal and State, which will be critical to the livability of the city and to the maintenance of its natural and built heritage.

Decisions of the federal government that are imminent include finalising the legislation for the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Trust. Most Sydneysiders would be aware that the fate of the city's harbour foreshores will be determined soon. There has been reasonable progress made, with provision of $96 million from the Federation Fund for rehabilitation and relocation in advancing the return of land occupied by the Department of Defence; North Head, Middle Head, Georges Heights, Cockatoo Island, Chowder Bay et al to the State Government and for reservation as public land accessible to everybody as the Sydney Harbour National Park.

However, as envisaged by government, the Trust is required to finance its activities to preserve the heritage of the foreshore by redevelopment of parts of the site, thus making the selling off of "our" Sydney harbour foreshore and infill land a distinct possibility.

Yet there is a precedent for a no strings attached grant to the people of NSW/Australia namely North Head, Dobroyd Point and other foreshore land returned, with no strings attached by the Fraser Government to NSW in 1977. The guiding principle, which ACF endorses fully has been expressed by many, including former federal minister Tom Uren. Namely that land – all land-owned by the Federal, State, Local governments and statutory authorities on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour should be returned and remain forever in public hands.

The Federal Government is also intent on foisting a second international airport and a new nuclear reactor on the people of this city against their wishes. In the case of the nuclear reactor it is sufficient to note that there would not be any community in the world, that cared for it's children or environment who would countenance the construction of a nuclear facility that produces nuclear waste within such close proximity to people, homes and schools. Within a kookaburra call of the largest city in the country.

Notwithstanding the extensive propaganda campaign underway selling this proposal as one of bettering the health of the community, I predict growing opposition as the details of this plan are better known.

Just as I am certain there will be implacable opposition to the siting of a second airport at Badgery's Creek. The impact on residents of southern Sydney will be considerable, on the environment of the basin likewise, and alternative locations such as Goulburn, especially with a Very Fast Train link to Canberra are far more sensible.

As well there is the planned development of another Department of Defence site at St Marys in the western suburbs. Here issues of heritage, as the site has aboriginal and colonial sites present; environment, for it contains substantial remnants of Cumberland Plain Woodland which has all but vanished in the rest of Sydney; and the matter of equitable provision of open space and recreational land for western Sydney coalesce.

Portions of the site are listed on the interim register of the National Estate, and there are reasons aplenty not to put 8 000 homes there, not the least which include the potential benefit of creating a biodiversity zone which would greatly enhance the health of the Hawkesbury/Nepean water catchment.

Heritage protection it is not an exercise in nostalgia, any more than having access to literature from another century is, and the people of NSW might be encouraged that they have a Premier who both reads and is exceedingly conversant with these issues. I welcome Mr Carr's statement that the environment will be one of his second term priorities. I hope this means the built environment as well.

Hope is the conditional word used here. For the public would be entitled to take little on trust. For despite Government policies and statements in favour of public use, protecting heritage and so on, we have seen the destruction of Woolloomooloo – a crying shame made worse by the date, and the alienation of that location to private wealth. Now the National Trust is in court trying to ensure that the same privatised outcome for Walsh Bay piers 6&7 does not eventuate.

I salute tonight the work done by neighbourhood groups and heritage associations in seeking to preserve the character and ecology of their suburbs. From Haberfield to Sutherland, from Exeter in the Southern Highlands where the spectre of whole scale mining of the surrounding township cast a wide shadow, to the efforts by Novacastrians still reeling after the departure of BHP to preserve the oldest picture theatre in Australia.

In fact in most towns and suburbs there are small scale and large campaigns, neighbourhood groups, historical societies, Landcare groups, all are proud inheritors of a tradition that is both democratic and selfless and which on balance serves the country well.

Why is it so hard then, to secure our national estate, whether natural or cultural?

Four reasons may be offered; history, leadership, identity and public policy.


Modern Australia has an enviable wealth, due in great measure to whole sale theft and overuse of land, we tend to believe this is the only way to live because it has served our purposes up to now, but the flip side of our genuine achievements, is the destruction of large chunks of our heritage. We are only slowly coming to realise the importance of that history.


Until such time as political leaders forge a bipartisan commitment to our natural and cultural heritage, recognising not only its importance but also committing to meaningful measures for protection, we will lose more. We don't see any expression in draft preambles, nor do we see many practical expressions in legislation.

When the science adviser to the President of the United States says, " Global climate change caused by human activity and above all by fossil fuel combustion is both the most dangerous and the most intractable problem civilisation faces...because climate creates the envelope of environmental conditions within which all other conditions and processes that operate in support of human well being, have to exist".

He is not advancing an ideology as most members of the Coalition Parties seem to think, nor is he advancing an anti-jobs agenda as members on both sides of the house sometimes claim.

This is a call to move past sectional interests, for he is simply pointing out that burning more coal, driving more cars, clearing more bush and tearing down buildings which store memory as well as carbon, will cause real impacts, and that there is every good reason to move with caution, but no good reason to continue to do what we know is harmful.


Until such time as we place as a society a high value on our heritage because we have reached the point where we understand that this is how we encourage shared values and a national culture that honours its past we will likely perpetuate past mistakes. Whereas the people come from rich and diverse cultures yet are one in their devotion to the Australian traditions of equality, the freedom and dignity of the individual and to Australia's natural and cultural there are some words for the preamble.

Public Policy

The key word here is public. Unless and until the position of the public is respected and reinforced history will likely repeat itself. We demand adequate third party rights, the capacity to bring our public interest to bear in deliberations made by governments and bureaucrats about our city and its heritage. And we call for public policy that seeks to incorporate preservation of social and natural capital.

Can we answer the letter of dazed and confused?

Well, we might say something like this. The wisdom and vitality of a society which seeks to confer the gift of heritage preserved to the next generation requires that agreement of this kind is reached.

The charge reads something like this: because the maintenance of heritage both natural and built is vital to the well being of society, that all future decisions by government take into account: the principles of ecologically sustainable development; Our indigenous and European history; rules and legislations designed to protect same; that Commonwealth occupied land is in fact land legitimately belonging to the public; the commoners. That citizens have a right to participate in meaningful ways in decision making; that decisions made will not contribute to a worsening environment; that decisions are made not just for the powerful or the wealthy, but for the benefit of all.

This claim is on ourselves as much as our officials and representatives. For it requires active cooperation by all sections of the community, in a spirit of respect for the work done by our forebears, and in a spirit of affection for the "tough, lovely old planet" we call home.

Reproduced with permission of the National Trust.

Contact Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size