Hurrah-words don’t disguise the reality of the steady creep of business into our National Parks. When a world-status Park is involved, all sorts of phoney justifications for commercial incursions are trotted out. The pity of it is that so many of them emanate from within the Gamekeepers’ compound. But repetition does not generate conviction, and the natives are becoming restless.
Sydney Harbour National Park is one of the internationally recognised glories of Sydney. The official treatment of an integrated event venue cum restaurant cum accommodation proposal relating to three sectors of the Park at the highly popular tourist destination of Watsons Bay is especially disturbing.
The proposal arose from an understandably commercial response to what some would say was an unwarily worded New South Wales Government request in 2013 for expressions of interest “to enhance the public use and presentation” of nine existing buildings and locations in the Park. Not much reference to the legislated National Park reservation purposes and principles there! Not much mention of the military heritage of the land and buildings, even though the relevant sectors of the Park are former Defence lands ceded to NSW for National Park purposes. Not much admiration or respect for the remnant native bushland at this historic entry point to Sydney Harbour. No, just unvarnished commerce clad in opportunistic public use interest robes.
Now, almost five years later, following a horrified local response to the original proposals in 2015 and a request to the proponent to modify them, the matter still drags on. In the hallowed halls of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, an amended version is said still to be under consideration, to be exhibited in due course.
The long-drawn-out process has fed considerable speculation about the Government’s commitment to the protection of National Parks generally, and this one in particular. Other interpretations of official motivations seem plausible too.
A charitable observer might think that the strangely extended negotiation can and will solve any remaining problems.
Scarcity of visitor facilities can hardly be an issue in this instance: the National Park sectors in question are certainly not remote from many and varied local sources of refreshment and venues for different kinds of events, often having magnificent Harbour-related facilities and outlooks, and in full conformity with local land use planning regulation. National Park land is not needed to provide party venues where people may eat, drink, dance and make merry.
The kind of sustainability envisaged in National Parks legislation is inherently different in quality and content from the financial viability so slickly and readily interposed by would-be entrepreneurs – and Ministers!- into the public debate about actual and potential commercial activities in these Parklands. Their resort to documented Plans of Management and the like – to support proposals for public amusement, quick profit and similar understandable objectives – may readily mesmerise rapid readers. While the patter is often persuasive, it rings hollow when viewed carefully against the reality of the legislation.
There is really only one issue: does the proposal actually assist and advance the protection and sustaining of the natural and cultural heritage that underlay the National Park designation in the first place?
At South Head, astute tweaking of the original proposal may well silence local objectors, especially if they are given some kind of ‘community’ sop. The fate of the legislated principles and purposes of the National Park land dedication is a very different matter.
Hylda Rolfe is a neighbour of the South Head sector of Sydney Harbour National Park.