NSW has a priceless collection of historic houses. They go largely unnoticed, unappreciated and unfunded. Conservative politicians and their wealthy supporters stole the timeless landscape of indigenous Australia and gave it to white settlers. Now they want to profit from colonial history as well.
The Historic Houses Act was steered onto the NSW statute books in 1980 by Premier Neville Wran. In the dozens of books on the Wran era, the ground-breaking legislation is rarely mentioned and Wran himself never made a fuss.
The legislation provided for “the care, control and management of certain houses, and other buildings and places, of historic importance”. To remove the interfering fingers of politicians, real estate spivs and developers, the Historical Houses Trust was established with nine members – “with at least one trustee with knowledge or experience in history, and at least one trustee to have knowledge or experience in architecture”.
The trust’s mission was “to control, manage, maintain and conserve historic buildings or places, having regard to the historic, social and architectural interest and significance of those buildings and places” and “promote their place in the heritage of the State”.
Critical to its independence, the trust was made a statutory body, a State Cultural Organisation registered as a not-for-profit charity which reported to the NSW Governor and Parliament. Ultimate control rested with a Cabinet Minister whose portfolio included historic homes.
For 25 years, trust members and its supporters faithfully carried out their obligations. It was mainly voluntary although donations and regular money-raising events helped out.
Then, without any warning, the Historic Houses Act and the Historic Houses Trust were branded as “excessive red tape” and “enemies of progress”; politicians and developers began a campaign to remove them. The era of privatisation and cultural vandalism had arrived.
The first blow was delivered by NSW Treasurer “Electric” Eric Roozendaal when he introduced a Bill to amend the Act and give the NSW Government the power to dispose of its assets. Roozendaal told MLCs in the Upper House that the purpose of his Historic Houses Amendment Bill was to “streamline the Trust’s procedures”. Its real purpose became clearer when he said: “The current Act requires that the Governor must approve of the disposal of any property originally acquired by the Trust as a gift or a bequest. Proposed amendments will require the Trust to obtain approval of the Minister, rather than the Governor.”
In other words, the sale of historic homes and sites was being transferred to a Labor minister in a Cabinet heavily influenced by Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi and other factional warlords.
Roozendaal excelled in chutzpah. He presented the 2010 NSW Entrepreneur of the Year Award in memory of Dr Trevor Pearcey (1919-1998), the brilliant scientist who built one of the world’s first computers, the CSIR Mark 1. An avowed supporter of public education and research, Pearcey stood for most things that were denigrated by Roozendaal, a fully-furnished neoliberal.
“Eric the Viking” left politics before any serious damage could be done to historic homes but the attack was renewed when Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell swept to power in 2011. His successors, Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian, have carried forward the emasculation of heritage and cultural history. First of all, in 2013 consultants, “influencers” and Liberal hacks morphed Historic Houses into a new entity called Sydney Living Museums, responsible for just 12 of the houses and aiming to make them into money-spinning tourist and event venues.
Other houses, including Willow Grove and St George’s Terrace, threatened with demolition by the Government’s pro-developer plans for Parramatta, were excluded from the newly branded body.
Now Premier Berejiklian and her disgraced Arts Minister Don Harwin are proposing to merge the State Archives and Records (SARA) with Sydney Living Museums. Why not chuck in the Rabbit Protection Board, the Whale Watching Review Committee and the Sydney Haberdashers Society?
The Government has gained endorsement for the proposal from the National Archives of Australia, the Sydney Opera House, Museums and Galleries NSW and the Art Gallery of NSW – all bodies in thrall to the Coalition Governments in Canberra and Sydney.
Lucy Turnbull has supported the omnibus amalgamation – which coincides with her appointment to the AGNSW board of trustees. Her husband, former PM Malcolm Turnbull, is never happier, he has said, than when his partner is off somewhere doing something.
Dr Shirley Fitzgerald, former City of Sydney historian, has called the proposed merger “misjudged, indefensible, bizarre and just nuts”. The archives hold paper records invaluable for historians and requiring specialist care, but unsuitable for public display. In 2012 State Archives and Records lost its office in The Rocks as a cost-cutting measure. Sydney Living Museums has no dedicated facility suitable to house the archive.
The Federation of Australian Historical Societies told SMH reporter Linda Morris the planned merger was “an uneasy and illogical fit”.
Other public bodies serving history, research and culture seem too terrified to mount a public campaign against the threatening vandalism. While public funding is being relentlessly squeezed, their reticence is understandable. But instead of lowering voices, perhaps it’s a time to raise them? As Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner William Faulkner (1897-1962) once said:
“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice, lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the earth.”