JOHN MENADUE. National Parks and the new squatters

The new squatters on public land are being given a leg-up, as they were in the 19th Century, to seize and occupy public land. By deliberately underfunding National Parks developer-friendly governments are putting commercial interests ahead of the public interest.  

Our early wealthy and powerful squatters forced indigenous people off the land they had occupied for tens of thousands of years. The new squatters are taking over more and more of our public land – national parks, botanic gardens and public reserves.

There is currently an attempt by a latter-day squatter, aka developer – Gap Bluff Hospitality Pty Ltd – to in effect destroy the ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of the Sydney Harbour National Park by developing a series of quite inappropriate features for weddings, ‘bucks’ and hens’ parties’ and student formals.  

The Sydney Harbour South Head National Park is a remarkably rugged and beautiful park which must be retained for the enjoyment of all people. It is also historic for every Australian. Captain Phillip sailed around South Head in 1788 into Sydney Harbour and the establishment of a new colony and country. It was here that the Cadigal people had their first ominous encounter with Europeans.

Conservatives believe in small government, except when they can deal out benefits to their friends. Cutting back government by commercialising and privatising public assets is a core part of their ideology. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service who manage South Head National Park is currently underfunded and forced to seek private funding by promoting commercial access to public parks. It is more important to serve business  interests than community interests.

This is happening when, with growing population density, we have greatly increased need for public parks, gardens and open space. We were able to fund our public parks for decades in the past when we were much poorer than we are today. We need to protect our parks more than ever and we have more money to do so. Yet state governments are screwing national parks with funds to force commercialisation and privatisation.

In NSW recently the Minister for the Environment boasted that nine new parks had been created since 2011. Perhaps she was unaware that the previous Carr Government had created 500 new parks, expanded many more and increased funding for protected area management

But there is worse to come, as John Benson set out in this blog ‘Biodiversity is threatened in New South Wales’ on 19 September 2017. He said:

At a time when the NSW Government is riding high financially (with property tax revenue), it is making serious cuts to NPWS staff, eliminating knowledge and experience in the process. The number of rangers has been reduced by more than 90 over 7 years. Only 2 of 14 Regional Managers have been appointed after a restructure and a similar threat faces critical staff at the area management level. Staff is so reduced in some regions that basic amenities cannot be maintained and a lack of field staff presence disappoints public visitor expectations.

That is happening in South Head National Park near where I live Sydney.

Two years ago a Darling Harbour developer applied to introduce major commercial development into the Park. The local community rallied to reject completely the crass and ugly proposal. But two years on, we have a ‘revised’ proposal from the Darling Harbour developer.

The ‘revised’ proposal has marginal changes but substantially maintains the ‘wedding factory’ approach. Functions in South Head National Park will then cater for up to 410 guests per day. Car parking will overwhelm the already crowded Sydney Harbour National Park/Watsons Bay precinct. Functions will run from 8.30 am till midnight. Heritage cottages will be used as ‘bridal suites’ for pre and post wedding receptions. The lease will be long term and can be transferred to another entity at a later date. If this application is successful we can be confident that there will be more and more ‘approval creep’.

This follows a common pattern.  Faced with strong local opposition the ruse is to slow down the decision in order to give the developer more time and in the process exhaust the local community. At the same time let the park deteriorate so the government can justify a decision to commercialise the park in order to save it. And that is clearly what is happening in the South Head National Park. The park is deteriorating rapidly.

As they were in the 19th Century, the new squatters on public land are being given a leg-up to seize and occupy public land, our ‘common wealth’.

More and more our National Parks which were designed for the enjoyment of us all are being trampled under foot by developers, the new squatters.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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