John Menadue. The new squatters on public land.

Apr 14, 2014

More alienation of public space.

In my blog yesterday, I referred to the alienation of public space in Barangaroo and proposed for the Sydney Botanic Gardens.  Today there are reports that Wentworth Park, which is Crown Land, will be developed as a billion dollar residential complex. In a letter to the SMH we are told how Wentworth Park was originally described as ‘the second most beautiful park in Sydney after the Botanic Gardens’. It had lakes, beautiful gardens and a cricket pitch. Unfortunately, it was then converted to a greyhound race track, but elements of the park were still preserved for community use. Even that limited community use is now threatened. It is another example of how our ‘public commons’ is alienated and eroded step by step.  John Menadue.

Repost of yesterday’s blog

In my blog of March 11, 2013, reposted below, I outlined the historic encroachment of private interests on our ‘public commons’ – the land and facilities we share as public citizens.

This encroachment is continuing apace, and not just by the shooters in national parks.

In Sydney, at present there are two glaring examples of how the new squatters are moving onto public land.

The first is Barangaroo. Without due process and with political influence writ large, the public commons at Barangaroo has been dramatically reduced in favour of commercial interests. The original plan was to keep about half of the site, including the whole 1.4 km waterfront, as inalienable public land. That has been junked in favour of James Packer’s six-star casino to bring in ‘high rollers’. James Packer is all about gambling. What a tawdry business he offers us. He says he wants to bring in wealthy gamblers from Asia and elsewhere. Paul Keating supported James Packer in this enclosure of our commons. Out has gone the park at the southern end of the site and in its place we have 180,000 square metres of commercial space.

The original architect of Barangaroo, Philip Thalis, put this invasion of our commons in the following way ‘The vibrant public space envisaged seven years ago has shrunk to become basically an enclave of privilege and exclusion’.

The other Sydney example of squatter encroachment on public land involves the Sydney Botanic Gardens. For many years part of the gardens has been alienated for four months each year for opera and cinema. Wealthy patrons and wealthy sponsors have been the main beneficiaries. But this isn’t enough for the new squatters. The Botanic Gardens and the Domain Trust have released a master plan for the parks to be developed with cafes, an $80 million hotel and year-round concerts. Paul Keating has rightly called it a desecration of the hallowed grounds bequeathed by Governors Phillip and Macquarie.

In both Barangaroo and the Botanic gardens, private greed is taking over our public commons and weak politicians are letting it happen. The Murdoch press once again remains mute when the public interest is at stake.

Steadily and step by step our public commons is being eroded. It won’t be the last time the new squatters want to take over more of our public commons.

Repost of ‘Shooters – the new squatters on public land’, March 13, 2013.

In the 18th and 19th Century, wealthy and privileged landowners in England passed Enclosure Acts forcing serfs and the poor off common land which they had used  for centuries to supplement their meagre incomes. About 20% of land in England was enclosed, forcing the poor into squalor in the new industrial cities.

We followed suit in Australia in the 19th Century with ‘squatters’, mainly from the upper echelons of colonial society, occupying large tracks of crown land to graze livestock. Over time, this pastoral occupation of the ‘commons’ and the dispossession of indigenous people was enshrined in law and enforced by the police. Many indigenous people were murdered while trying to protect their ‘commons’. Few squatters were prosecuted.

History tells us that we need to be very careful about the powerful who want to take possession and erode our public ‘commons’. It happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, often without our knowledge or understanding of what is at stake.  And it is not just about getting shooters out of national parks or protecting waterfront land without public tender. Councils often carelessly allow commercial interests to encroach on public parks, botanic gardens and beaches. Clean air and water are also important parts of our public “commons” and must be protected against polluters.

We owe a great debt to foresighted citizens and governments who in the past established public ‘commons’, like national parks, for the enjoyment of all. We need to be careful about the new squatters who want to erode our public ‘commons’.

John Menadue

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