Parramatta needs a Jack Mundey

Students always had some difficulty believing that I remembered the first traffic light turned on in Parramatta. The pace of change is such that memories vanish before they can be recorded. In the cradle city of Australia, ‘development’ is about to obliterate significant features of the past.

Having just written about the need to change place names in terms that many readers would consider iconoclastic, I might well be considered hypocritical in calling for the preservation of one historical precinct. I am happy to wear the accusation in making an appeal for the values of conservation to prevail over the crass pursuit of the dollar in Parramatta.

Parramatta ‘The Cradle City of Australia’ according to one book, abounds with sites of historical significance. The eleven historical experiences suggested for visitors include but a tiny selection of important locations.

Spending my childhood in the area I took for granted the river, Elizabeth Farm, Hambledon Cottage, Experiment Farm Cottage, Government House, Parramatta Park Gates, the Female Factory and the various churches, bridges and public buildings. I have not returned for some years, but even at a distance I understand Parramatta’s unique heritage value. Lately however, it all seems to be under threat.

Elizabeth Farrelly (Sydney Morning Herald 13-14 June 2020) notes that State and Local Government plans for development of infrastructure such as light rail and tower blocks threaten the Female Factory precinct which is under consideration for World Heritage listing. Some 2000 trees including ancient figs face removal.

As far as Farrelly has been able to ascertain, appropriate archaeological and environmental assessments have not been carried out. Indeed, her inquiries have revealed that the processes have been shrouded in secrecy. Farrelly suggests that it is not too late to resist Parramatta’s ‘slide into a mediocrity of soulless towers’. Farrelly recommends instead a return to localism with liveable streets and a mixture of activities.

It is understandable that many people cannot endorse the idea of removing statues of the agents of Indigenous dispossession. The only gain from such removal might be to help to heal the country’s ills and make us a more just society. It would be helpful were those same people to oppose the destruction of areas of much greater historical significance in Parramatta. It is dispiriting to think that the difference in attitude could have something to do with a belief that removal of historical buildings in Parramatta will bring obvious financial gains to a few wealthy individuals.

Given the destruction of the Royal Oak Hotel in a pre-dawn raid that shocked locals, there seems little likelihood that the State Government is interested in considering either local sentiment or national heritage values. On the contrary, this tactic is reminiscent of the worst cowboy days of Brisbane under the Country Party. If you knock things down first, the argument becomes pointless.

The Australian Government seems to have no understanding of what is being lost in Parramatta or it would step in immediately and impose a freeze. Goodness knows that the federal environment ministry needs an image boost. The New South Wales Government should consider itself the custodian of the Parramatta precinct rather than the owner. The sites of historical significance belong to all Australians. It is appalling to think that one agency should benefit from destruction of national heritage. Indeed, when there is talk of economic compensations to offset loss of national heritage, surely people outside New South Wales should be able to expect to receive some compensation. On the grounds of equity, the destruction should be stopped.

This is not just a matter of nostalgia. Action on Parramatta is needed urgently. The heritage sites under threat cannot be replaced. The best hope might be to find a new Jack Mundey to impose a ‘green ban’ on the entire city. Unfortunately, that seems little chance of that.

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Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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