The Millers Point Action Group formed in 1969, and soon after an allied group,The Rocks Resident Action Group, led by Nita McRae, formed to fight against the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority’s plan to demolish the historic buildings of The Rocks and replace them with high-rise office buildings. Nita McRae enlisted the support of the Builders Laborers Federation, which led to Jack Mundey, leader of the BLF, announcing a Green Ban to bring work to a halt. This was when the Battle for The Rocks began in earnest. The campaign continued from 1971 to 1974, and eventually many of the buildings in The Rocks were saved, but some were still lost in the redevelopment. Similarly, may residents were able to stay in the area, but some were moved on.

Ultimately it was Jack Mundey who announced the lifting of the Green Ban and the construction of the Sirius apartments, which were built especially for those displaced by The Rocks redevelopment and for the Millers Point community. In 2017 the Sirius Foundation has supported the nomination of Sirius for national heritage listing as well as challenging in the courts the NSW Government decision not to list Sirius on the state register which was against the recommendation of its own Heritage Council.

The Green Bans

This speech was delivered at ‘40 Years of the NSW Heritage Act – A Forum’ on 18 April 2017 by the Hon Meredith Burgmann, the former President of the NSW Legislative Council and co-author with her sister Verity Burgmann of Green Bans Red Union – the Saving of City. See the full text here.

The Green Bans, the Builders Labourers Federation and the fight to save Heritage in NSW

So what were the green bans? These were bans placed on building activity by the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) and the Federated Engine Drivers and Fireman’s Association (FEDFA), between 1971 and 1974. There were eventually 40 Green Bans and they held up $5,000 million worth of building activity in 1974 dollar terms.

The best known green ban is probably The Rocks.

What were the circumstances that brought about the need for green bans?

The Robert Askin Government in New South Wales had been in power for a very long time. It was very corrupt. Hot money was pouring in from the United States as questionable investment in a huge building boom that began first in Sydney and later in Melbourne. High rise construction was taking off in the CBD because of changes in building technology. Combine all this with the prevailing view that slum clearance was a good idea and you had the ingredients for untrammelled and inappropriate development in the city.

There was a weak National Trust, and an even weaker Royal Australian Planning Institute. The Institute of Architects was just beginning to show some muscle.

But the main problem in defending heritage was that there was no heritage or environmental legislation at all in New South Wales, or in Australia. And very few legislators were actually interested in heritage as an issue.

The activists around the Builders’ Labourers were first of all the Resident Action Groups. This period saw the formation of the first Resident Action Groups.

By the end of the green ban period, 40 green bans had stopped $5,000 million worth of development. About half of this stalled building activity was to do with saving historic buildings.

The essence of the bans was that every ban had to occur at the request of the community, and had to have the community involved. Every ban had to be voted on by a general meeting of the union… and every ban ended up being physically defended.

The two political figures who were important in the green ban story were Tom Uren and Neville Wren. Tom Uren, most people recall was heavily involved, but Neville Wran is not connected with the green bans quite so readily.

Even Jack Mundey knew that the green bans could only hold up work for just so long. I recently talked to him about this and what amazed me was how clearly he recognised at the time that sympathetic government figures were also needed.

Tom Uren was the Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam Government. He literally saved Glebe, he bought the 900 houses in the Glebe Estate  and converted it to public housing. He intervened in The Rocks and Woolloomooloo. He even bought ‘The Block’ for the Redfern Aboriginal activists. Redfern activists always refer to that as the first successful lands rights claim. They loved the BLF leadership.

But Neville Wran’s involvement is less well known.

I remember when he was a mere MLC he came and spoke at one of our biggest protest sites in Fig Street, in Ultimo, where we were trying to stop the western distributor. Well, we actually did stop it of course.

Neville Wran and Jack got on well. However, I might add that he was not the only Premier that got on well with Jack. Remember that Bob Carr made Jack Chair of the Historic Houses Trust. Jack used to love to remind me that it was a right wing Labor Premier who had given him his only government job.

The Wran Government was elected in 1976, and in 1977 the Heritage Act was passed. Both the Heritage Act and the EP&A Act of 1979 were a direct result of the green bans period – the chaos and violence of the contests that had happened as a result of the builders’ labourers direct action against the developers.

Another part of the important alliance between the Builders Labourers leadership and sympathetic Labor Party figures was that the now-threatened Sirius building was purpose-built for public housing as a direct result of a deal done between Jack Mundey and Neville Wran.

Professor Paddy Troy, director of the Urban Research Unit at ANU, who’d been an advisor to the Department of Urban & Regional Development during this period, stated quite simply that it would be “Hard to overestimate the importance of the bans, because of their subtle influence in transforming the culture of urban planning in ways that now evince greater sensitivity to the proposed developments well in advance and to seek approval from the people affected.”

He also spoke of the way the ideas embodied in the green bans movement were picked up internationally. I want to embroider this part of his statement. It’s really important that we in Australia understand how important the green bans period is seen internationally. Even historians are not fully aware of the influence the green bans have had overseas.

And finally, the men and women of the builders’ labourers did indeed save a city, as our book points out, and every day all of us benefit from that.

* This speech was delivered at ’40 Years of the NSW Heritage Act – A Forum’ on 18 April 2017 by the Hon Meredith Burgmann, the former President of the NSW Legislative Council and co-author with her sister Verity Burgmann of Green Bans Red Union – the Saving of City.