BY JOHN MOYLE
A very Sydney-centric argument is brewing involving a prized piece of Sydney Harbour real estate, a prominent Sydney board of trustees, a group of arts aficionados and property developers, and the Federal Government all bowing before the high altar of contemporary art.
The future of Cockatoo Island is at the argument’s centre, as a proposal by a group of individuals listing as the Cockatoo Island Foundation Limited want to take control of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed island under a 49-year lease to transform it into an art island.
None of the international examples, such as Naoshima, MONA and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, mentioned by the Foundation as precedents involve public lands, and all have been financed by individuals.
Unspecified commercial uses
The Foundation want to lease the entire Island as an art gallery, cafes, restaurants and “other unspecified commercial uses”, such as a hotel.
Cockatoo Island is in Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s seat of Grayndler.
“Speaking with (Foundation head) Tony Berg AM, he told me that it was the Trust’s idea for the 49-year lease,” a spokesperson for Anthony Albanese said.
Somewhere in the mix is the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, formed in 2001 to protect Sydney Harbour’s former Defence sites, including Cockatoo Island, North Head, Headland Park, the Woolwich parklands and the former submarine base Platypus.
The Trust says that it has to consider the lease extension as it is facing a $200 million cost for remediation of contamination of Cockatoo Island; a claim made without substantiation.
Opposing any change to the current maximum lease of 25 years is Jill L’Estrange from the community-based Headland Preservation Group.
“The Trust was never set up to be self-funding, it was not in its legislation and was not the intention,” Ms L’Estrange said. “The funds were meant to come from the Commonwealth Government and these are not large sums of money.”
The Cockatoo Island Foundation is made up of prominent business and arts’ figures Tony Berg and Danny Goldberg, who claim that they will find $80 million in funding if the Commonwealth commits to the cost of remediation.
The group also includes supporters such as Committee for Sydney Chief Commissioner Lucy Turnbull and ex-Opera House CEO Michael Lynch.
Foundation leader Tony Berg told City Hub that “it has been almost four years since we put the idea to the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, and if the Federal Government thinks that it is a possibility I think that they would call for other submissions.
“We would see the operation of the Island as an entity jointly run by the Commonwealth Government, the state government and the philanthropists selected.”
Very quietly, the Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, commissioned a review of the Trust in October last year.
“We called the review because the Trust has been operating for nearly 20 years without any review taking place and in another thirteen years the legislation that underpins the Trust expires,” Ms Ley said.
“The independent review for the Harbour Trust will address the current challenges faced by them and provide recommendations to ensure arrangements for the sites the Harbour Trust manages are fit for the future,” Mary Darwill, Sydney Harbour Federation Trust’s Executive Director said.
Aboriginal rep excluded
The fourth and final meeting of the public forum, adjudicated by Elton Consulting, was held last week and ended in an unexpected manner when a member of the Trust’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands Advisory Group was refused permission to speak.
“They were trying to ignore me and I said that if you don’t believe in us having a voice it means that nothing has changed,” Djon Mundine said.
“The adjudicator from Elton Consulting just shut Djon Mundine down,” the Labor spokesperson said.
Mr Mundine pointed out that there was meant to be Aboriginal involvement in Darling Harbour, Barangaroo and Goat Island, “but we were shafted on those.”
The Labor spokesperson said “We have requested FOI from the Trust asking what correspondence they have had with Tony Berg and the Foundation, and also what communications they have had with the Department of Environment and that includes Josh Freydenberg when he was minister.
“It was around the same time that Freydenberg created the Great Barrier Reef Trust that he had discussions with Tony Berg and that was the same time that he stacked the board of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust with chairman Joe Carrozzi and Josephine Cashman.”
This is the same Josephine Cashman who was removed from Ken Wyatt’s office after she forwarded a private letter to Andrew Bolt questioning the indigenous origins of author Bruce Pascoe and challenging the facts presented in his book on indigenous farming practices, Dark Emu.
Ms Cashman has also called for a register to assess people’s Aboriginality.
“There are some really important issues with the Cockatoo Island proposal in that the island has an enormous and rich heritage of Indigenous content, colonial heritage military and industrial, and it is a World Heritage-listed place,” Jill L’Estange said.
“A 50-year lease is an alienation of public land basically for private use.”
Djon Mundine said “It’s possible that they may show great taste and integrity but in NSW this has not been the case generally.”
Labour will be raising questions on this matter next Monday in Senate Estimates.