By ALEC SMART
‘Green bans’ is a term synonymous with collective action to conserve heritage and preserve the environment.
The green bans that were imposed and enforced by the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) union in the early 1970s, which halted major construction projects and cost investors millions of dollars, were, arguably, the saving grace for many of Sydney’s most important historic buildings and community parkland.
From the first green ban endorsed in June 1971, BLF-registered and affiliated construction workers refused to work on projects that they identified were socially or environmentally malevolent.
Despite the inconvenience to vested interests, the bans were vital in rescuing those premises from the encroachment of high-rise, during a time when there was no heritage or environmental protection legislation in NSW. (The National Trust and the Royal Australian Planning Institute were under-funded and toothless).
The green bans’ success also impacted on the rorts of corrupt politicians and civic leaders whose hands were in the pockets of developers and organised crime – although the latter fought back with a vengeance. (See below).
Many sites rescued from bulldozers are now tourist attractions, bringing millions of dollars into the economy year after year.
Fifty-four shades of green
Fifty-four green bans were decreed from 1971 – 1975 in NSW alone, although they were also enacted in other Australian cities.
The bans were initiated by elected representatives of the building site labourers, those unskilled and semi-skilled workers who did the hard graft on construction projects, including digging, concreting, cartage, erecting scaffolding and operating machinery.
These heavy-duty workers were at the coal face of fabricating and assembling the new office-block skyscrapers, shopping precincts and luxury apartments that were rapidly spreading across Sydney’s urban landscape from the 1960s onwards, part of a new building boom fuelled by international investors.
A hint of the tsunami of building work planned to purge Sydney’s architectural history was promoted in the film City of Millions, a 1964 NSW Govt documentary that envisioned bold new skyscrapers to irretrievably alter Sydney city’s heart and skyline.
The narrator of the film, J. Griffen-Foley, spoke in a clipped, upper-class English accent that is still associated with pompous British private school masters who wield canes to whack the backsides of their unruly boy students.
Describing the once ‘ruffianly-infested’ Rocks area – ironically now one of Sydney’s premier tourist attractions – he envisaged the historic neighbourhood would undergo a “rebirth”.
“The Rocks has long been a backwater,” he claimed, “picturesque, here and there, but outmoded. All this is to be swept away and replaced by a well-conceived group of office buildings and apartments and skyscraper hotels.”
The film cut from some dimly-lit and unrepresentative back streets to a 3D all-white model featuring four skyscrapers behind the Maritime Services Board building (now the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia). Further north, scattered around The Rocks and Dawes Point peninsula, were a collection of 12 lesser-sized multi-storey towers, all skirted by trees and promenades.
Important to note: there were no longer any houses.
At this stage the NSW Govt was run by the Australian Labor Party (ALP), who would narrowly lose the state elections in 1965 to a zealous property developer, Liberal Party minister Bob Askin.
May 2020 marks five decades since the executive of the NSW BLF publicly resolved to develop a ‘new concept of unionism’ embracing social responsibility. The BLF, which at the start of the 1970s had around 11,000 members, insisted that their labour be used responsibly and not to the detriment of society.
In practice this meant a commitment to exerting its influence on decision-makers to prioritise the construction of hospitals, schools and affordable housing over high-rise offices and luxury condominiums.
2020 is also the year that two key figures that were inextricably linked to the green bans – both through historic legal arbitration and to one another arbitrarily – died 2 weeks and 2 days apart, on 23 April and 10 May, respectively.
They were: Alan Saffron, son of the notorious Abe Saffron, a contentious figure – many say ‘kingpin’ – of Australia’s organised crime in the latter half of the 20th century; and Jack Mundey, a principled union activist whose name is synonymous with the green bans’ implementation and enforcement.
20-20 is also a term used literally and metaphorically to describe clear and perfect vision, and when it came to considering the long-term benefits of preserving Australia’s past for future generations, few had clearer vision than the late-lamented Jack Mundey.
Despite Mundey’s physical prowess (he arrived in Sydney in 1948, at the age of 19, to pursue a career in rugby league, and played for the Parramatta Eels for three seasons before finding work as a metalworker, then a builder’s labourer), and his political inclination (he joined the Australian Communist Party in 1957), he was a progressive and principled team player.
Under Mundey’s stewardship, the NSW BLF, of which he took control in 1968, forged ahead from an organisation rife with injured workers and a reputation for corruption, to become a powerful force in the construction industry. They demanded higher wages for their employees, encouraged female workers, and aligned themselves with the growing anti-Vietnam War movement and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Mundey rose to national prominence in the 1970s when he formulated the green ban policy, along with fellow leaders Joe Owens and Bob Pringle.
This extraordinary and unprecedented conservation campaign shaped and refined the national character of Australia’s primary cities, and defined Mundey’s career. In a January 1972 letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, Mundey articulated the union’s ambitions:
“Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently-required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment…
“Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build… The environmental interests of three million people are at stake and cannot be left to developers and building employers whose main concern is making profit…”
In an interview at his home on 8 April 2015, Mundey recalled, “Of the things that happened in my life, the green bans were the most important, because they brought together the enlightened upper middle class with the progressive working class around issues that hadn’t been raised before…”
Not Askin for it
The NSW BLF, against the union’s own commercial interests, led a network of community groups and conservationists in a stand against NSW Premier Bob Askin and his zeal for high-rise development in Sydney. That also meant taking on the powerful construction companies that endorsed and enriched Askin – and provided vital employment to building labourers – some of which were bankrolled by organised crime.
Askin’s 10-year reign from May 1965 to January 1975 was marked by a significant increase in infrastructure and public works programs, which he achieved by abolishing Sydney City Council in 1967 – to minimise political resistance to his schemes. He also moved municipal electoral boundaries to reduce the power of the rival ALP, which governed NSW for 24 years prior to Askin’s narrow victory at the polls.
After Askin’s death in 1981, the Australian Taxation Office audited his multi-million-dollar estate. Although they found no obvious signs of criminality, the ATO determined that a substantial part came from undisclosed sources. Detractors allege Askin’s extraordinary wealth was derived from bribes paid by unscrupulous business leaders and organised crime, facilitated by corrupt NSW Police Commissioner Norman Allan.
While in power, Askin oversaw the destruction of the 1875-built Theatre Royal in Castlereagh Street (the current Theatre Royal in King St was built in 1976) and the adjacent 1889-built Australia Hotel. Both grandiose buildings were demolished in 1971 to make way for The MLC Centre, a 68-storey octagonal skyscraper.
Askin also stifled the ambitions of Danish architect Jørn Utzon, 1957 winner of the international competition to design the Sydney Opera House. Askin, already a vocal critic of the audacious sail-shaped design, demanded a final price and completion date for the magnificent building, which by the mid-1960s was running over budget and time thanks to construction beginning before Utzon had completed his technical assessments.
Askin assigned his Public Works Minister Davis Hughes – a former Country Party leader who had been sacked after it was discovered he falsely claimed to have a university degree – to reign in Utzon. In February 1966 Utzon resigned and left Australia, never to return, not even for the opening of his masterpiece six years later, after a bitter standoff amidst suspension of progress payments by Hughes.
In 1972, the BLF ordered a green ban to protect the ancient fig trees in the north-western corner of the 1816-established Royal Botanic Gardens, ensuring relocation of a car park for the Sydney Opera House.
Kelly’s Bush – the first ban
The NSW BLF’s first implementation of a conservation ban was used to preserve Kelly’s Bush, a sock-shaped section of bushland on the Woolwich peninsula above Parramatta River. Between 1892 and 1967 The Sydney Smelting Company, founded by Thomas Kelly occupied the site, providing public access to the foreshore via the forest adjacent to their tin smelting works.
In 1967 building firm AV Jennings purchased 4.9 hectares of the original 7.7ha site, with a proposal to construct 147 home units, including three eight-storey buildings, backed by the State Planning Authority (SPA).
After initial objections, Hunters Hill Council agreed to revisions, however, local residents strongly opposed the felling of Kelly’s Bush and began a campaign of resistance. On 25 July 1970 the Sydney Morning Herald published an article reporting that children had yanked out a line of peg markers put in place by site surveyors in protest at the housing scheme.
A residents’ group, ‘Battlers for Kelly’s Bush’, which Hunters Hill Council reportedly dismissed as “13 bloody housewives”, launched a pioneering direct-action campaign after unsuccessfully pleading their case in several meetings with Premier Askin.
This included: letter writing; making badges; public lobbying; ‘phone trees’ to pass on information to supporters and the media; essay competitions with local schoolchildren on why Kelly’s Bush should be saved; a protest march to the contested site, led by the Hunters Hill High School Band; the printing of posters displayed across the district; and gatherings in Kelly’s Bush called ‘Boil the Billy Days’, where the Battlers made billy tea and provided cakes.
The issue divided the district; many houses were still on septic tanks, and AV Jennings offered to put sewage pipes in across the Woolwich peninsula, and the local Liberal MP, Peter Coleman, claimed council rates would decrease if houses were allowed to be built on the contested bush acreage.
In early 1971 the Minister for Local Government signed a notice to rezone the impugned land from Reserved Open Space to Residential. By mid-1971, the situation for the Battlers’ cause looked hopeless, and their pleas to trade unions for assistance seemed futile when the BLF leadership approached them and offered support.
On 16 June 1971 the BLF executive committee, led by Jack Mundey and endorsed by their membership, met with The Battlers before announcing they would prevent construction work on Kelly’s Bush. And so the first green ban in Australia was enacted.
Initially called a ‘black ban’, derived from the Australian term for “a mass refusal to supply or purchase goods or services in an attempt to force a particular decision or action,” it was Mundey who coined them ‘green’ bans, due to their environmental significance, and the name took hold.
In response to the support for the BLF’s multilateral call to down tools, AV Jennings announced that they would employ non-unionised workers to force through their housing scheme. However, BLF members on other AV Jennings’ construction projects downed tools and went on strike, forcing them to backtrack and they eventually abandoned all plans to redevelop Kelly’s Bush.
With the success of the green ban at Kelly’s Bush, the BLF examined other construction projects their labourers were working on and over the next four years implemented a further 53 bans in NSW. These were introduced on sites that didn’t meet their criteria for environmentally-friendly or socially-responsible schemes.
In Britain the Manchester Guardian newspaper (which became The Guardian) described Mundey as “Australia’s most effective conservationist” and in an editorial claimed, “Middle class groups are a little embarrassed at having to turn to a rough-hewn proletarian Communist to protect their homes (and values) from fiats and motorways, and their theatres and pubs from office developers. But approach him they do…”
All of the ensuing green bans were, at the BLF’s insistence, instigated after discussions with the communities impacted by construction work. Resident Action Groups in Paddington and Glebe, followed by Woolloomooloo, The Rocks, Surry Hills and Potts Point, saved not just properties but whole suburbs. Some, like Glebe, Ultimo and Pyrmont, were scheduled for subdivision to make way for highways. Others, such as Woollomooloo and Surry Hills, faced mass demolition of old terrace houses for replacement with Hong Kong-style apartment towers.
Crime and punishments
However, organised crime syndicates backing NSW Premier Askin were not so forgiving. The case that illustrates this best is that of journalist Juanita Nielsen, who was murdered for challenging developers.
Ms Nielsen was a great-granddaughter of businessman Mark Foy, who made millions in retail and built the Hydro Majestic luxury hotel in Medlow Bath, Blue Mountains.
As owner-publisher of Kings Cross independent newspaper Now, Nielsen strongly championed the BLF’s green bans to halt development work and published articles calling for residents’ resistance to high-density housing schemes around Kings Cross, Potts Point and neighbouring Woolloomooloo.
Nielsen also campaigned vociferously against property developer Frank Theeman’s $40 million Victoria Street building scheme, which comprised three 45-storey apartment complexes in Potts Point to replace a row of historic terrace houses. (Nielsen lived at number 202 Victoria St).
By 1973 the situation reached stalemate and the residents, including Nielsen, now threatened with eviction, refused to leave their Victorian terraces, despite regular intimidation and random bashings by violent ex-cop Frank Krahe and his roaming gang of thugs, in the service of Frank Theeman.
Krahe – who later worked as a crime correspondent for the Fairfax-owned Sun newspaper – is alleged to have murdered prostitute and whistle-blower Shirley Brifman in March 1972, who, the previous year, named over 50 NSW and QLD police officers involved in extortion rackets, prostitution and robberies. Brifman died mysteriously of a barbiturates overdose in a police safe house in Queensland 18 days before she was to appear as chief evidence against the only police officer ever charged as a result of her allegations. Police ruled it ‘suicide’ and the trial subsequently collapsed.
The BLF imposed a green ban on Theeman’s plan in July 1973 after the leader of the Victoria Street residents action group, Arthur King, was kidnapped by two men, bundled into the boot of a car, and driven to a motel on the NSW South Coast. He was held for three days before he was released under a threat of death if he revealed details of his ordeal. The intimidation worked, he resigned as head of the residents’ action group.
Later in 1973, the attempted eviction of Victoria Street tenant Mick Fowler and his mother brought BLF workers into the fray. Fowler, a merchant seaman, was away at sea when his mother was forced out and all his possessions confiscated and stolen before the premises were boarded up. On his return, Fowler recruited members of the Seamen’s Union and the BLF and they confronted Theeman’s security guards and gained re-entry to the house.
However, in January 1974, NSW Police allowed Theeman’s security personnel to evict of all the other residents in the street, apart from Fowler.
Meanwhile, forces opposed to the radical NSW BLF were beginning to unite. The media, including the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald, alleged Mundey was motivated by a desire to overthrow the government, whilst Premier Askin described the BLF as “traitors” intent on causing “rioting and bloodshed in the streets of Sydney.”
Celebrated author Patrick White supported the NSW BLF and was moved to write a letter, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 Nov 1973: “It is a sad reflection on our so-called civilisation that residents of Sydney in times of threat to their homes or way of life are forced time and again to turn to the Builders Labourers Federation, involving them in constant vilification, misrepresentation by the media, and frequent loss of pay. It is a rare thing to find a union with so advanced a social conscience…
“There is no real indication that historic buildings will not be capriciously destroyed, or that small communities of human beings will not be herded off like cattle, in the rush to accumulate money for certain individuals, and alas, power for the politicians who depend on them…”
Gallagher sabotages NSW BLF
Askin and his associates offered assistance to the BLF’s national treasurer, Norm Gallagher, to suppress the NSW leaders and impose his own command. Gallagher, a high-profile member of the Communist Party of Australia, was a Maoist in his political beliefs and opposed environmental activism as a diversion from class struggle.
As one of the most vociferous critics of the NSW branch’s progressive green outlook and community inclusion program, Gallagher willingly complied with Askin and instigated a coup on the NSW leadership. After dismissing the executive – some of whom would never work in the industry again – he resisted discussion with the rank and file union members, calling them “poofters.”
Gallagher also cancelled several of the green bans in place, including the one halting construction work in Victoria Street, and after March 1975, when the NSW BLF office in Sydney Trades Hall was mysteriously burgled and its records stolen, no more green bans were issued.
With the green ban lifted on Victoria Street, coinciding with rumours that developer Frank Theeman himself had personally ordered Norm Gallagher to annul the ban, Nielsen appealed to the Federated Engine Drivers & Firemen’s Association (FEDA), which imposed its own green ban. However, Gallagher retaliated by bringing in scab labourers when a group of FEDA crane drivers went on strike.
On the morning of 4 July 1975, Nielsen went to the Carousel Club in Kings Cross for an appointment with Edward Trigg, a club employee, purportedly to discuss the club purchasing advertising space in Nielsen’s Now newspaper. She was never seen again.
The Carousel was owned by notorious criminal Abe Saffron and managed by James Anderson, whom it later transpired owed $260,000 to Frank Theeman, who in turn – according to Abe’s son Alan in his 2008 biography of his father, Gentle Satan – owed a considerable amount of money to Saffron.
Abe Saffron routinely bribed NSW Police officers, their payments couriered by his son Alan, who admitted this in his aforementioned book, and they patronised Abe’s strip joints and illegal nightclubs. Regular payments from Saffron also went to NSW Premier Bob Askin.
Despite a lackadaisical police investigation into the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen – Operation Euclid, paradoxically named after the founder of mathematical geometry – and the progressive NSW BLF branch taken over and neutered by Askin’s yes-man, Norm Gallagher, it was the revelation that organised criminals were involved in NSW construction projects that ultimately brought a spotlight on a dirty industry and weakened Askin’s powerful influence.
On 14 May 1976 the ALP won NSW elections and redirected state investments away from high-rise offices and apartments into public transport.
In 1977 the NSW Heritage Council was formed and empowered to provide permanent protection to buildings and parkland via conservation orders. This reduced the need for builders’ unions to police construction projects by acting as a de-facto defender of the state’s environment and heritage.
Juanita Nielsen’s two-storey white 1840s terrace house at 202 Victoria Street, Potts Point, is now heritage-listed.
Some key green ban sites in Sydney included:
The Rocks (In 1972 the NSW Govt unveiled a master plan for a $2000 million commercial skyscraper redevelopment, backed by wealthy corporate interests. Thousands of buildings due for demolition were saved by the residents threatened with eviction. This was achieved through a combination of blockades, occupations, mass arrests for trespassing and obstruction, and pickets against scab labourers, and today over 100 of The Rocks’ historic properties are heritage-listed).
Pitt Street Congregational Church (saved from demolition).
Theatre Royal (the original 1875 building was demolished in 1971 for the MLC Centre, but developers Lend Lease agreed to build a replacement nearby at 108 King St).
Centennial Park (construction of a large sports stadium was prevented, instead Moore Park was turned over for a second sports arena, the Sydney Football Stadium, adjacent to the Sydney Cricket Ground).
Lyndhurst, Glebe (the 1834-built villa facing Blackwattle Bay, which went through several incarnations including a maternity hospital and private girls school, was nearly demolished for a freeway).
Waimea House, Woollahra (built in 1858 and known as Helen Keller Hostel from 1949-1973 because it housed 20 blind women, the Royal Bind Society applied to demolish it before it was saved and heritage-listed).
Some of the groups that asked the NSW BLF for green bans included: South Sydney Residents Action Group, Burwood Residents Action Group, North Newtown Resident Action Group, Australian Labor Party, Total Environment Centre, Actor’s Equity, South Coast Labour Council, Council of the Municipality of Botany, and The National Trust.
Complete list of NSW green bans, 1971-1975
1. Kelly’s Bush
2. The Rocks
3. Victoria Street
5. Opera House Car Park
6. Theatre Royal
7. Moore Park (Centennial Park Sports’ Complex)
8. Cook Road (Centennial Park)
9. Mt. Druitt
10. North-West Expressway
11. “Lyndhurst” – Glebe
12. Ryde – Dunbar Park
14. Helen Kellar House – Woollahra
16. Royal Australasian College of Physicians – Macquarie St
17. Pyrmont and Ultimo (NW Freeway)
18. Fowler-Ware Industries – Merrylands
19. Jeremy Fisher
21. East End – Newcastle
22. Rileys Island
23. Colonial Mutual Building
24. Dr. Busby’s Cottage
25. Eastern Hill – Manly
27. A.N.Z. Bank – Martin Place
28. National Mutual Building – Martin Place
29. C.M.L. Building – Martin Place
30. Mascot High-Rise
31. Newcastle Hotel
32. Regent Theatre
33. Redfern Aboriginal Centre
34. Eastern Freeway
35. Botany High Rise
36. Motorway – Newcastle
37. St. George’s Hill
38. Kings Cross
39. South Sydney
40. St. John’s Park
41. New Doctors Dwellings
42. Tomaree Peninsula
44. Western Expressway
46. Soldiers Garden Village
47. Education Department – North Newtown
48. Port Kembla
49. East Woonona
50. Botany Municipality
51. Sydney University Women’s Course
52. Port Macquarie
54. Newcastle Motorway
As Meredith Burgmann, author of Green Bans, Red Union: Environmental Activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation stated in her obituary of Jack Mundey for City Hub: “Green Bans saved The Rocks and Woolloomooloo from being turned into a forest of high rise ‘executive suites’; they saved Glebe from being split into three islands by two major expressways; saved Centennial Park from being turned into a giant sporting complex; saved Victoria Street Kings Cross from destruction; saved Surry Hills from excessive high rise; saved Ultimo from an Expressway and saved the Opera House fig trees from becoming a car park.
Individual buildings saved by Green Bans include: The State Theatre; the Pitt St Congregational Church; and the Colonial Mutual, National Mutual and ANZ bank buildings in Martin Place..”
BLF chapters in other cities across Australia followed the Sydney initiative and also implemented green bans.
Although Jack Mundey voluntarily left the NSW BLF after Gallagher’s takeover, he developed excellent working relationships with the incoming NSW Premier, Neville Wran, who remained in power for another decade. Working together they intervened and halted major construction projects that were scheduled to decimate several areas, including Glebe, The Rocks and Woolloomooloo.
Mundey was elected as an alderman on Sydney City Council for one term from 1984-87 during which he was Chair of its Planning Committee for 16 months. He also remained active in the National Trust and was made a life member of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
in 1995, shortly after coming to power, NSW Premier Bob Carr appointed Mundey as chairman of the Historic Houses Trust.
In February 2007, the Geographical Names Board of New South Wales, backed by the National Trust, renamed a portion of Argyle Street in The Rocks, at the intersection of George Street and Argyle Place, ‘Jack Mundey Place’, in recognition of Mundey’s leadership in preserving the area for future generations.
The NSW BLF’s green bans became internationally renowned. They inspired not just similar actions to protect historically significant and environmentally sensitive sites facing threats from developers, but adoption of the word ‘green’ to describe environmental awareness.