By WENDY BACON
The Inner West Council pressed pause last night on its agreement to give private boys’ school Newington exclusive right to use part of Tempe Reserve in exchange for a contribution to upgrading sporting fields at the Reserve.
After a lengthy debate, a majority of Councillors voted against continuing with the deal that caused a community uproar after Council passed it in April.
The original 30-year deal gave Newington School exclusive access to the Tempe Reserve fields on all weekday afternoons and on Saturdays from 7 am to 2.15 pm, which would force an existing local team to relocate.
Labor Mayor Darcy Byrne and other Labor Councillors moved to pause the existing deal and open expression of interest process to test whether community sporting clubs and local public and low-fee non-government schools were interested in more use of sporting fields at Tempe Reserve. This would include 2 new fields made of synthetic turf, one of which would be paid for by Newington. Synthetic turf is opposed by some on environmental grounds.
Byrne’s motion also proposed that Council would meet with Tempe High School and local sporting clubs and write to Newington School seeking more ‘public benefit’ in exchange for the exclusive access. The original amount of ‘public benefit’ value remains secret although it is reported to be at least several million.
Labor’s change of heart came after a furious backlash from Inner West residents, public education advocates and Tempe High School parents about giving access for 30 years to an elite private school that already has a huge array of sporting facilities and currently receives millions in annual government grants. Public debate was triggered by Greens Councillor Tom Kiat revealing details of the deal on his Facebook page. The deal became an even broader issue after well known public education advocate Jane Caro, who has more than 115,000 followers on twitter, had a dig at the deal. This was picked up by a broader range of public education advocates. Tempe High School P & C vice president Melanie Morrison told the Sydney Morning Herald that Newington already had “unrivalled and excessive facilities…. and should not be afforded preferential access to a public reserve.” She believes that the exclusive deal would deepen the “inequity gap” in facilities.
Labor’s motion did not oppose the principle behind the agreement and allowed for no consultation with the broader community. Greens Councillor for Marrickville ward, Colin Hesse, moved a counter-motion that “Council permanently cease contract negotiations with Newington College, and not enter into any contractual agreement with Newington College or any private school that would allow the exclusive use of Inner West Council playing fields, parks or facilities, beyond that offered to any other seasonal user under Inner West Council’s Sporting Grounds Allocations Policy.”
Community consultation sought
In place of the confidential deal, Hesse moved that a community consultation process for the management of Tempe Reserve be reopened for three weeks but only after a comprehensive summary of the Tempe Reserve master plan has been letterboxed to all residents.
Hesse told the meeting that “there is no community support for such an agreement, particularly in Tempe. This is amplified because the people of Tempe haven’t been consulted sufficiently about the plan for the reserve.” When Hesse spoke to residents at Tempe Reserve last Saturday morning, he was surprised by the amount of “significant concerns and opposition to artificial turf.” “We don’t need to just press pause…. We have to have the discussion first with residents about what they are prepared to have in the place where they live,” he argued.
Labor Councillor Mark Drury argued that he did not regard the private deal as any different from leasing a cafe on Council land. He said that he did not see Council as “killing the deal” but getting a “better deal for our community”. He rejected the idea that long-term leases granting private interests an exclusive right to use public land are a form of privatisation.
Greens Councillor Tom Kiat responded by arguing, “I think it is fair to say it is partial privatisation. For a whole generation, for a period of time, it will be for exclusive use for an elite boys school…. People looked at the deal and said, ‘We don’t want to see the richest in our city getting increasing access to public space. We should put this behind us and have a conversation with the community and focus on that before we stitch up a deal,” he urged.
Liberal Councillor Julie Passas and Independent Councillor Victor Macri both expressed disappointment that Labor had gone back on the deal.
Passas mocked the Labor Councillors conduct as ‘unacceptable’ saying; “We can’t have the Greens have one-upmanship on us. Why are you embarrassed? .. they are our residents, they are Australian children and to play this class game is absolutely disgusting. Come on Labor why did you roll over?” she chided.
Councillor Macri said that he was concerned about the credibility of the Council and gave a long account of the charitable activities of Newington students. He argued that most of the benefit of the deal was going to the community.
Councillor Pauline Lockie who voted for the original deal said that she was prepared to support the Labor move for a pause. Lockie told the meeting that some private school parents who supported the deal had contacted her. She said that although she supported much of what Macri had argued, she would feel more comfortable in supporting Byrne’s motion if it included some broader community consultation. Byrne then agreed to add that to his motion.
This gave Byrne the votes he needed for his pause motion with five Labor and Lockie and Macri voting in favour of it.
Only the five Green Councillors voted to cancel the deal and begin fresh community consultations.
Councillor Passas had the last word calling out, “Now ring Albanese and tell him that you got it through. Make him happy.” (Byrne and local MP and Labor leader Anthony Albanese are close political allies.)
Council will now have to inform Newington School and the Minister for Local Government that it is no longer seeking approval for the agreement. The community will now have an opportunity to be consulted on the deal that is paused but not dead. Either Newington or Council can still pull the plug.
The issue has again highlighted the differences between Labor and the Greens on the issue of privatisation and other public/private deals. These differences were apparent during the battle over the private toll road system Westconnex, that was supported by Labor. This issue has also demonstrated that three independent councillors Pauline Lockie, Victor Macri and John Stamolis are prepared to support offering private organisationa a long term exclusive right to public assets on some occasions. This issue is likely to come up in next year’s local government elections.
The issue has also shown that there is an increasing lack of transparency in the operations of Inner West Council and a lessening of already limited opportunities for public debate. No community voices were heard last night as Council meetings have not provided for community contributions during the Covid-19 period.
Newington College has been asked for comment, which will be added if it is received.
Wendy Bacon is a past Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. She tweets @Wendy_Bacon and blogs on wendybacon.com