Interview: Baby Bust
Safety: Dust To Dust
Bad Boss: Shaming in Print
National Focus: Work's Cripplin' Us
International: Bulk Bullies
History: The Battle for Kelly's Bush
Economics: Aid, Trade And Oil
Review: The Art Of Work
Poetry: Sew His Lips Together
Saving The Planet
The Battle for Kelly's Bush
Kelly's Bush in leafy Hunters Hill seemed an unlikely place to find builder's labourers linking arms with the middle classes, but it became the birthplace of a movement that spread around the world.
Efforts to preserve our environment first began to draw public support on a large scale in the 1960s. These issues were not only supported by long-haired alternative life-stylers, but by so-called "ordinary" people from all walks of life. The actions of the NSW Builders Labourer's Federation (BLF) in saving many aspects of Sydney's built environment from developers and their wrecking balls were a world first. The combination of trade union and community activism was successful and still shines as an example of the power of collective action to tame the profit motive.
What is sometimes forgotten is that the first green bans, as they came to be known, did actually save a green space. This was the result of an unlikely alliance between a group of Hunters Hill "housewives" and the NSW BLF.
The women were not bored housewives, as the developers and their supporters tried to depict them. They were residents who held strong concerns for the future of their area and their children. The bush, they argued, belonged to the neighbourhood, not to those who would buy the 25 luxury houses that would have been built.
There are many books about the green bans from academics, and Jack Mundey from the BLF has often spoken about the bans and the way the union organised itself. This book, The Battlers for Kelly's Bush: thirteen women and the worlds' first Green Ban, is the voice of residents who transformed themselves into community activists and lobbyists, as well as learning to work with what must have seemed an alien species - the blue-collar men of the BLF and the Labor Council of NSW.
The Battlers for Kelly's Bush were alarmed at the prospect of losing about 5 hectares of urban bush to the claims of a property developer and his pursuit of big returns. The ultimate return of the bush to the people was a triumph that showed the way to further successful actions by residents and the union and the saving of large areas of The Rocks, Woolloomooloo and Centennial Park.
Those successes had international repercussions. Later in the 1970s, Petra Kelly was a leading figure in the development of the world's most successful Green Party, in Germany, and she would cite Sydney's green bans as her touchstone.
The Battlers produced a short book about their campaign a few years ago. The forward to the original brochure the Battlers produced, written by Kylie Tennant. At the time Sydney had recently seen the encroachment onto beach foreshores of units and other monstrosities, and the face of Sydney had been dramatically altered by the changes in planning laws that saw building heights shoot up in the CBD. Tennant decried the concrete jungle and asserted that we were facing a "confrontation of values...Take away Kelly's Bush and you take away one more assurance that in man is left a possibility for the future."
Betty James, one of the battlers, tells of the way they heard of the redevelopment plans and how the Battlers had to learn the ways of politicians and lobbyists in a hurry to frustrate the developers. Resident Action Groups had sprung up all around Sydney, says James, as developers moved into new areas. The Kelly's Bush group was formed in September 1970 after residents first heard of plans for the area.
They generated state-wide publicity, much to the disappointment of Hunters Hill Council, who had invited developers into Kelly's Bush in the first place.
Becoming activists was a learning experience for the Battlers. Christena Dawson explains that she, "being politically naïve, ...had infinite faith in the democratic process."
They sent petitions and letters to everyone they could think of - including the Duke of Edinburgh, who was the Patron of the Australian Conservation Foundation at the time. The Duke supported the Battlers, and so did the Foundation, so beginning another connection between unions and other social movements. A V Jennings himself was a foundation member of the Foundation, an indication of the change of focus of such groups that began with the growth in social awareness of the times. The Menzies era social mores still hung about. Dawson notes they decided not to include the Communist Party paper Tribune on a list of papers to use for publicity purposes, even though it was probably the most supportive of them all.
Also, many in the Hunters Hill area were horrified that unions were involved. Prince Edward Parade became known as Red Square as nine of the Battlers lived in the street or nearby.
Christena also recounts how they attended a meeting with A V Jennings executives. At the same time, unions were meeting at Trades Hall to decide on a black ban. The Jennings people were patronising and she says the meeting was just like one of those society matron gatherings that the Battlers were accused of holding. The Jennings men made sympathetic noises to the Battlers about the loss of their campaign as they progressed their development. The phone rang and one member answered, then returned and quietly indicated to the Battlers that the vote was in their favour. They could not let the Jennings people know. Instead, they found out in the afternoon papers on their way back to work.
However, in June 1971. the Premier told the group that he was about to sign a rezoning document for the area. He claimed he wasn't able to dictate to council its planning policies. The group contacted the ALP opposition and Pat Hills requested a freeze on the zoning. This was unsuccessful. After much fruitless lobbying and many phone calls, Rod Cavalier, then a union organiser (later a minister under Wran), suggested that the unions might be able to help.
So they wrote to the Labor Council and received unanimous support. Soon after, Bob Pringle, President of the BLF came to see the bushland. He reported back and the union voted to impose a black ban on any development on the site. This soon became known as a green ban. The Bans were born on 17th June, 1971.
Union members treated the Battlers with respect and courtesy, despite the fact that then and now building workers are painted as thugs. The real disrespect shown to the Battlers was from the State Planning Authority whose chairman had chosen Hunters Hill as a site for medium density housing. The Authority attempted to split the unions away from the Battlers, with Sid Vaughan, then secretary of the Building Trades Group within Labor Council being invited to meetings and sent reports that the Battlers and the Council were denied. He always contacted the Battlers about all this.
The union ban set the precedent for all future green bans and established the necessary connection between union action and community involvement. The BLF told the Battlers that the proviso for their ban was that the battlers call a public meeting in Hunters Hill, so as to determine if their was widespread support in the local area for the ban. Over 500 people formally requested the ban so it was on. The Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen's Association (FEDFA) also supported this, an important alliance as they represented the crane drivers on building sites.
The Premier and the developer, A V Jennings, accused the BLF of ratbaggery, and much else besides. Jennings made the mistake of saying that they would develop the area with non-union labour. The BLF replied that if Jennings tried to carry out this threat, an office block under construction by A V Jennings would remain half completed forever, as a monument to Kelly's Bush. Jennings backed down.
In 1974, after much further lobbying and many reports the council finally agreed that Kelly's Bush be kept as "Open Space". However, in 1976 the council voted to retain the residential zoning of the area, so they had not entirely given up. In 1977 the state government said it would ensure that no development occured - if the council would agree to purchase the area for Open Space the government would provide half the purchase cost.
In 1983 Rod Cavalier was Minister for Education and he pursued the issue further. Premier Wran announced that year that the government had purchased Kelly's Bush.
The Battlers were represented on the Coalition of Resident Action Groups (CRAG) that held regular meetings. At the meeting following the winning of support from the unions, Christena Dawson, told of the thrill that was to their group. Nita McCrea, from the Rocks group, then arrived, very upset because she had just heard of plans for The Rocks redevelopment. When the Kelly's Bush people told of their dealings with the union, The Rocks group got in touch and so began the Green Bans that achieved the most fame in saving the built environment.
Juanita Neilson was one who attended meetings and ran articles about Kelly's Bush in her newspaper NOW. Her campaigning for Victoria St and the Green Bans eventually cost her her life in circumstances that have since become folklore.
The book has a short chapter by ten of the Battlers, a contribution from Jack Mundey, many photos, a chronology of events, the proposal from Jennings and a plant list of the area.
The Battlers for Kelly's Bush: thirteen women and the worlds' first Green Ban.
Published by the Battlers in 1996.
Get more details about the Green Bans from:
Meredith and Verity Burgmann. Green Bans Red Union (UNSW Press)
Jack Mundey. Green Bans and Beyond. Angus & Robertson, 1981
The great film Rocking the Foundations is also around.
Many articles on the web about this period in union history.
Green Bans will be a feature of When Workers Unite - Foundations of Tomorrow, an exhibition running at Braemar Gallery, Springwood, from May 1 until May 16. The display will feature union banners, badges, posters, photographs and the original works of artist, Jeff Rigby. Jack Mundey will be opening the exhibition at 11.00am on May Day (1st May
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