Speech: Bondi Pavilion
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:34): Bondi Pavilion is one of the nation's jewels. Recognised in 2008 by the Australian government as having 'exceptional' cultural significance, the National Estate listing identified Bondi as 'one of Australia's most treasured places' and 'one of the world's most famous beaches where Australians meet nature's challenge in the surf'. Bondi Pavilion is a central part of the Bondi experience. However, this stunning cultural and beachside centre faces a precarious future. The Liberal-controlled Waverley Council is pushing ahead with major commercialisation and privatisation plans for the pavilion. Bondi is in the Prime Minister's Wentworth electorate. Through grants and staff connections, Mr Turnbull and his government are involved in what is turning into another unsavoury Sydney story of politicians and developers.
The last time a Liberal Waverly Council attempted a similar privatisation plan they ended up before ICAC, with many councillors found to be corrupt. I am not suggesting that Waverley mayor and Turnbull staffer Sally Betts is corrupt. However, she and Mr Turnbull should be mindful that with many New South Wales Liberals caught up in ICAC exposed corruption there is growing public concern about the unhealthily close relationship between senior Waverley Liberals, developers and hotel companies.
Ms Betts is a part-time employee of the Prime Minister. I understand that since 2012 she has worked two days a week in his electorate office. A couple of years ago, Ms Betts came close to losing that job when it was revealed that she had written and signed, as mayor, a glowing reference defending the character of a man found guilty of a horrendously violent rape. Later, Betts admitted that she hardly knew the man. She did know that his family owned two of the busiest hotels in Bondi Junction, and she also knew that the family were financial supporters of the Liberal Party and beneficiaries of Liberal support in the council for extended hours of trading for their businesses. If that scandal was not enough to give the Prime Minister reason to distance himself from Ms Betts, he should acquaint himself with what she is doing to Bondi Pavilion. Ever since Ms Betts became mayor almost a decade ago, she and her band of Liberal councillors have systematically mismanaged the pavilion, reducing funding and ignoring community programs.
A couple of years back, arguing that the pavilion had become run down, Betts spotted the directive from the Baird government to amalgamate with Randwick and Woollahra councils as the cover she needed to push through privatisation of the pavilion once and for all. Using the spurious survey of just 600 people, Betts' Liberals voted to abolish the 156-year-old Waverley Council, Sydney's second oldest council—after the City of Sydney. The reward for Betts for pulling this off is said to be a promise from Mr Baird of a seat in the New South Wales upper house.
Betts' management of Bondi Pavilion is typical of what councils and governments do when they are set on a privatisation course that will benefit developers. It starts with neglect. The pavilion has been left to deteriorate in recent years. We have not seen any repairs or basic maintenance for years. Locals are wondering if this has been a purposeful strategy to bolster the Liberals' argument that the private sector needs to be brought in. However, it is not just the building that has become run down; the pavilion is not the vibrant community centre it once was. Under Liberal rule at Waverley Council this wonderful asset no longer hosts the great events of past decades: Rock Against Racism, Latin American festivals, International Women's Day festivals and so much more. The need for an upgrade is apparent to tourists and locals alike. However, what is wanted is an upgrade that retains the pavilion as a community facility.
The course of action pursued by Waverley Council and Mayor Betts reveals their secretive approach. The council applied for a grant under the Department of the Environment's Protecting National Historic Sites program and was successful in obtaining $1 million towards the design phase of the Bondi Pavilion upgrade. But once the grant was received Mayor Betts pulled down a curtain of secrecy. The community have been locked out of having a say. What we do know is once the mayor had the pot of public money under her belt, she commissioned one of Sydney's leading architects, who took a few months to come back with a couple of design suggestions. And this is where the story gets really murky. Instead of these design suggestions being presented to a meeting of councillors, a team of council officers plus the mayor rejected two relatively modest plans and decided to push ahead with an extravagant proposal with a whopping price tag of $38 million, one with massive flow-on effects on community activities at the pavilion.
The question the local community have the right to know is: has the mayor abided by the law when it comes to advancing her privatisation plans for the pavilion? The $1 million grant awarded under the Protecting National Historic Sites program is for 'design and conservation work on Bondi Pavilion'. The guidelines for these grants clearly state that the money is for the historic heritage values of the site.
Senator McGrath interjecting—
Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to acknowledge the interjections. The grant is the second largest under the scheme, eating up more than 10 per cent of the program's total annual budget. So the then Liberal environment minister, Greg Hunt, was very—and maybe surprisingly—generous.
For months the mayor refused to release the grant application to the community. I found out that, as a member of parliament, I am entitled to receive a copy. I have long-term involvement with the pavilion as a user and as a participant in the 1987 and current Save Bondi Pavilion campaigns. Also, as an MP, I wanted to bring some transparency to the Waverley Council plans. What I came up against added to my concern about the Betts plan for the pavilion.
In the second half of July I commenced corresponding with the mayor to request a copy of the application for $1 million. After one month of not very polite responses from the mayor, on 19 August she agreed that I could receive a copy of the application. However, that did not mean I immediately received a copy. The wheels still turned slowing, but what they revealed was even more concerning. The heritage grants team of the Department of the Environment and Energy could not give me a copy of the application as Waverley Council had not followed their own FOI processes, which they obviously would have been aware of. Interestingly, the grants team representative with whom we dealt said that they were aware of our request due to a number of communications with council about it.
Over a week later the application grant document was released. It makes for interesting reading. It is clear why the mayor did not want this application to be released. The application to the federal government that resulted in a $1 million grant of federal money was for an upgrade of the pavilion that would cost up to $14 million. The plan 'identified broad community support for the upgrade and conservation of the pavilion'. But the project that Mayor Betts is talking up to the media, discussing with developers and touting at so-called community consultations is the Liberals' $38 million pavilion redevelopment that would see the demolition of the purpose-built music rooms and studios, and the eviction of the theatre and all community activities from the first floor of the pavilion.
What is Mayor Betts up to? The $1 million federal grant is supposed to be for an upgrade involving maintenance, restoration and enhancement of the pavilion's community facilities. How did the council's $14 million upgrade plan become a $38 million major redevelopment? Who tapped Mayor Betts on the shoulder and said, 'We have a plan for you'? Why wasn't the massive cost increase publicly disclosed? Who are the developers that the Waverley Liberals are working closely with? When Waverley Council applied for the federal grant, did Mayor Betts already know that her Liberal council would back a change from a $14 million project to a $38 million project? Has the mayor obtained this $1 million under false pretences? In 2014 Mayor Betts said:
I am pleased that we have been able to allocate $10 million to refurbish the Bondi Pavilion because it is one of Sydney's most iconic buildings …
She went on to say:
The pavilion has a legacy our community is truly proud of so we want to make sure its longevity stretches well into the future and continues to live up to its remarkable history.
This raises another question that must be answered: has Waverley Council corrected the information they supplied to the Department of the Environment? The community support an upgrade of around $14 million which retains the building as a community and cultural centre. They do not support the $38 million plans that see it converted for heavily commercial purposes. When the plans for the $38 million upgrade went on public display and out for consultation, the community response was overwhelming—out of 750 responses, fewer than six supported the plans.
The community are solidly opposed to the current $38 million plan. This plan would see the music studios demolished; the music rooms that attract internationally recognised recording artists and are home to the Bondi Wave youth program would be gone. The art and pottery studios would be demolished. The much-loved theatre on the top floor would also be demolished. And the space available for small-scale community events would be reduced by 50 per cent. Acclaimed theatre practitioners have said that this plan is seriously flawed, unnecessarily expensive and an irresponsible waste of public money. Roderick van Gelder, an internationally recognised lighting designer and industry leader in the field of safety for the entertainment industry, has criticised the plans for the new theatre as 'not fit for purpose'.
Back to the Betts privatisation plan: the grant application states that additional funding will be sought. This is probably the most important question Mayor Betts must answer. Where will the $38 million come from? When a member of the community asked Mayor Betts where she would get additional money from, she said that 'developers would pay for most of the $38 million cost'. Earlier this year, the mayor had also floated the idea of a public-private partnership. The application states that an experienced project manager will be employed. This is also required by Waverley Council's own planning documents. Despite many requests from ratepayers, who this is remains a mystery.
The application declares it is 'able to obtain the necessary permits and support from the relevant traditional owners'. This is a lie. Aboriginal heritage has not had the support or respect it deserves, and for the Liberal council to make this claim of traditional owner support for their plan is insulting.
The application declares the project complies with all requirements set out in applicable Commonwealth, state and local laws. This declaration is astounding. The $38 million plan does not comply with the Crown Lands Act.
There are more questions the mayor must answer. Into which account was the $1 million grant deposited? Was it deposited into general revenue or was it handled as required under the Crown Lands Act?
Let us remember that, throughout this period and longer, Waverley Council has failed to produce even a budget, let alone a business plan for their Bondi Pavilion plans. The trouble is: council's analysis ignores the inconvenient fact that the pavilion sits on Crown land that was dedicated in 1938 for the sole purpose of public recreation, and a recent judgement against a local council found that land reserved for public recreation must not be developed for a purpose that excludes the public. That was in the case of Friends of King Edward Park Inc v Newcastle City Council.
And, because Bondi Beach and park are Crown land, they should be being managed by a trust, but there is none. It appears that Waverley Council has failed to maintain separate accounts for the beach and pavilion as required by the act. It has also roundly failed to provide the minister with the regular annual accounts and reports required under the Crown Lands Act. Council has ignored provisions of the Crown Lands Act by repeatedly leasing out the park and pavilion for massive profit-making events like New Year's Eve parties, and using the proceeds to subsidise entirely different council activities in unrelated places. As a result, 'trust' is not a word that anyone could use to describe the relationship between the mayor and Waverley Council and the community to which they are answerable and which they are required to serve.
At this stage—despite the best efforts of the non-Liberal councillors to represent community interests, and although one Liberal has been brave enough to break ranks and oppose the project—Betts's Liberals have refused to give an inch. They sit mute at council meetings and refuse to defend or explain their plans. Motions allowing independent experts to evaluate the $38 million project against heritage and other criteria have now twice been rejected, with the mayor repeatedly and arrogantly using her casting vote to push the proposal through.
Is the local member, the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, aware of what his staffer is doing with the federal grant? The local community cannot find out. Surely the Prime Minister and all MPs would want to be confident that federal money delivered under the federal grants program is handled correctly.
The movement to save Bondi Pavilion is undertaking the work that the council should do. We are seeing Liberals in control who have no idea of working for the public good and are out to help their constituency—the developers, hotels, real estate agents and other corporate interests. Instead of working for the people, Waverley Council has placed 'financial sustainability' at the top of its management objectives, so that the million-dollar ocean views from the first floor of Bondi Pavilion are on sale to the highest bidder.
The Betts privatisation plans for Bondi Pavilion are nothing new. Twenty-nine years ago, the Liberals who then controlled Waverley Council tried and failed to advance almost the same plan that Mayor Betts seems obsessed with now. This was in the era of the Markham Liberal rule over Waverley. Their decision to actually lock the community out of the pavilion kicked off an almighty battle. Sometimes I wonder if it might have inspired the movie The Castle, as Michael Caton was a Bondi local and one of the campaigners who helped defeat that attempted private takeover. The Markhams had a plan for Bondi Beach that they dubbed 'Camelot by the sea'. It included 14-storey buildings on the beachfront, including international hotels; the 'gutting' of the Bondi Pavilion; and lots of other developer-friendly schemes.
The Liberals were defeated at the 1987 council elections in a landslide, as residents in Bondi Beach and across Waverley organised to protect their neighbourhoods. And the then Waverley Council ended up with the dubious honour of being the first case referred to ICAC. Findings of corrupt conduct were made against a number of people associated with the Markhams.
One long-term local resident said to me, after a recent fiery Waverley Council meeting: 'If I close my eyes, Mayor Betts sounds like Mayor Carolyn Markham—her antics, excluding the public from meaningful involvement, and abuse of public money to advance her privatisation plans.' If Mayor Betts does not drop her privatisation plans, the next Council election could be a repeat of the wipe-out that the Markhams faced the last time the Liberals controlled Waverley Council.
The campaign to save Bondi Pavilion has been hotting up. In recent months it has been my pleasure to again share the microphone with Michael Caton, as I did in 1987, to ensure we have a mighty win like we did at that time and to save the pavilion from the corporate mates of Mayor Betts and the local Liberals. I congratulate the Save Bondi Pavilion group for all their work in informing the community, the CFMEU for placing a green ban on the pavilion until the privatisation plans are dropped, and all the locals and supporters working hard to save this great community asset.
What I have found extraordinary is the way that Mayor Betts has used heritage to justify her privatisation plan. This argument should be laid to rest. An evaluation of the current proposal against the Burra Charter, which is a reference document for all heritage conservation work, demonstrates what a lie is being peddled by Mayor Betts when she says, 'Council's vision is for Bondi Pavilion to be a beautiful landmark building, restoring its heritage value by conserving its original architecture'. The Burra charter really puts to rest so much of the misinformation that is coming from Mayor Betts. The use of heritage is to disguise a shamefaced commercialisation of this defining Australian public building. And both the Prime Minister and the heritage minster should be ashamed that they have been fooled by Mayor Betts' claims.
The secrecy and the barefaced lies from Waverley Council about the project are breathtaking. It was approved behind the scenes by officers and the mayor. And, although required by an earlier council motion, councillors have never formally considered the $38 million proposal. Mayor Betts, now is the time to come clean with the community. Release all the documents about your $38 million plan—or, better still, drop the folly and work with the community on the urgently needed upgrade— (Time expired)
Senate adjourned at 21:54