Quarantine Station sell-out
by Peter Mac The NSW Carr Government has announced its decision to lease off Sydney's spectacular and historic former North Head Quarantine Station at the entry to Sydney Harbour. The Government wants to lease most of the site and its largely 19th century buildings to the British-based firm of Mawlands Hotels. The lease would be free of charge for the first few years. Over its 21-year life the lessees would be charged a "chicken-feed" rent, equivalent to some $80 per week for each quarter acre of the site. The 21-year lease would include an option for the lessee to renew the lease, if they so desire, for a further 15 years. The potential for interpretation of the area's unique and extraordinary history would be severely limited under the current proposal. The lease would effectively bar the public from the main accommodation buildings on the site, and would restrict access for visitors (other than guests) to the small area around the jetty. The jetty would become a major point of arrival for North Head, and the former boiler room in the jetty area would be converted to an up-market restaurant. Adaptation of the buildings to improve their "star" accommodation rating, would irreversibly compromise their historically significant fabric. The lease would also result in severe congestion within the jetty area, and have major impacts on this area's wildlife, which include Sydney's only nesting ground for fairy penguins. Memories of the wonderful tours of the Station, currently carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), would fade over the period of the lease, and would effectively disappear altogether if the lease were renewed. To date the maintenance and interpretation of the site has been very competently handled by NPWS staff. However, savage funding restrictions in recent years have resulted in a reduced service by NPWS, including reductions in the surveillance of the site, with the resultant loss by fire of two of the Station's most significant buildings. Eighteen months ago an extensive inquiry was held into the lease proposal. During the inquiry hearings two government authorities, the NSW Heritage Office and Planning NSW each outlined a powerful case for rejecting the lease proposal. However, within a week the opposition expressed by each of these organisations had wilted, and they meekly gave the proposal a qualified approval. As a result of this, and despite the fact that every community organisation and individual speaker who addressed the Inquiry spoke vehemently against the proposal, it was subsequently approved by the inquiry Commissioners. The decision has been condemned by groups as far apart as the state Liberal Party and the Communist Party of Australia, and by individuals as diverse as former Whitlam Government Minister Tom Uren, current judge and Chairman of the National Trust, Justice Barry O'Keefe, and former Liberal Premier Tom Lewis. The decision will almost certainly be subject to a court appeal. Prior to the recent election the government was forced to backtrack on other issues concerning the sale of valuable public lands, including the Hunters Hill High School and a large part of the Callan Park site in Sydney. The announcement of the government's decision to lease the Quarantine Station was delayed until after the election. A pre-election announcement that the government was to proceed with leasing the Quarantine site would have done considerable electoral damage to the ALP. The 1984 transfer of the Quarantine Station from the Commonwealth to the State Government was only the first stage of a governmental decision-making process that will eventually affect the whole of the North Head area. The former North Head School of Artillery is also to be transferred to the State Government within the next few years. When this happens, almost the entire North Head area will be under state government ownership and control. The situation therefore offers an unparalleled opportunity for this immensely significant area to be treated as a totality in determining its future interpretation, conservation and use. North Head is of major significance in the history of European occupation of Australia, because of its use for quarantine and military purposes. It also has enormous historical and spiritual significance for Aboriginal people, as a tribal meeting place, pilgrimage site and healing centre. The community group, the North Head Sanctuary Foundation, is arguing that any future use of North Head should take the form of a sanctuary for both humans and animals. Such a use would have the potential to reconcile and unite its extraordinarily diverse historical themes. Its use as a sanctuary would involve improving access for the public, preserving its serene beauty and its fascinating historical buildings, and identifying suitable uses for the developed precincts. It would, however, also involve severely limiting any future development of the site, conserving and interpreting it sympathetically, and retaining it under government ownership and control. And there's the rub. As demonstrated in their treatment of the Quarantine Station over the last 19 years, the Carr Government's primary approach to North Head (and other "redundant" government-owned sites of great beauty and significance), appears to be that it is a great opportunity for some prime real estate deals. The people of Australia deserve a whole lot better than that.