Public v private … jetties attached to harbourside properties at Balmain.It was the first state Labor government that opened public access to the waterfront after decades of complaints from the public that Sydney Harbour was little more than a ”pond in a privately owned paddock”.
A century later, it was also Labor that sold off the waterfront in what some saw as the final affront from a government that had lost its way.
Now, Labor’s annual party conference will debate whether to repudiate the decision of Eric Roozendaal, the former treasurer, to ”privatise” the waterfront, months before the ALP was booted from power.
It was Mr Roozendaal who drove through last-minute changes allowing 9000 or so wealthy owners of waterfront properties to take out multi-decade leases over jetties and the surrounding waters.
The decision reversed a longstanding Labor policy that the harbour was public property and a fisher from Punchbowl should have as much access to it as a millionaire from Potts Point.
The decision to cast out the former licence and short-lease system for the harbour in favour of 20-year leases added to the value of harbourfront properties and implied a jetty was the exclusive domain of the owner.
In a fortnight, the ALP conference will vote on an amendment, brought by the left faction, that no Labor government can do this again.
In a blow to Mr Roozendaal, who sits in the upper house, the Labor Opposition Leader, John Robertson, of the Right faction, said the Left’s proposal ”sounds like a good idea”. Mr Roozendaal did not return calls. The party’s assistant general secretary, John Graham, told The Sun-Herald that if adopted, the policy would enshrine the right of people to ”throw a line in off a jetty and fish in the harbour”.
Representatives of waterfront property owners say that right already exists, after the Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling that went against jetty owner Annette Georgeski, who had blocked the access of fishers to her Georges River waterfront.
George Citer, of the Waterfront Action Group, said 20-year leases would provide owners with ”some certainty”. He said: ”Structures like boatsheds are expensive to build and you’ve got to have some certainty.”
The group has been told NSW Maritime will begin negotiating 20-year leases after they were put on hold pending a review by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal that recommended rents for jetties be slashed by an average 36 per cent. The government’s take from waterfront owners will fall from $15 million to $9.5 million.
The conference debate at Town Hall on July 14 and 15 will have echoes of the past.
In the 1890s, citizens began agitating for access to the harbour foreshores, culminating in a Town Hall meeting in 1900 after access to the water was blocked at the Botanic Gardens. It took until August 1911 for the first Labor government under the premier James McGowen to resume the Wentworth family-owned Vaucluse Park for a public recreation ground to be named Nielsen Park for the use of the public.
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