Building workers saved some of Sydney’s most important heritage areas, low-cost housing and green space from rapacious developers in the 1970s. NEALE TOWART tells the story of the Green Bans.
THE worldwide movement to put the environment at the centre of politics was given a huge push in the early-1970s by the actions of a most unlikely group – the NSW Builders’ Labourers’ Federation.
‘Green Bans’ was the term BLF secretary Jack Mundey gave to the actions of the workers in combination with residents in Sydney and elsewhere to challenge the prevailing ethos of development for development’s sake, at any cost to the environment or communities.
The first Green Ban, on Kelly’s Bush in Hunters Hill, set the agenda.
The suburb was and is a wealthy one. The developer AV Jennings was keen to turn the bushland into flats at great profit. The local residents opposed and opposed in every way they could, using the established forms of democratic action, all to no avail.
One of the ‘Battlers for Kelly’s Bush’ Christina Dawson put it well: “being politically naïve, [we]”. . . had infinite faith in the democratic process”.
“Why should it be our concern?’
A suggestion to contact the BLF was taken in desperation. The union was a very open and egalitarian organisation. The members had strong debates about helping this group of upper class people.
As Jack Mundey writes in his autobiography Green Bans and Beyond:
The members asked: “why should we save the bushland for these middle class shits?” . . . . “Well, almost certainly we haven’t got any builders’ labourers living in Hunters Hill. Why should it be our concern?” Others again took a broader view: “If we’re going to fight for better conditions, including where our members live, we’ve got to be consistent.” I summed up the discussion by saying what was the use of winning higher wages and better conditions if we lived in cities devoid of parks and denuded of trees? Our cities had to be for people, not for corporations to plunder and destroy. Kelly’s Bush wasn’t just for its neighbours, it should be public land and used by everybody who wanted to use it.
The union worked with residents to hinder as much plunder by developers’ as possible over the next four years, with 54 Green Bans running between 1971-74 protecting the natural environment and urban heritage across Sydney.
The builders’ labourers were criticised for denying members’ jobs but as Mundey said:
”What would we have said to the next generation? That we destroyed Sydney in the name of full employment? No, we wanted to construct buildings that were socially useful.”
Many of Sydney’s most iconic and beautiful areas owe their survival to Green Bans. When you enjoy Centennial Park, the Botanic Gardens and The Rocks, remember who saved them for us.
The success in preventing The Rocks redevelopment, saving Woolloomooloo, the development of public hospitals instead of shopping centres and apartments for the wealthy, the inclusion of theatres in new high rise buildings (MLC Centre) happened across Sydney and parts of NSW.
The Victorian branch imposed bans as well, with the Regent Theatre in Melbourne perhaps the finest ‘monument’ to their campaigns.
The battle of Victoria Street
The final dramatic scenes of the Green Ban movement were led by Mick Fowler, a member of the Seamen’s Union of Australia.
He returned from a voyage in April 1973, to find his flat in Victoria Street boarded up by Frank Theeman’s Victoria Point Pty Ltd.
With the help of some 50 comrades, he went back in and barricaded the property. Supported by residents’ action groups and the NSW BLF who were opposed to the redevelopment of Victoria Street, Fowler announced that the aim of this ad hoc coalition was “to preserve a place in the inner city for low income earners”.
Mick was a great muso and he formed ‘The Green Ban’d’, recording Green Bans Forever (1975).
‘The Battle of Victoria Street’ lasted for three years, and involved court challenges, the kidnapping of Arthur King, the disappearance and murder of Juanita Neilsen, harassment and confrontations between green ban militants and Theeman’s security thugs.
Mick was eventually evicted from his home after a legal judgment against him in May 1976, but by that time Theeman’s development plans had been stymied and historic and accessible inner-city housing saved.
In 1975 the Federal Office of the BLF succeeded in deregistering the NSW branch, and with the support of the Master Builders Association closed down the locals and ended the Green Bans, but not before their actions had left an indelible mark on the city and a legacy that has had worldwide impact – not only on the built environment, but in the natural world as well.