GREEN BANS AND GRASS ROOTS POLITICAL ACTION
Jack Mundey interviewed by Professor Colin Hughes
Colin Hughes: Well you've known Sydney now for twenty years, Australia's largest city. How do you think the quality of life has changed in that city over that period of time? Certainly people have a lot more things. In 1952, having a car would still have been not a universal thing, nowadays the question is whether it's a one car family or a two car family and so on and so on. The amount of hard consumer goods that people are piling up is so considerable. Are they better off or are they worse off?
Jack Mundey: I suppose in a material sense they are better off. If one places progress on goods and services, well of course they are better off. Though in many ways they are not nearly as well off. I think the better way to answer that would be to say that consumerism, if it continues in its unbridled form, will have a devastating negative effect on the future of all our major cities. Even though we are one of the most vastly under-populated countries on earth, we are THE most urbanised. The main crisis is in our cities. I have put forward on a number of occasions that it isn't much good fighting to win higher wages and conditions and a thirty-five hour week, if we are going to live in planless and polluted cities, devoid of parks and trees ; that there's got to be a
look at the whole canvas, that the unions have to be concerned with all aspects of life affecting the people and not just the work-a-day. So the quality of life in many ways is not nearly as good as it was ten years ago or fifteen years ago. When you take Sydney as possibly the worst example, the charm and colour that was Sydney, even in the early sixties has gone forever. There are streets in Sydney now that never see the sun. (Pitt Street was built on a bullock track, scarcely wide enough for two cars.) These streets now have buildings going up 5–600 ft and one being built now, going up 800 ft. And this again shows incredible lack of foresight on the part of the planners. It clearly demonstrates that progress in the name of 'ever higher buildings' is wrong, it demonstrates to more and more people. And people now are being forced out of the city. Sydney of a night is a virtual dead concrete canyon, the soul has gone out of Sydney. And Sydney-siders are up in arms at this and that's why there's this tremendous movement, almost a spontaneous movement of residents' action within the metropolitan area putting forward that the governments have failed lamentably and that the people have to take action themselves to save their communities.
CH: Looking back on your own experience, can you recall the circumstances of that first time you and your union moved into the environmental field. What brought it about?
JM: The way in which the criminal element controlled our union. It meant that we had to develop a highly democratic alternative and that has traditionally lingered on. We have now been in office just over ten years, and we haven't been in there long enough to vegetate completely, which unfortunately happens within any union or organisation or institution where the same people have occupied positions of authority for too long. We haven't reached that position yet. The most important thing is that we have this democratic strain running through us. Because of the frustration of Sydney-siders about the destruction of the environment, people from Kelly's Bush (and Kelly's Bush is in the well-to-do suburb of Hunters Hill) came to us asking us to
help them save the last natural bushland on Parramatta River. A number of these were women. High school children went down in front of bulldozers to stop the destruction of the bushland. As a last resort they came to the Builders Labourers Federation because the builders labourers do the excavation for new buildings and we weighed up the situation and we responded to that request from the residents of this area. I might say that that area is still parkland today. And because of the publicity around it and because of the fact that we said to a particular developer at the time, who ignored our request to stop building, we said that if he didn't stop building on Kelly's Bush we would leave his half completed multistorey buildings in Sydney and Canberra standing as monuments to Kelly's Bush. And this was quite a shock tactic at the time but certainly had the desired effect on the
particular developer and thus we still have Kelly's Bush. But at high government level of course it brought shrieks of anarchy and of minority groupings going too far. As we have found out in the intervening years, the last two-and-a-half to three years in particular, we now have twenty-one green bans, we call them, because they are not black bans. They are bans imposed to protect the environment at the request, ALWAYS, of residents, of groups and communities who come forward. We have forty-one of these, worth over $3,000,000,000 held up. We think it very positive because it is allowing for more time for public scrutiny to consider in which way the city should develop. It's taking it out of the hands of bureaucrats who arbitarily make decisions affecting the lives of hundreds and thousands and millions of people and I think this is a very healthy development. You see, I'm opposed to the idea that institutionalised democracy means that I walk into a ballot box and cast a secret ballot every three years. To my way of thinking real democracy resides in the power and the ability of the individual and conscious groups within society to act according to their conscience. So if we find that an election pledge is being broken, people are drawn into action to with old their labour (in our case), to link up with other resident action groups, progressive architects, town planners, to save their environment. I think this is our right. So I suppose that that first action by the middle class, upper class women, at Kelly's Bush, Hunters Hill, triggered off the sensational developments that have taken place in our ecology action since.
CH : Why do you think the .system doesn't work satisfactory? Why for example would a local authority allow this to happen? Why wasn't it sufficient for the group who brought you into the picture to go along to their councillors and say, don't do this, stop it happening, and the councillors respond ? Is there some fundamental flaw in the system, or is it just there's a particularly unsatisfactory set of councillors at this moment of time?
JM: Well I think that of the three tiers of government throughout Australia, it's at the lowest, at the shire council and local government level, that we get most opportunism. I put that forward, because experience bears it out. The number of real estate people sitting on shire councils and municipal councils would really bear examination. I would like to see an analysis made of that. There are many people who go into local government for personal reasons. In Sydney for example there have been councils dismissed, eight or ten times in the last few years. One council was dismissed three times, another council twice, for collusion with developers, for breaking the rules of government, and on many occasions the records have been destroyed, and nothing can be followed through. There have been millionaires made by the way in which land deals have been done, without
any knowledge of a particular council. And because of this I think that there isn't confidence in the people in local government. There isn't much in state government either in many of the states because, again, of the close ties between the powerful business interests and people in high positions in government. For example, there have been a whole number of decisions made that have later been condemned almost universally. If I could just put forward a couple. On the Rocks; now the Rocks is a lovely old part of Sydney. It's really the cradle of Australia's civilisation, I suppose. It belongs to, it's a heritage, not only of Sydney but of all of Australia. And yet we have a situation where that state government was prepared to go and to propose to build $500,000,000 worth of high rise building in the Rocks, destroy the character of the Rocks. The residents, together with our union, imposed a ban on the area and we've now taken the step of having a people's plan drawn up, or a community plan drawn up, in which the people themselves are putting forward what sort of community they want, not leaving it to the govern-
me n t of the day to say, 'you will have this.' The people themselves are being consulted. Now out of it all, possibly, there will come some compromise. But to me again it's a very big step forward. Instead of just having governments and
bureaucrats saying, 'that's what you'll have,' the people themselves have said, 'stop, don't destroy all of Sydney, we want a say in our community'. The same thing is now happening in Wooloomoo, Victoria Street and Kings Cross, another part of Sydney that is threatened with the developers' hammer. So we had these sorts of developments because the government was so incredibly myopic that it was going to sell out all of this wonderful part of Sydney. The sort of opinion has been such,
even supporters who have voted all of their lives for that particular conservative government are now condemning it for that action. Now I want to show you the broad scope of activity and people of diverse social and class interests, coming into one protest. The government in New South Wales made a decision in the faint hope that in 1988 we may play host to the world for the Olympic Games and to celebrate 200 years of white Australia rule, they were prepared to destroy Centennial Park, described by Patrick White as one of the loveliest parks in the world, prepared to destroy it completely to make way for this concrete sports complex and of course a place for God cars to park in their thousands. And the people rose up in anger. When you consider that we had people such as Cardinal Gilroy, entrepreneur Harry M. Miller, Patrick White, who came out of seclusion to protest about this, Vincent Serventy the naturalist, and myself on the same platform together with Kylie Tennant the authoress, I
think it shows you the wide section of public opinion that is now coming into community action. To me this is the most gratifying experience that I've had, as one concerned with ecology, to see we have people not only pushing their own class positions or pushing their own political party positions, but coming out in honest and sincere opposition to a decision by the government that hasn't been given sufficient thought. To my understanding, this is democracy at work. Now in the Centennial Park case, such was the widespread opposition that the government has now done away, they have put away, that idea and they are not going ahead with it. Now had there not been a protest movement, Centennial Park would have been gone, the Rocks would have been gone, so I put to you that these actions are extremely healthy indeed.
CH: By what you have just been saying, do you see two types of issue, one so to speak an environmental political issue, the so-called 'eco-politics' on which it is possible to combine people of different classes, people of different party points of view, different outlooks on life, because they are concerned with a 'mankind versus something else' sort of policy; and, on the other hand, those issues that are perhaps still determined by class, the economic, the bread-and-butter issues in which two bob in one man's pocket must be taken out of another's pocket? Is this the way you see politics now?
JM: Well yes I do, I think that Australia isn't becoming any more egalitarian than other countries in the western capitalist world, Yes I do, I think you summarise it how I see it. I think the issues of ecology are growing in importance and the issues of economic problems of workers are relatively diminishing but they are still there. As long as the workers' movement exists, it will have to be concerned for wages and conditions and the immediate spontaneous struggles of the workers to safeguard what they have won. That will always be there, but I think on the other hand the other issues are far more important in the long run, and the more progressive and the more visionary union and workers' leaders will try for more in this direction, and that's why I think we will get conflict within the trade union movement. I'm of the opinion at the moment that there are sharp differences between what I consider to be the orthodox unions and the more militant progressive unions. The orthodox unions I would categorise as those who say it's the domain of the unions to concentrate on wages and conditions only, maybe some fringe political issues; whereas the militant unions say 'we've got to break with that, we've got to involve ourselves in new areas of so much concern to all mankind .'
CH: You've been talking about action and yet I wonder whether there is any case also for talking about structures, for talking about permanent institutional arrangements to pursue the sort of objectives that you want. For example, you can either have a strike when the workers involved think that a particular project is going to have a lasting and deleterious effect on the nvironment or else you could have some sort of body, a court or something like a court, before which the parties will appear, argue the cases and some 'neutral' third party will sit in judgment on them. Do you think there's a case for building up permanent structures, or do you think these will always become corrupted, inefficient, overwom by other sorts of power, and therefore the only hope is to retain the possibility of direct action, always in the hands of workers and comparable groups?
JM: I think we must always retain the right for action by the workers. I think that's the first point that must be said. Secondly, I do believe that because of the workers' action from below, because of movement from the people below, there can be greater control over bureaucrats and governments while still under capitalism. But I'm a socialist because I believe that, in the final analysis, any system that is based on private profit, any system that has huge corporations exercising such tremendous power then, yes let's face it, governments and courts are going to be influenced by that sheer power, that sheer wealth. You see all the decisions that have been made in any legislation anywhere in the world, to my knowledge, have always come from outside. It's extra-parliamentary activity which has always led to any improvement in decisions within parliament, within courts, and I think that we must keep that up. We've got to have the two of course, we've got to have institutionalised democracy and that will change drastically over the years. But it's the involvement of ordinary people outside courts and outside parliaments, that will determine the way in which those courts and parliaments will perform.
This interview was first published as part of the Australian Public Figures on Tape series by Queensland University Press. C) 1974, University of Queensland Press.