Parliament Updates

Strongly advocated for the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to remain in Commonwealth hands

Including with increased funding, resources, and stronger governance practices.

Zali Steggall MP speaks in favour of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Amendment Bill 2021

1 June, 2021


I rise today to talk on the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Amendment Bill 2021. The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust was enacted by statute in 2001 with the objective to preserve, protect and rehabilitate former Defence and Commonwealth lands in Sydney Harbour. Warringah's trust lands including North Head Sanctuary in Manly and Headland Park in Mosman. I acknowledge and pay respect to in the Borogegal people, the traditional owners of the Headland Park, and the Gayamagal people, the traditional owners of North Head. The trust is essential to the cultural character of our community. It has sites rich with Indigenous, colonial and military history. It has green fields and bushlands, and provides habitat for many flora and fauna and for people as they seek relaxation and respite from their busy lives. It must be protected and conserved.

Today we debate this bill, which arises out of the independent review into the legislative, financial and governance arrangements for the harbour trust. Initiated in late 2019 by the federal government, the review is in line with the 10-year statutory review requirement under the trust act. I thank the reviewers, Carolyn McNally and Erin Flaherty, for running an open consultation process and for meeting with many members of the community to understand their views. The review made 21 recommendations to the federal government to improve the governance, the management and legislation of the trust. This bill, if passed, addresses four of these recommendations. There is no doubt that these trust lands are the jewels of Sydney Harbour and enrich the cultural life of our nation. That's why it's vital that the proposed bill helps to protect and conserve these lands for future generations. It was very clear that the community has an attachment through the involvement and vested attention there was in relation to the review. I consulted with the community extensively, the trust and the independent reviewers on the question of whether the trust should remain as an ongoing entity as custodians of trust lands. There was deep-seated concern in the community that some of these lands, in particular North Head, have not been rehabilitated or cared for in the way that they should be. They have been left to deteriorate, and the community is very concerned about that.

I made a detailed submission to the review, but the overwhelming majority of the community members I spoke to, including the North Head Sanctuary Foundation, the Headland Preservation Group, Mosman Parks and Bushland Association and the friends of quarantine station were in favour of the trust remaining as an ongoing entity. There were fears—valid fears, I would say—that the transfer of land to the New South Wales government would risk commercialisation of trust lands and reduce legislative protections currently provided to the sites under the trust act and the environment protection and biodiversity act. So I welcome today's amendments that enable the trust to operate as an ongoing entity in line with recommendation 5 of the review. It is truly a win for the community that the trust will no longer be a transitional body and that the lands will not transfer to New South Wales after 19 September 2033. That was a very big fear for the community.

Attention now remains on the Deed of Agreement for the North Head Sanctuary, which is due to expire in 2032, at which point the site would revert to the custody of the New South Wales government. Many in the community do not want this to happen and are still very concerned about it. With the recent release of the draft concept plan for the North Head, the community seeks an urgent update on discussions between the department of environment, the trust and the New South Wales government on the proposed arrangements for the Deed of Agreement for North Head. As acknowledged by trust chair, Joseph Carrozzi, in a letter to the Minister for the Environment on 31 July last year, the input of the community will be integral to this process.

Board membership was a question that came up in the review. The trust act provides that the membership of the board is constituted by seven members as well as the chair. The board is an essential governance body and has a huge impact on the way the trust is managed. Section 10 of part 3 of the trust act sets out the requirements for membership, and during the review consultation many stakeholders expressed concern that the legislative requirements and the process of appointing members allowed the board to become heavily politicised as well as facilitate promoting members which lack the core skills necessary in areas like environmental planning, heritage conservation and military conservation. I hope the minister will address these issues and ensure that, in fact, the trust board should be de-politicised and should actually be focusing on having the appropriate skills. The review is clear that membership of the board should more clearly reflect the skills and expertise of the harbour trust's needs into the future. This was a recommendation very much supported by the community.

Recommendation 6 of the review stated that the trust act 2001 should be amended to further specify that the appointment of each member of the harbour trust should be based on their expertise in one or more of the following areas: law, finance, public asset management, commercial leasing, architecture, public administration, Indigenous engagement, heritage, environment, tourism and marketing, so I welcome items 5, 6 and 7 of the amendment bill that implement that recommendation. Importantly, both the requirement of a representative of Indigenous Australians and a representative of local government remain. In light of these changes and with nominations for four upcoming vacancies on the trust board currently open, I look forward to the new appointees who have the required skills and knowledge to preside over these lands and ensure that in fact rehabilitation and conservation occurs.

During the review, many in the community felt it was important that the trust remain true to its mandate to protect, conserve and rehabilitate the lands. These are absolutely iconic lands, not just for the community that surrounds them and the Sydney community but for all of Australia because of their heritage and cultural value. There were concerns that commercial interests would eclipse these goals. There were fears that long-term leases would be awarded to inappropriate landholders and alienate the land from the public. The review points to two examples, an aged-care facility at 10 Terminal and a proposal to turn Cockatoo Island into an art precinct. These proposals both brought a strong community backlash. So, to protect against inappropriate proposals, there are various levels of safeguards built into the governance of the trust, as well as the act. There is a proposal that leases over 25 years would be disallowable instruments, which affords the parliament an important oversight function. The review recognised the community concern and believed that leases of longer than 35 years should remain possible but be subject to parliamentary disallowance. However, following community advocacy, particularly by the Headland Preservation Group, on 16 March the government announced that it had halted plans to allow leases over 35 years on Sydney Harbour Federation Trust land. In my capacity as member for Warringah, and as a member of the trust advisory committee, I have been working with the Headland Preservation Group and have advocated strongly for the trust to remain true to its mandate and not allow leases for over 35 years. I congratulate HPG on their advocacy efforts. They have been working tirelessly in the background for almost 24 years to protect these lands.

Items 4 and 8 of this bill implement these changes, and that is welcomed. The bill repeals section 64A and replaces it with a new provision that would prohibit the trust from entering leases or licences for a period of longer than 35 years. For leases between 25 and 35 years, HPG succeeded in guaranteeing strong safeguards on these proposals. The harbour trust will now have to set out a written statement of reasons explaining how the proposal is consistent with the act and plans approved under the act. The trust must also consult with the public and the community advisory committee. The final statement of reasons presented to the minister in parliament must include details of the community's feedback. The minister will then be afforded the discretion to judge whether the terms and conditions of the lease are consistent with the objects of the trust and the act and plans approved under part 5. There is no doubt that that is a win for the community and should go some way to alleviating concerns that these lands can be alienated from public use by way of long leases.

It's an exciting time for the trust sites in Warringah as we look forward to the revitalisation of both North Head Sanctuary, with the recently released draft concept plan, and the 10 Terminal and Parklands Renewal Project. While some funding has been allocated, there is no doubt that it requires more. Unfortunately, since 2001 these lands have been allowed to dilapidate. Areas like North Head, of such rich cultural and military heritage, are falling apart. Whilst there are some uses available of these lands, they must be consistent with maintaining access and community engagement and use. I thank the government for the funding it has provided to these sites, but I will continue to advocate that there needs to be increased funding and continued support by the government to the trust.

I have to thank the community groups very much. They have given so much of their time and their passion to ensuring these lands are protected. They have worked tirelessly, from shortly before Christmas in 2019, to ensure the community was heard, to ensure the community was mobilised and aware of the review, aware of the threat to commercialise these lands, and to ensure that their voice was heard. This is so important. It really highlights the importance of good communication between an organisation like the trust and the community in which it sits. For trust to develop, there needs to be broad consultation and open communication.

The groups I would like to particularly thank are the North Head Sanctuary Foundation, the Headland Preservation Group, Mosman Parks and Bushland Association and the Friends of Quarantine Station. As a member of the trust community advisory committee, the North Head Sanctuary Bushfire Recovery Advisory Group and the 10 Terminal Reference Group, I look forward to continuing to work on behalf of the community to preserve these lands, protect them from development and maintain them as sanctuaries to be enjoyed and loved by all Australians. I thank everyone who contributed to the review of the trust. It has resulted in the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Amendment Bill 2021. This bill works to further protect and preserve trust lands. I commend it to the House with my support.