Baird government prepares fire sale of harbour assets

October 8, 2015
The view from the Shangri-La, which Baird is selling off to his developer mates.

The New South Wales government is preparing a fire sale of state-owned properties around the Sydney Harbour foreshore, on the pretext of funding an upgrade of the Circular Quay ferry wharves.

Premier Mike Baird announced on September 28 that government-owned hotels and office buildings would be sold to raise $200 million for the renovation project.

The government is proposing to sell a swathe of publicly owned properties, including the Shangri-La and Four Seasons hotels in the central business district, the Novotel and Mercure hotels at Darling Harbour, and some commercial offices at Darling Quarter. Some as yet un-named buildings in The Rocks are also on the privatisation agenda, with clear threats to the heritage value of the area.

The origins of state government ownership of the harbour foreshore precinct was a disastrous bubonic plague outbreak in 1901, which forced the government to take over waterfront properties to tackle the rat epidemic and public health emergency.

The Sydney harbour foreshore has been under the control of state agencies ever since.

In 1998, the then-Labor government established the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA) to manage 250 harbourside properties, including pubs, an amusement park and shopping centre.

As part of its privatisation crusade, the state government is now planning to abolish the SHFA, incorporating its role into the finance department and other agencies, in preparation for the wholesale commercialisation of harbourside land and the demolition of the harbour foreshore as a public domain.

With the break-up of the SHFA, control of land, resources and heritage will be dispersed among different bodies. According to NSW Labor leader Luke Foley, this fractures bureaucracy into smaller, less accountable pieces, none of which has preserving the harbour and its heritage as part of its mission.

"The harbour foreshore needs a guardian," Foley said on October 3. "The government is unashamedly driving its commercialisation agenda and somewhere in the government we need a guardian of public access."

The government's mantra of "asset recycling" has already led to the sale of the state's electricity poles and wires network to build the WestConnex tollway monster. The project is being opposed by a growing movement of residents in the city's inner west.

The proposed sale of the city hotels, which are currently leased by private operators, and other state-owned buildings in the CBD, follows the sale of some $1 billion worth of property by Government Property NSW since April 2013.

The government has refused to reveal exactly how much rent and other revenue to the state coffers will be foregone by the sale. Some media reports suggest revenue of at least $18 million a year to the public purse will be lost forever if the buildings are sold to big business.

Foley demanded the government reveal exactly how much rent revenue would be foregone: "Ultimately, we need to be confident this won't end up being a fire sale of some of the most valuable real estate in Australia," he told the media on September 28. "I wouldn't trust this lot not to whack up a load of flats on top of the [Circular Quay] wharves."

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has called for City of Sydney's control of the harbour foreshore — rescinded 17 years ago — to be restored: "People expect the city's public areas to have consistent planning and management," she said.

According to the state government's announcement, construction of the wharf upgrade would begin in 2019. This gives the community some time to mobilise to protest this latest attack on the public sector, the environment and heritage of Australia's oldest city, and the interests of the people — which are being sacrificed once again on the altar of neoliberal capitalism.

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