Callan Park: the unfinished victory

November 8, 2008

"We're a listening government", said Verity Firth, the NSW education minister and Labor MP for the now marginal seat of Balmain, when announcing the abandonment of the plan for a takeover by Sydney University of Callan Park in the heart of her electorate.

When the planned takeover was first announced, Firth was listening to the notorious architect of the proposal, then planning minister Frank Sartor. She churned out monthly community bulletins in support of the ruinous plan. The takeover would have allowed for Callan Park to be littered with 16 six-storey buildings.

The 75,000 square metres of development proposed by Sartor and the university would have been a billion dollar developers' bonanza. The university planned to build its campus compound at Callan Park with public-private partnerships.

Public opposition to all this was immediate and unmistakable. A public meeting held in Balmain Town Hall within days of Sartor's announcement in July last year was a standing-room only affair, and almost unanimously condemned the plan.

Attendance at monthly Friends of Callan Park meetings immediately trebled and thousands of dollars flowed into its funds for the leaflet war with Sartor and Firth.

Sartor, Firth and the university tried to brush the opposition aside as "the usual suspects". But when the plan eventually went on official exhibition the number of objectors topped 3000. There was some support from local sporting clubs for promised extra ovals at a Callan Park under university control, but this was overwhelmed by the local opposition.

An opinion poll commissioned by Leichhardt Council revealed only 6% support for the takeover.

Leichhardt Council came on board the public campaign, although there was some wobbles with the former independent mayor, the Labor deputy mayor and council bureaucrats wanting to do a deal with the university over the open space and sporting fields.

Once this local treason was exposed, any support for it from other councillors quickly evaporated. Big turnouts at council meetings ensured this result.

As the late, great Nick Origlass used to say, "The benefit of Open Council is that the hot breath of the masses on the back of the councillors' necks often has beneficial results".

The declining political fortunes of the NSW Labor government probably brought on the capitulation. A visit to the electorate by new Premier Nathan Rees was also a factor.

At a debate with Liberal leader Barry O'Farrell in a local pub he encountered first-hand locals who wanted to tackle him on the future of Callan Park. The meeting was in no way stacked, or targeted, by Friends of Callan Park, but was a show of spontaneous concern.

Rees was already facing the prospect that a Greens-initiated Callan Park Trust Bill would pass through the Upper House with Liberal support. Rees was left in no doubt about local feeling. And it wasn't just about retaining the serene and rambling parklands, but about restoring Rozelle Psychiatric Hospital in Callan Park.

This hospital was closed in April despite continuing local support for its retention. Two demonstrations by hundreds of citizens on successive weekends were held in April to protest the closure.

Rees, at the pub debate, acknowledged that "the state government had dropped the ball on mental health". He's not kidding.

One of the more egregious political boasts of recent years has been the former premier Morris Iemma's claim to be a mental health champion.

In fact, during Iemma's stint as health minister from 2003 to 2005 the numbers of mental health staff per 100,000 people dropped from 87 to 83, making NSW the worst state in Australia. The national average, which is distressingly low anyhow, is 93.

In addition, thousands of people with a treatable mental illness are now in NSW jails because of their illness. Jails are the new asylums. A 2003 study revealed that 75% of the homeless in the inner-city of Sydney suffered from a mental illness.

These incontestable facts helped fuel the continuing local support for the psychiatric hospital at Callan Park. It alone will not solve the crisis in mental health but it is part of the solution. The hospital and its hundreds of patients enjoyed the therapeutic advantages of this waterfront parkland and were a part of the local community.

As the locals are saying, "We've won another victory at Callan Park but the return of major public mental health facilities remains on our agenda".

[Hall Greenland is a spokesperson for Friends of Callan Park. To get involved visit .]

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