Driving over democracy

March 5, 2021
View from Mount Panorma. Photo: Charles Boag

BREAKING NEWS: At the 11th hour, on March 5 federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley slapped an “emergency declaration” on the go-kart track, stopping work on it for 30 days. The reason cited was that it is a sacred site. She will make her final decision then. It follows a protest outside NSW parliament on March 4 and numerous submissions to the minister.

* * *

The park is a magnificent 10.11 hectares perched high above Bathurst on land donated by a former mayor. There are box gums, a children’s playground, a toilet block for campers, a few derelict buildings and a lot of open space.

I am in earshot of the Mount Panorama racetrack. It’s the first week in March, the week after the Supercars event and Lotus, the sports car people, have use of the Mountain for $60,000 a day. The sound of the cars is a distant buzzing, not unlike the sound of cicadas.

That’s Bathurst: it’s what you buy into when you come here, although such activity is limited to a handful of occasions through the year.

However, what’s proposed for that patch of public land atop the Mountain is quite different.

Walter J McPhillamy Park, chock full of weeds, an old stone building surrounded by a high wire fence, the park itself circled by ringlock (when I visited the gates were locked) has seen better days.

But what’s stunning is its aspect: 870 metres above sea level and 175 metres above the town, the park enjoys 360-degree views stretching over Bathurst and surrounding regions to beyond forever.

Except it’s not called Mount Panorama anymore but, by order of Council in 2014, Wahlu-Mount Panorama in recognition of the rights of Indigenous Australians, for whom it is a sacred site.

One hundred trees are earmarked for removal, according to the contractors and those Aboriginal rights will be trampled on when the first of those trees fall.

That, according to the council’s manager for corporate communications Therese Ryan, is to be on March 8 notwithstanding a petition against it carrying 9000 signatures and the threat of an injunction by the Wiradjeri.

Threatening legal action, lawyers for the Wiradyuri, Kings & Wood Mallesons, call the proposal a “devastating” one that will “permanently destroy a site that has been sacred to … the Bathurst Wiradjuri [sic] people for many centuries” … “a site of ceremonial and dreamtime lore.”

So why, after years of what it likes to call “deliberations”, is the council, in defiance of petitioners and Aboriginal elders, not only going ahead with its plan to build the 1.1 kilometre track, but now rushing it through?

Jack Fry, president of Bathurst Community Climate Action Network (BCCAN), who has been fighting the plan for years, uses the phrase “old white guys who are quite stubborn” — although the term doesn’t fit as neatly as it might, seeing the 6–3 majority includes one female councillor.

It doesn’t explain why they’d choose this site over so many others. To Aboriginal Elder Yanhadarrambal, public officer and coordinator of the Wiradjeri Traditional Owners Central West Aboriginal Corporation, the decision defies logic.

“I’m at a loss to know why they’d ignore Aboriginal heritage and the pleas of the Aboriginal community,” he said. “I just don’t know why anyone would destroy a place that is so sacred and important.”

So, why?

I couldn’t ask Mayor Bobby Bourke (in favour) because he was away sick. Councillors Ian North (also in favour) couldn’t talk because he believed the matter was subject to an injunction, although Ryan assured me it was not.

General manager David Sherley said on March 3: “Council is in receipt of correspondence from the Wiradjuri [sic] Elders legal representatives which is being considered. At this stage there is no injunction in place that will prevent works from commencing,” on March 8.

So, that seems to be that.

It’s yet another example of democracy taking a hiding. Political parties and big business have taken over government at the federal and state levels but, at this, the lowest tier of government, our tier for god’s sake, you’d think a petition carrying 9000 names in a town of something under 40,000 — not to mention the opposition of Traditional Owners — would carry some weight.

But it’s as a puff of carbon dioxide from the exhaust of a go kart.

[This article was updated on March 5.]

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