The House that Jack Built: Jack Mundey, Green Bans Hero
By John Colman
NewSouth Books, 376pp
Any book on the modern urban heritage movement would at least make mention of Jack Mundey and the 1960s Green Bans, but for Sydney-based architect James Colman, Mundey’s figure continues to loom large over his city.
Originally from north-western Queensland, Jack Mundey – a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Australia and elected official of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) – became “the best known unionist and best known conservationist in Australia,” according to Colman.
“The battles that Mundey, the BLF and the various community organisations fought to defend urban amenity and inner-city heritage would place matters of conservation and integrated, living cities into the public consciousness for the first time.”
Mundey was well ahead of his time in his concern for the preservation of historic and culturally significant buildings and living spaces. Under his leadership, the BLF entered new territory by claiming it was a union’s right and responsibility to intervene into such matters, particularly when government and other institutions refused to do so.
Colman’s book provides a historical context for this militant conservationist movement and how these issues manifest themselves in the current era.
With the end of the Great Depression and World War II, the culture of “restore and preserve” was transformed to one where only the latest trends were in vogue and new was always better.
At the time, writes Colman, there was little to no consideration by governments or organisations to the preservation of historic places or buildings. Government policy on conservation was non-existent, and those organisations that did exist had neither the mandate nor powers to protect sites earmarked for demolition.
By the time Mundey arrived in Sydney, first to play rugby and then become a labourer, many of the city’s historic buildings had been destroyed. Hundreds more were torn down in the 1960s alone.
Sydney itself resembled a massive building site, with work going on everywhere, in some cases left half finished as pop-up companies rose and collapsed amid the spending boom.
Alongside fighting to improve the appalling working conditions and wages of labourers, Mundey and other BLF leaders were able to convince the membership first, and then a broader audience, that workers and unions must look beyond their immediate concerns and take stock of the world being created around them.
As the government of the day was unwilling to take a leading role in these matters, it was left to the unlikely protagonist of the BLF to put the brakes on construction projects that were detrimental to working people and the city. Colman explains: “Many saw the union doing a job … that in an ideal world, would have been one for government.”
What followed was the well-known story of the Green Bans – the placing of a work ban by the union on a site that endangered the living quality of the community and its cultural heritage.
The world’s first Green Ban was implemented in the fight to save Kelly’s Bush, an urban parkland area close to the city centre. This campaign also demonstrated the BLF’s commitment to working with any social group that wanted to collaborate on saving something important to the community.
Musing about the well-to-do group of women who had been campaigning to save the area from clearing, Colman writes, “One can only wonder at the dilemma facing these women as they met in their Hunters Hill homes or the All Saints Church hall back there in 1970 and pondered their predicament: to contact or not to contact the offices of the communist-led BLF and enlist the union’s help?”
Significantly, the BLF only implemented bans after being approached by a community group, holding a public meeting where people voted on the ban and winning the approval of the union’s members.
With the bans proving to be effective in saving Kelly’s Bush, The Rocks and other locations, more conservative stakeholders, such as the National Trust, became less reluctant to work with the communist-led union. The Trust recognised that while it was able to list an area for conservation, the power to actually fulfil this objective lay with the BLF and its supporters.
The NSW BLF’s success naturally drew the ire of government, the Master Builders Association (MBA) and even other powers within the union movement.
The NSW BLF was ultimately deregistered in 1974, and Mundey was blacklisted from the building industry; the MBA no doubt relished the opportunity to undermine a powerful adversary.
Though less in the public spotlight, Mundey continued his work, joining the Australian Conservation Foundation, for which he worked in a number of capacities between 1974 and 1993.
Mundey was elected to the Sydney City Council in 1984 to represent Gipps Ward, which incorporated The Rocks. The election resulted in a council without a clear majority on most issues, and which was subsequently dissolved in 1987 by order of the state Labor government, which handed authority to an unelected administrator.
Mundey was later appointed chair of the NSW Historic Houses Trust in 1993.
During his working life, Mundey had a large impact on public and professional consciousness regarding urban conservation. The Green Bans campaigns not only helped save public spaces, they shifted public expectations and ensured that government departments and policies were created to address matters of conservation and heritage.
It is clear from Colman’s book that much of what has been preserved was due to Mundey’s role in bringing these concerns into the mainstream.
Colman finishes his book with a critical assessment of the present state of affairs in Sydney, in particular the scandals surrounding the proposed casino at Barrangaroo and the battle to save Millers Point.
On Millers Point, Colman writes: “A state government with clear obligations if not legal responsibilities to protect an officially classified heritage precinct has launched a program that, if successful, could see the area gentrified and transformed within a decade into a ghetto for the wealthy and privileged.”
The state government is claiming that by selling public housing stock in inner-city areas, they are better placed to fund housing for the roughly 60,000 people waiting for a public tenancy across the state.
“The irony is that the place whose future is now at stake is just across the road, so to speak, from the very place in which the crucial Green Ban battles were fought and won in the 1970s. Today the locals have once again taken up arms against a powerful state bureaucracy.” It is with the spirit of the 1960s Green Bans that Colman leaves his readers.
The story of the struggles by Mundey and the BLF are all the more extraordinary in that no one at the time expected such concerns could be rallied to take on the juggernaut of the building industry and government.
They demonstrated that a united movement of unionists and community groups can win against the odds. That message remains true now.