25 March 2010 – You go to an island, spend some time alone, and you can see things a little more clearly.
That’s how it turned out for me. The idea was to visit Cockatoo Island and do nothing; maybe read, eat and walk a bit. But just sitting there, with no particular agenda, and looking at the harbour, some things hit me.
I saw Sydney Harbour. I heard it; busy with aeroplanes, helicopters and boats. Noise overhead and everywhere on the water. And the more I looked at the harbour, the more I really saw it.
There’s a clear view from the island to the Harbour Bridge and the city. It’s interesting to see them like that; side-by-side from about 10 kilometres away.
The one, an elegant span over water, treading barely on the harbour. It says: “Oh, you can look at me if you wish; if you do, I hope you’ll see I’m holding up rather well. ‘Touch no water, do no harm’ is my motto.”
The other — the city of high rise, a wall of glassy erections, so much emerald glitz — stands well back from the water (with some blighted exceptions, like the Cahill Expressway).
So many competing, structural, faceless egos there.
Now former prime minister Paul Keating wants to erect buildings 130 metres high on the harbour waters. Ah, don’t you love it? The transgression we had to have. The Joe Cahill of our times.
In his plans to build on our harbour water, Keating is acting out the proud design traditions so Sydney; so, so Sydney.
In the city’s beginning the Rum Corps, a law unto themselves with their guns and self-interest, arrogantly built their houses on the young city’s streets where Governor Lachlan Macquarie had planned that citizens would have their transport.
Had the Rum Corps had the know-how then, they’d have built on the water, too, just like Keating plans to now.
The Rum Corps. Keating. Nothing’s changed. Ego. Arrogance. “We know what’s best; us.”
This sure sense of what’s about to happen with the huge towers to be built on the harbour at Barangaroo came to me on my second day on the island, late on a Saturday night.
Man, the place was jumping. Bright kids’ lights filled the parks, walkways, buildings and tents. They wore these party light thingos on their heads, threw them here and there and went everywhere laughing and playing. Families barbequing in groups. Maybe 160 or more were camped there in the snazzy, stylish tents erected by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. The day-trippers had gone and we had the place to ourselves.
No cars. Games of cricket and hide-and-seek. A safe harbour space for children to play in. In the distance and only 10 minutes by ferry, the world’s most famous bridge and the not-quite-yet Hong Kong hardness of the city skyscrapers thus far all stepped back from the water’s edge. Still public access along the waterfront.
I thought of the way we love Sydney Harbour; how we build right down to the edge but so we can still walk there; access it; canoe and sail there; do business there. And I also thought of how awful and ordinary the harbourfront buildings are, especially the ones closest to the water.
On Cockatoo Island you are reminded of the brutality of early life in the NSW colony; of the history of abuse of children, convicts and resources. On guided (or self-guided) tours you’ll hear how one six-year-old girl, who was found wandering in the bush having been abandoned by her parents, was charged with the crime of vagrancy and locked up in the girl’s reformatory on the island. A three-year-old boy, similarly lucked out, was stuck on the boys’ reform boat to learn sailing skills.
You’ll hear, too, of how free men would not work with convicts, and that no prison manager would train convicts, with the result that for every sandstone building, another two buildings’ worth of stone was thrown into the harbour because of wrongly carved stone.
Cockatoo is an island built on brutality, ignorance and environmental destruction.
But see how well it’s aged. When I was there, some 200 years after colonisation, the place was given over to picnicking, camping, tourism, and play. Volunteers run the place. That Saturday night there was such unalloyed delight, such a power of citizenship there: the old and the young, the ill-spoken and the articulate, mixing easily in a place kept for the walking, playing, delighting citizen, the parent and the child, the infirm wheeling their pushers, the whole damn lot of us.
You’ll never see this citizenship, the play and human face at Keating’s Barangaroo. For a start, there’ll be nowhere for the kids to play, for folks to chill out. It’ll be just (like Darling Harbour) a place for older kids to get plastered and spend all night clubbing, with taxis and airport buses blundering around 24/7.
High buildings don’t kill a city. The ug boot they place on the ground does, or, in this case, the thug boots in the harbour. They’re never built for the citizen-pedestrian, but for the investor to tenant all those floors above the ground level. Without street life, any place dies.
The new plans for the soon-to-be-fabulous (we are told) new face of the city will bring a touch of Hong Kong to Sydney, but without the vibrant street life of that Asian city.
If Keating and the decision-makers had the confidence to match their rhetoric they’d have published their plans for comment. But no. They held a mini-Dubai one-night exhibition for the select few, then a week later signed a contract to build the thing. On our harbour.
The in-your-face arrogance and brutality so well begun by the Rum Corps has been well repeated by the man who still wants to be king and, unable to find himself a throne, has at last hit on one, and will build it on our harbour. (When he had a throne in 1990 and was Treasurer, Keating made a foreign investor reduce the height of a building at Paddy’s Markets, 300 metres from the harbour, from a 36-storey to a 26-storey building because, in his words “. . . in order to be more sympathetic with the surrounding environment the tower needed to be shorter, thus not overly intruding upon the skyline and neighbouring buildings.”*
Sydney’s Hong Kong is coming and there’ll be no games and playing and diddly-daddlying by the water’s edge on that part of the harbour. And it won’t age well. Like Darling Harbour, it will have clogged arteries, no heart to be resuscitated and we’ll never love it. It won’t have simple delights for the citizen and no one will volunteer to support it.
Go the Rum Corps.
The only thing remaining is for Keating’s free former-PM’s Commonwealth offices to be moved from their lowly premises in the dowdy part of town and placed at the very top of the new, highest building on the water.
“Are you there, Kevin? I need to move to a new throne.”
* Re Yates Security Services Pty Limited v Honourable Paul Keating MP; Rockvale Pty Limited; Valtone Pty Limited and the Registrar General of New South Wales  FCA 432; 98 ALR 21 (2 November 1990)