By Wendy Bacon
NSW riot police formed a human barrier around a section of Sydney Park early on Wednesday morning and violently pushed residents off the edge of the park which was then fenced off by Westconnex contractors.
The land fenced off includes both NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) 1950s road reservation, land that has always been part of the park and other land owned by the City of Sydney until December 21, when it was forcibly taken over by the NSW Government just before Christmas.
Residents who have maintained a 24 hour protest camp in Sydney Park since September feared the worst when Minister Gay announced on December 24 through the pages of the Daily Telegraph that he expected a fresh wave of protests at Sydney Park. He attacked anti Westconnex protesters, who he has previously described as “nasty little anarchists”, as “professional” demonstrators.
Gay also announced that the Airport link between Westconnex and Kingsford Smith Airport, for which no formal planning process has even begun, might be finished by 2023, which is earlier than expected. He provided no plan for the link but stated that it would cost no more than the $16.8 billion already budgeted for existing works.
The arrival of the police followed a successful Westconnex Action Group “Breakfast before Bulldozers’ on Tuesday. Greens MP Jenny Leong and MLC Mehreen Faruqi joined Labor Councillor Linda Scott all of whom spoke at the breakfast, giving strong support to residents. Labor Councillor Linda Scott told the group that she had been informed that the extra land Westconnex wanted to takeover was still being disputed by Council. This included the land on which the toilet block, which services the entire south half of Sydney Park stands.
Shortly afterwards, RMS Community Engagement officer Dan Silburn arrived with Westconnex land surveyors. The group asked him to provide authorisation that the work had been approved. Greens MP Jenny Leong accused Premier Mike Baird of hiding behind a junior public servant rather than coming to the park to face the residents.
Silburn left and did not return. Surveyors then began work on Euston Road but left after being asked by residents for authorisation.
At about 5.30 the next morning, police arrived at the park, followed by scores of contractors. The leading contractor declared the land to be ‘private land’ although it is in fact publicly owned, while senior police asserted that it was now enclosed land which it clearly was not. The police then physically forced residents off the land while contractors quickly fenced off the site. Three residents received minor injuries to their arms as a result of police severely pinching them and bending their wrists. There were no arrests.
Only after these actions were complete did Westconnex supply the Westconnex Action Group with a copy of a Gay’s letter to the City of Sydney overriding its appeal against the land transfer.
In his public statements, Gay has continued to insist that only 1500 square metres is being removed from the park. He compares this to the size of a ‘bowling green.’ In fact the size of the land and impact on the site, which is the only large park in this part of Sydney, is far greater than he Gay has suggested.
Part of the extra land that has been acquired includes the site on which the toilet block for the southern half of the parks stands. This block also houses a pump for the wetlands. The health of the water in the wetlands is crucial. The toilets service the barbecues and picnic areas used by hundreds of residents especially in the summer. The canopy provided by hundreds of trees cools the side of the park and provides a habitat for smaller plants and animals.
Further up the park the exercise equipment will need to be moved as it would otherwise be adjacent to a construction site and 7 lane highway.
The toilets were initially left open but were then also locked and fenced off following an order from senior ranks at Westconnex. City of Sydney has told protesters that it will supply portaloos for the park. The toilets were subsequently reopened until portaloos arrive.
The removal of the park and hundreds of trees is going ahead despite the fact that residents in St Peters have been told by RMS and Westconnex that the design of the road is not yet complete and it could be moved further south away from the park.
The approved Environmental Impact Statement for the New M5 showed that the project would deliver a massive 73,000 extra cars into the area leaving roads beyond the project at over 100% capacity. The removal of the Camperdown Interchange, which was going to be part of the third stage of Westconnex, will add even more cars to roads in the inner southwest of Sydney.
Further RMS plans are being developed already to widen roads through to Moore Park in the Inner East. These plans will cost many more millions, but will not be counted as part of the cost of Westconnex.
NSW Labor, Green and Independent politicians, major environmental organisations and nearly 3700 residents have signed an open letter to Premier Mike Baird, the Minister for Planning Rob Stokes and the Minister for Roads Duncan Gay asking them to halt the massive St Peters Interchange and review the planning process. None have replied.
The stop Westconnex community groups are planning more protests in coming days.
Wendy Bacon is a supporter of the Westconnex Action Group and ex Professor of Journalism at UTS