Suburban Battlers who Changed the World

by Wendy Bacon

Wendy Bacon has been an urban activist and journalist since 1969. She is a non practising lawyer & was previously the Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. 

This article is a companion piece to Judith Pugh & Ian Milliss’ articles, check them out below:

Judith Pugh: ‘Anzac and the Other

Ian Milliss: ‘Selective memories

If you catch a ferry from Circular Quay in Sydney to Woolwich Pier on the Hunters Hill peninsula and take a short walk, you will find a small nature reserve on the coast called Kellys Bush.

At a lookout, you will discover a plaque commemorating the handing over of the reserve to Hunters Hill Council in 1993 by NSW National Party Minister Robert Webster and then local Liberal MP Kerry Chikarovski. It notes that a local group called the “Battlers for Kellys Bush” fought to save the land; it was the site of the first Green Ban; and the land was purchased by the NSW government in 1983. If you venture into the bush, you will see another small faded metal photo of some of the 13 “local housewives”: the Battlers who saved the bush along with Jack Mundey, the leader of one of the unions who imposed the Green Ban in 1971.

Beyond these plaques, there is little to help visitors understand a struggle of worldwide significance that saved this seven hectares of bush for public use. There is no mention of the Wran Labor government that bought the land for public use in 1983 or the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) or crane drivers’ union (FEDFA), the key unions that imposed the ban. Like many memorials, the choice of words in these plaques was political and controversial.

There is also nothing to inform you that this land at the meeting of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers is part of the ancestral lands of the  Wallumettagal clan of the Eora nation, the Indigenous people of this part of the Sydney basin. For thousands of years, they took care of the bush. After they were killed by smallpox or driven off their land, the bush became a buffer between a smelter works and the Hunters Hill village that is today one of Sydney’s best known heritage suburbs. For seventy years, locals used Kellys Bush for walking and fishing. Although it was privately owned, some farsighted mid-20th century planners could see Sydney’s coast was disappearing fast and zoned the bush “open space”.

While Christo and Jeanne-Claude were doing their temporary “wrap” of Little Bay in 1969, decisions were being made that could have permanently obliterated this small piece of coastal bush. Sydney was in the middle of a property boom and developers were eyeing off every piece of available land.

When the smelter works moved from Hunters Hill in the late sixties, there was an opportunity to make the whole site ‘open space’. But behind the scenes,  the conservative  NSW government decided to seek a buyer for Kellys Bush. The Mayor of Hunters Hill used a casting vote to approve this course of action. One of Australia’s biggest housing developers AV Jennings snapped up an option and later bought the land. They planned to build high rise apartments, although they later downscaled their plans to 25 larger homes.

In September 1970 a group of 13 local women met in a parish hall and formed the Battlers for Kellys Bush. When the NSW government conveniently changed the zoning from “open space” to “residential” with the flick of a Minister’s pen, all seemed lost. Then the Battlers took a brave and imaginative step. Bridging class and political divides, they sought the help of militant communist-led construction unions. With the broader union movement behind them, the BLF and the FEDFA imposed what became known as a “green ban”. No unionist would work on the site. Jennings’ plan came to an unexpected halt. 

Kellys Bush was the launching pad for a unique movement called the Green Bans, a form of strike or boycott that saved parkland and the physical fabric of The Rocks, Victoria Street, Woolloomooloo, Centennial Park and scores of heritage buildings in Sydney. The Green Bans were based on the principle that people should be involved in the planning of their communities, and each Ban was imposed in partnership with strong community action groups.The Green Bans gave residents breathing space to work on solutions. In the case of Kellys Bush, it took 13 years of campaigning before the Labor government, led by Neville Wran, bought the land. 

This much of the story has often been told. But I wanted to know more about these local women. What aspects of the struggle had been downplayed, disappeared or merely forgotten?  In the spirit of investigating major cultural changes that had their birth at the same time as Kaldor Public Art Projects, I explored three boxes of Battlers’ archives in the State Library of NSW, visited Kellys Bush and the local Hunters Hill museum, and spoke to people who remember the battle. 

In the media, the Battlers for Kellys Bush are variously described as a group of “middle-class housewives”, “just a pack of bloody housewives”, the “blue rinse set”, and “prim and proper ladies” who “fluttered” around Jack Mundey.

The Battlers were indeed middle-class and nearly all were involved in full-time work in the home. But according to their own accounts, once the campaign took off, they threw aside routines and devoted themselves to saving the land with what one described as “evangelical zeal”.

Landscape architect and heritage expert Michael Lehany is the son of the late Battlers’ secretary Kath Lehany. He remembers that his mother, an amateur actor and environmentalist, relished the campaign. She hated housework because her own mother had been a stickler for it, endlessly scrubbing wooden floors.

Dr Joan Croll is the only surviving battler and also a lifelong environmentalist. She was recognised with an Order of Australia for her pioneering work in breast cancer and mammography. Despite these other achievements, she describes her involvement in saving Kellys Bush as the “the most important thing I ever did.”  Coming from a conservative background, she initially “had a fit” when she thought she was meeting a “true red person”. She decided to withdraw until she discussed it with her husband who changed her mind. In time, Dr Croll, who has previously described herself as a “bossy lady,” came to regard the Green Ban concept as a “brilliant idea” and regards Jack Mundey as a “wonderful and very clever man”. When her children were young Croll was not in the paid workforce, but by the later stages of the campaign she was working as a doctor. For many years, she regularly wrote letters to the SMH on environmental & other issues. When asked what she felt at the time about the Battlers being described as “a bunch of middle class housewives”, she said she thought it was “very funny.”

Michael Lehany’s view is that the Battlers used the image of conservative housewives to their own advantage. It helped them to get access to politicians and to capture media attention. Their first act was to get a letter explaining their case presented as a frontpage news story in the local paper. Assistant Secretary Monica Sheehan later recalled that they had no trouble getting publicity due to their “evocative name” and the “novelty in that era of citizens daring to protest against the action of their masters.”

 Weekly Times, October 1970 

Liberal Premier Bob Askin initially seemed to be on side. There was an election in February 1971 which Labor was expected to win. Two days before the election, the Battlers received a telegram from Askin stating that he was “very hopeful of a helpful decision on your problem and will advise within 24 hours.” I found the telegram in the archives.

The conservative government just scraped home. Despite Askin’s telegram, everything went silent. In June 1971, Askin rang the Battlers President Betty James to tell her that the Minister for Local Government and Roads Pat Morton, who for many years was a part-time businessman as well as a politician, was about to rezone the land as residential.

After putting on their “high heels and smart clothes” and armed with a letter from Opposition Leader Pat Hills promising to save the land if Labor came to power, Betty James and Monica Sheehan managed to meet with Askin but he refused to intervene. James later wrote that she declared “the Battlers will stand in front of the bulldozers”. Monica Sheehan said she was terrified and wondered who might be driving the bulldozers.

So it was that the Battlers got in touch with the unions including the FEDFA Secretary Jack Cambourn, who said his union would support a ban on the use of heavy equipment on the site. The BLF were contacted, and after investigating they agreed to impose a ban. To understand what this meant in Hunters Hill, you need to know that the mainstream media had frequently condemned the militant BLF, whose members marched to court to support arrested organisers and had even thrown an inadequate workshed into an excavation site during a safety campaign. But they had also recently passed a motion to support environmental action. Far from being passive, the Battlers insisted that they would do their own picketing. At one stage, AV Jennings threatened to use non-union labor but the BLF announced that work would immediately stop on an office block in North Sydney, leaving it as a monument to Kellys Bush. From then on, AV Jennings respected the ban.

Publicly the Battlers were portrayed as respectable middle class housewives, but behind the scenes , they experienced an unnerving whispering campaign. They were called “communists” and “ratbags” and Prince Edward Square where some of them lived was called “Red Square”.  Rumoured investigations into possible links with the Communtiy Party of Australia could find nothing. 

One journalist saw the Battlers as determined “ladies” rather than a “group of housewives”. This was local Kings Cross journalist Juanita Nielsen who  formed a bond with the Battlers in April 1975. She visited the site and described a rock pool with Aboriginal markings and a “metre of furry caterpillars head to tail marching through the bush”. A copy of her NOW newspaper which devoted pages to Kellys Bush is in the Battlers’ archive. Three months later, Nielsen was murdered as a result of her opposition to the development of Victoria Street, Kings Cross and support for the Green Bans. Like many other resident activists, the Battlers felt shocked and fearful when she disappeared. Some of them had also received threatening phone calls.

Nielsen described the women as being “13 local ladies ranging in outlook and temperament from very conservative to ever so slightly militant.” She observed their determination and “endless trust” in the BLF. 

Michael Lehany recalls that his parents could have been called “Fabian Socialists” and had attended meetings against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

However, some Battlers were forced to stand up to conservative husbands who drank in their local pub when they got off the ferry from work in the city. There were violent arguments at some local events. One woman noted that her embarrassed husband turned down invitations that he thought would involve arguments. Some experienced being treated with derision by old friends, and false allegations were made about them. Monica Sheehan later compared the situation to “Northern Ireland”. But support for the Battlers only grew. Local Labor party activists, including Rod Cavalier who went on to become a Minister in a Wran Labor government, were very involved.

In June 1971, 200 children from primary and secondary schools in Hunters Hill and Chatwood marched to Kellys Bush, led by the school band. They bore banners, “We don’t want a jungle of concrete” and “Save Kellys Bush” and booed the Local Liberal MP Peter Coleman. Lehany remembers that this was very controversial but the Battlers were unfazed.

Students protest in support of saving Kellys Bush, SMH June 26, 1971.

Over time, the Battlers came to understand that there had been a “shitty deal” behind the scenes to sell the land. In this sense, the threat to Kellys Bush involved a classic Sydney property deal. When the Battlers discovered that the NSW government and local Council had actively sought a buyer for Kellys Bush, Monica Sheehan wrote that Jennings should not make a profit out of the speculation. Defamation laws made it hard to talk about these matters publicly until Labor MP George Petersen made a single statement under parliamentary privilege. He accused the Minister of increasing the value of the land by rezoning it. Rather than buying it more cheaply for the public, he had made “a gift of more than $400,000 to one of the government’s friends”.

The Battlers were not just interested in their own small world of Hunter’s Hill. They were part of the Coalition of Resident Action Groups (CRAG) who campaigned to defend the Green Bans, after the militant NSW BLF leadership was deposed by building industry bosses and the Federal branch of their own union. Juanita Nielsen reported on a meeting where a representative of the Battlers for Kelly Bush publicly vowed to be there with other groups to confront the bulldozers. To my knowledge, no Battler ever did lie down in front of a bulldozer. But they were among the thousands who rallied to defend the Green Bans. Hundreds of working and middle class residents were arrested in occupations at the Rocks, Victoria Street and inside the offices of the Master Builders’ Association. 

The thirteen Kellys Bush Battlers were nearly all “middle class housewives” but they were far more than that. Like others who were involved in the Greens bans, their lives were transformed through action.

When I walked through Kellys Bush this week, I heard birds and the water gently lapping on rocks. In the distance was the roar of planes. Thanks to the weeding efforts of local bushcare volunteers, my untrained eyes could drink in the native bush, thanks to the weeding efforts of local volunteers. But even in 1993, Kath Lehany wrote that it would be a challenge to preserve the bush. A creek, rock orchids and groves of tea trees, which Michael Lehany remembers from his childhood, are gone. It’s a work in progress to preserve the natural heritage of Kellys Bush as part of the commons. But the social relations that fought for and saved it are obscured. 50 years on, there’s a strong case for commissioning a major public art project to memorialise this significant site of post-invasion land conservation.

To read more about the Green Bans and the NSW BLF: Meredith Burgmann & Verity Burgmann ‘ Green Bans, Red Union. NewSouth Books. 2017

Or watch: Pat Fiske’s film ‘Rocking the Foundations’

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