Speech in Parliament on Waverley Cemetery

Wednesday, 8 December 2004

On the sandstone cliffs between Bronte and Clovelly lie more than 100 years of Australian history, wrought in stone and marble. Waverley Cemetery was established in 1868 and since then the remains of more than a quarter of a million Australians have been interred in its acres. The cemetery is not a mournful place but a serenely peaceful one. The grave monuments range from the boisterously gothic and Victorian, with angels flying heavenward and broken pillars, to reminders of the deceased's own life such as the racing car driver carved in sandstone, goggles on tight, hands gripping the steering wheel, gazing down the racetrack of eternity.

The graves include the remains of some of our greatest poets—Henry Lawson, Henry Kendall, Victor Daley and Dorothea Mackellar—the great newspaper genius who employed them all, Jules Francois Archibald, the founder and editor of the Bulletin; and the other great radical newspaper editor of that day, Daniel `Dangerous Dan' Deniehy, the `voice of the south'. They are all at Waverley. I should disclose that, like my predecessor but three, Peter Coleman, I am a graduate of what used to be called the `New Hellas School of Journalism', from the restaurant to which the Bulletin staff habitually repaired, so I am very partial to these great Bulletin scribes who are at Waverley. Chief justices are there: Sir James Martin of Martin Place. Benefactors are there: Thomas Fisher of Fisher Library. Lawrence Hargrave, the pioneer of aviation, is forever grounded at Waverley. Business is not forgotten: Edmund Resch of brewery fame; the Alberts of the Boomerang mouth organ; and George and Charlotte Sargent, after a lifetime dedicated to the great Australian meat pie, sleep at Waverley. Most poignant of all, perhaps, is the beautiful monument to the Irish martyrs, which lists the names of Irish patriots from 1798 to 1981.

Now this peaceful and historic cemetery is nearly full. Within a decade the cemetery will have little income. Waverley Council, which operates the cemetery, is concerned that it will have to put its hand in its pocket to maintain the cemetery, although it has no problem maintaining other parks and reserves. As a result, there has been a strong push from the council to build a crematorium at Waverley Cemetery to generate additional income. The residents of the surrounding area, which I remind honourable members is part of the most densely settled electorate in the Commonwealth, are overwhelmingly opposed. Public meeting after public meeting has been held demanding that the crematorium proposal be dropped. At the recent council election, 11 out of the 12 councillors pledged that they would not vote for a crematorium, yet the Labor and Greens controlled council has continued to investigate the crematorium option, with much expenditure on consultants.

Focus groups have been held in the area to try to persuade locals that they really would be better off with a 20-metre smokestack, able to be lowered during daylight hours, sitting atop a cremator just across the street from their homes. The local community has felt that it is part of a surreal political farce. The more councillors promised they opposed the crematorium, the more intense was the work by council officers proving up the feasibility and desirability of one. In April, Liberal councillors endeavoured to remove the crematorium as an option for consideration. They were outvoted.

In the course of the debate, I made the obvious point that Waverley Cemetery is a tranquil, sacred and historic site. You cannot save it by destroying its amenity. It is unique. Not only does it contain more than a century of our history, not only is it sacred to the memory of more than a quarter of a million Australians whose descendants would be numbered in the millions, but it is sited on the cliffs of Bronte, one of the most beautiful and most visited coastal domains in Australia.

If the council is not minded to keep the grass mown and the fence intact then the enormous number of Sydneysiders with relatives interred at Waverley could be called upon to contribute to a charitable trust devoted to the cemetery's preservation. State and federal governments have significant funds for preserving our heritage; they can be approached. Yet no attention has been paid to this obvious alternative. So committed are the proponents of the crematorium—so oblivious to the opinions of residents, so determined to deny democracy—they march on as though in a blinkered robotic trance towards their fixed idea, their own great monument: a crematorium at Waverley, topped by a 20-metre smokestack. Next Tuesday the council will consider the report prepared by council officers which will recommend a crematorium. I urge the council on behalf of the residents and on behalf of all Australians who care about our history to vote as they promised the residents they would vote and say no to the crematorium.