Wednesday, October 26, 2005 Cities Guide: Sydney Briefing - October 2005

News this month

Wheels in (slow) motion

Re-elected for a fourth term last year, John Howard, Australia’s conservative prime minister, is under fire for two of his pet policies. His efforts in labour reform, to weaken trade unions and allow more flexible working practices, have met fierce opposition, and not just from unions. Peter Jensen, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, said he feared the new system would hurt families and challenge the “sanctity of Sunday”. The reforms will be debated in the federal parliament in late October.

Mr Howard's tough new anti-terrorism laws, to be introduced in November, are also generating ire. The laws let police detain suspects without charge, hold them under house arrest and fit them with tracking devices. Details of the proposals had been kept secret, but Jon Stanhope, the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, posted the draft legislation on his website on October 14th, citing its “fundamental implications for civil liberties and human rights”. Mr Howard called Mr Stanhope’s move “irresponsible”: nevertheless, the furious public reaction may impede the smooth passage of his proposals into law.

Running on empty

Less than two months after opening, the new Cross City Tunnel, hailed as a solution to central Sydney's notorious traffic congestion, is facing problems. The 2.5km underpass, which runs from Rushcutters Bay, in eastern Sydney, to Darling Harbour in the west, cuts journey time from 20 to two minutes. It had been estimated that 90,000 vehicles would use the route daily: so far, only around 20,000 have done so, with many Sydneysiders boycotting it in protest against high tolls and the blocking of alternative routes.

Cross City Motorway, the private consortium that operates the tunnel, responded with an announcement that tolls would be suspended for three weeks from October 24th. They will also eliminate a surcharge on motorists who fail to install in their cars the electronic tagging device by which tolls are paid; the surcharge raised the one-way toll of A$3.56 ($2.70) to A$5.16. Whether these belated moves will win driver goodwill remains to be seen; in the meantime, central Sydney's narrow streets are as gridlocked as ever.

Just the pits

Thanks to its often-rowdy atmosphere, the parliamentary chamber of the state of New South Wales (NSW), of which Sydney is the capital, is known as the “bearpit”. The action, usually verbal, turned physical on the evening of October 18th, when Andrew Fraser, from the opposition National Party, described Joe Tripodi, the minister for roads in the Labor government, as a “bloody liar” before assaulting him. Parliamentary staff separated the two men and escorted Mr Fraser off the premises.

Underlying the incident was a controversy over the Pacific Highway between Sydney and Brisbane, which runs through Mr Fraser's constituency of Coffs Harbour, in northern NSW. The road, one of Australia's most dangerous, has claimed over 400 lives in the last decade. Mr Fraser, although apologetic, said he was upset over the government's failure to upgrade the highway. Public sympathy seems to be with him; nevertheless, his actions earned him an eight-day parliamentary ban.

Bank on it

When he resigned unexpectedly in August, Bob Carr, the Labor state premier of NSW for ten years, made only vague reference to his future plans. All was revealed on October 10th, when the Sydney-based Macquarie Bank, Australia’s biggest investment bank, announced that Mr Carr would become a part-time consultant there. Mr Carr's “strong intellect, policy understanding and strategic skills” would contribute well to the development of the bank's global businesses, said Nicholas Moore, head of its investment-banking group.

The move is a canny one for Mr Carr. Macquarie is one of the world's most competitive financial institutions: apart from conventional investment banking, it has become a big acquirer of toll roads, power companies, airports and other infrastructure around the world. Yet some commentators have quibbled with Mr Carr's move to take the job so soon after quitting politics. Macquarie has investments in four Sydney toll roads and Sydney's airport, several of which were initiated during Mr Carr’s long premiership.

Back from the dead

For the first time, Sydneysiders have been able to witness a relic of Australia's prehistoric flora. On October 14th, the Royal Botanic Gardens opened an exhibition of 100 Wollemi Pines, an ancient tree once thought extinct. Evidence of the conifer's existence, dating from the Jurassic period, 200m years ago, survived only in fossilised records until 1994, when David Noble, a park ranger, stumbled across a grove in the Wollemi National Park in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Authorities immediately slapped a ban on disclosing the trees' exact whereabouts to protect them from potential thieves.

The pines displayed at the gardens were grown from cuttings taken from the trees Mr Noble discovered. They are also part of a batch of 292 trees which were sold off by Sotheby’s, an auction house, at the Gardens on October 23rd, the exhibition's closing day. Royalties from the sale of the 148 lots, which raised over A$1m, will go towards conservation of the pines and other rare and endangered plants.

Catch if you can

October 2005

Grace Cossington Smith: a retrospective

November 3rd 2005-January 15th 2006

Sydneysiders are finally able to view this travelling retrospective of work by Grace Cossington Smith, a leading Australian post-impressionist artist who died in 1984, aged 92. Curated and originally exhibited by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the show includes 100 paintings from her 70-year career.

Ms Cossington Smith was something of a trailblazer. Considered a radical by the art establishment for her dramatic use of colour and light, she is now one of Australia's best-regarded artists. Some of her most dramatic panoramas capture the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction in the 1930s and evoke the soaring ambitions of the Depression-era city.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery Rd, the Domain, Sydney. Tel: +61 (02) 9225 1744. Open: daily, 10am-5pm. Admission: $A8. The gallery's website has more information.

More from the Sydney cultural calendar


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