Who’s port? Our port!

By Mick Buchan

Right now, we’re seeing another attack on the Port City of Fremantle, with the McGowan Government wanting to end the unique living history and culture the working port represents.

This attack isn’t a one off. It’s just the latest salvo in a long battle to destroy the working class cultural and social heritage of a working port and grab the public assets for private developers.

Since the building of the harbour in the 1890s, due in large part to the gold rush, Fremantle has been a working port and a Union town. At the turn of the century unionised wharfies, wool handlers, slaughtermen and prison warders all had strong industrial representation by militant Unions. It saw the town and its people prosper and a strong and unique working-class culture emerge.

By the early 1960s the large blue-collar workforce was starting to disappear. There was a move to bulldoze the history and build high rise housing. But the strong local community resisted and by the late 1960s there was a realisation that history once destroyed can never be replaced. The ‘develop at all costs’ movement seemed to have been defeated.

In 1974 a plan to demolish Fremantle Markets was defeated as a result of community activism and at about the same time the plan to demolish Victoria Hall was also defeated largely as a result of the BLF and its Secretary Kevin Reynolds and Organiser Bob Olsen.

Then in 1979 the Liberal Government announced the closing of the Fremantle Railway line, as a cost saving measure. Despite a petition of close to 100,000 signatures, organised by the community and John Troy, the Liberals proceeded with the decision. Their plan was to pull up the line and profit from the sale and use of the public land.

The Union movement resisted, led by the Railways Union, and not a single worker could be found to do that job. The Railway remains to this day. It was saved by the Unions and reopened in 1983 by the ALP under Brian Burke at a time when Labor believed in the future of Fremantle.

How glad are the people of Fremantle that the community and Unions combined to defeat short sighted and profit driven Government policy?

In 1984, the Fremantle Council attempted to have the City included on the World Heritage List as ‘the best example of a nineteenth century city in the world’ according to the chair of the Australian Heritage Commission. However, because of a lack of funding for the process, it didn’t eventuate.

A nomination was prepared to list the Fremantle Inner Harbour for National Heritage listing in 2005, on grounds including it being the largest working 19th Century port, its role in Allied defence during WW2, it’s role in migration, and providing employment for thousands of wharfies and lumpers who made significant contributions to Fremantle – especially the MUA. The nomination was successful, and the harbour was placed on the register as a ‘nominated place’.

But after intervention from the Fremantle Port Authority the nomination was spiked. The Port Authority lobbied to make sure Fremantle Port was not protected.

As recently as 2007 community opposition to a Labor Government proposal was successful in keeping Fremantle the historic place it is. The Department of Planning and Infrastructure wanted to turn Victoria Quay into a shopping centre and marina and put more shops along Bathers Beach which has been Fremantle’s City Beach since the 1930’s.

A packed Town Hall persuaded the Council to oppose the development, but Labor charged ahead. As a result of Court challenges the project was slowed down enough that by the time the Liberals regained power in 2008 it was off the agenda.

And here we are again, with yet another push by a short sighted Government to dismantle the working port of Fremantle and sell off the land for personal profiteering. And once again, it’s the Union movement this time led by Christy Cain and the MUA who are standing up to protect it.

The cultural and social heritage of Fremantle is enormous. It’s unique culture and its living history as a working-class town has no parallel anywhere else in the country.

We we’re right to protect it in the 1960s, in 1974 and in 1979. We were right to try and protect it as part of our national heritage in 1984 and 2005. We were right to protect it in 2007. And we’re right to protect it now.

CFMEU stand with our brothers and sisters of the MUA. We’ll fight with them to protect Fremantle.

We’ve already lost so much of the original character of our City. Fremantle stands as the exception. Let’s keep it for future generations and celebrate its unique position and culture.
Keep Fremantle a working port.

CFMEU grateful acknowledgement to the authors of Fighting for Fremantle from which this historical summary is prepared.

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