By KIERAN FINNANE
Last updated 3 October 2019, 8.33pm.
In a mystifying decision, the Town Council last Monday voted against offering in principle support for heritage listing Anzac Oval, which it owns on behalf of the community.
This came after giving its support last January to the application. It made this decision at the same meeting that they decided to reject the NT Government’s offer to buy the oval.
Nine months have since passed, during which time the Heritage Council considered the application, conducted community consultation and decided to recommend the oval’s listing.
At the Town Council’s mid-September committee meetings, chair of the Heritage Council Wayne Kraft and Michael Wells, director of the Heritage Branch of the Department of Tourism, Sport and Culture, came to council with additional questions from Minister Lauren Moss.
Did council’s in principle support for the listing still hold, she wanted to know.
If so, what area did council think should be listed?
And, was there any other information they thought was pertinent, for example in relation to work it may want to carry out in the future without having to make a formal application.
This was debated on the night and a recommendation came forward for formal vote at Monday night’s meeting: that council provided in principle support for the listing, with exemptions for various itemised works, and that it undertake further community consultation.
That much is in the open for all to see. We know that in the meantime there have been many meetings between the government and councillors behind closed doors about a land swap: the Town Council’s Civic Centre block for the government’s site of the former Anzac Hill High School, adjacent to the oval, with some sweeteners thrown in. This would pave the way for building the government’s proposed national Aboriginal art gallery on the Civic Centre block.
Right: Minister Moss in February 2017 announcing the initial steering committee for the national Aboriginal art gallery process, which despite its many stumbles continues behind closed doors. Photo from our archive.
Council’s rejection of the initial offer has not taken these negotiations off the table. Meetings are ongoing. They have again been referred to in councillors’ reports about their activities for the month, not that we know anything about their content.
But on Monday night Councillor Marli Banks, despite recognising that the community values the oval, was worried that its heritage listing “would limit our options as a council with an asset” and she would not support the recommendation.
Councillor Catherine Satour had expressed hesitation in the mid-month meeting and repeated it on Monday night. Like Cr Banks, she understands the strong connection many in the community feel for the oval, but she noted that the proposal for heritage listing had not come up until the Anzac precinct became the government’s preferred site for the national Aboriginal art gallery. She is concerned that the process was being used simply “as way to block the development”.
Cr Jacinta Price felt similarly to Cr Banks. She also suggested that council did not have to generate another round of community consultation. She said the CEO had pointed out to her that the Heritage Council is charged with consulting on listing. (And it has done so.)
Cr Eli Melky though thought it was important to consult before making a decision.
Cr Jimmy Cocking felt more discussion was needed and proposed deferring a decision in order to “really look at the costs and benefits of listing”.
Above: Councillors in May 2018 listening to the community on their strength of feeling for retaining Anzac Oval. This meeting was packed, even with the chamber opened up to double its normal capacity. Photo from our archive.
Only Cr Glen Auricht was ready to take the plunge, including further consultation: Council had “promised” to retain the oval, he said, this was one way “to make sure it is retained”. If it is not listed, that leaves it open to “future pressure”, while listing “nails it down as green space for community”.
Small problem: the Heritage Council needs a response by November, as Cr Banks reminded them all.
This time pressure comes from Minister Moss, as explained to the mid-month meeting by Mr Wells.
There is no way council could carry out consultation in the time frame, Acting CEO Scott Allen told them.
Mayor Damien Ryan suggested that they request the Heritage Council to do the consultation and report back.
Mr Allen noted that the Heritage Council is “comfortable” with consultation they have done thus far.
But council is “not happy,” with it, said Mayor Ryan.
Cr Melky suggested, somewhat expediently given his previous comment, that they remove the necessity to undertake consultation, but there was not sufficient support to do that.
He then moved that they support the recommendation as it was, seconded by Cr Auricht.
That is likely to be the nail in the coffin of the listing.
Alice Springs News asked Alex Nelson, the original nominator for listing, to comment on the decision. He had been in the public gallery earlier but had not stayed for this debate which came at the end of the evening.
He expressed his disappointment, but, he said, “if history is any guide, it will be those council members who voted to abandon in principle support for the listing of Anzac Oval who risk suffering accordingly at the next council poll.
“I’m immediately reminded of the situation concerning the Town Council’s proposal to install lights at Ross Park Oval in the mid 1990s and shift rugby league there while repurposing Anzac Oval as a ‘village green’.
“You might recall the controversy that proposal aroused until the Town Council elections of 1996 when those aldermen who had obstinately insisted on this decision were soundly defeated at the polls. The incoming council immediately reversed that decision and instead it was rugby union that was moved from Ross Park Oval to Anzac Oval.
“This appears to be the third time the Alice Springs Town Council has misjudged this issue. The first controversy was back in 1979-81, and it provided the impetus to give John Reeves the ‘leg up’ on his third attempt to be elected an alderman, and subsequently as the Federal Labor Member for the Northern Territory in 1983.
“Frankly the council’s decision on Monday night is a betrayal.
“It’s of interest to note that not once has any councillor sought to consult with me on this matter, notwithstanding my primary role as the nominator (and principal researcher) for the heritage listing of Anzac Oval. I exempt Jamie de Brenni from this criticism because of his conflict of interest as my brother-in-law.”
Cr de Brenni was absent on Monday but would have likely left the chamber, as he did during its deputation on 16 September, together with the Mayor who, until he became a candidate in the next Territory election was sitting on the Heritage Council.
A detailed account in two parts of the oval’s early history by ALEX NELSON, complete with archival photographs.
From mud and dust to green grass: the beginning of Anzac Oval
Centre of attention: the glory days of Anzac Oval in the 1950s
An account by KIERAN FINNANE of the strength of community feeling on the oval:
Aboriginal art gallery: Anzac Oval off the table