Sep 10, 2005

Cooks River: Our Heritage, Our Future – Speech to Cooks River Forum

Cooks River: Our Heritage, Our Future

Cooks River Forum

Hurlstone Park Community Group

10 September 2005

The Cooks River is an important part of Australia’s natural and cultural heritage. It’s a window into our past, but it also tells us a lot about the health of our cities and our current relationship with the natural environment.

The Ozgreen website tells me the sandstone formations of the Sydney basin were laid some 237 million years ago. Huge ancient rivers burst into mega floods with walls of water 20 metres high and up to 250 kilometres wide across the basin.

The world’s oldest and largest known “fossilised wave” is situated in the Wolli Creek Valley, so the Cooks River catchment forms an important part of our geological heritage.

In more recent times, the Cooks River region was believed to be home to the Kameygal clan, with the Gweagal clan living on the south side of the Georges River around Botany Bay. The Cooks River is an important part of our Indigenous heritage.

The Indigenous population was estimated at about 1 500 people in 1788.

If you close your eyes, you could probably imagine the state of the river in 1788, healthy and abundant with fish life.

The river would have been a rich source of fish, crabs and prawns in its long estuary and the bird life would have been colourful and plentiful.

Mammals would have been plentiful and would have supplied food and skins to the local Aboriginal people.

And the original vegetation contained Swamp Oak forests and extensive mangrove and saltmarsh flats.

It was into that environment that Captain Cook sailed.

European Settlement

In 1770, Captain Cook made the following remark in his journal as he sailed into Botany Bay:

“I found a very fine stream of fresh water on the north side in the first sandy cove within the island before which a ship might lay land-locked and wood for fuel might be got everywhere.”

That appears to have laid the groundwork for European settlement around Cooks River.

In the 19th Century, settlement and industrial activity along the river spread, but the River remained an important site for recreation.

I am grateful to the Canterbury City Council for this quote from a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald from 1891:

Sir – I have often heard it said that it is impossible to take ladies down to Cook’s River on Saturday afternoons…Last Saturday afternoon there was abundant evidence that this is the case. From ‘Starkey’s Corner’ to Tempe there could be counted 30 to 40 men and boys openly bathing in a perfectly nude state, some standing on projecting rocks without the slightest show of concealment. This is a state of things calling for summary treatment, and should not be allowed to continue…

Since European settlement, the River has changed dramatically.

The catchment is now home to more than 400 000 people and more than 20 000 commercial and industrial premises. The Cooks River has been an important part of our industrial heritage.

On the other side of the coin, little of the original native vegetation remains and over time the Cooks River became one of the most polluted waterways in Australia.

A Crook Cooks River

It is worth reflecting on how crook the Cooks River became.

The River was so polluted that it was officially closed to fishing. Cyanide was illegally dumped in this river, and it became the repository for urban stormwater, household wastes and industrial pollution.

In this way, the Cooks River became a symbol for the failure to respect our natural heritage. Thankfully, times are changing.

Bringing It Back to Life

The NSW Government has committed to a long term plan to revitalise and rehabilitate the Cooks River.

The Stormwater Trust has provided three rounds of grants since 1998. Over the first two rounds, the trust awarded 26 grants totalling more than $5.8 million for projects to reduce stormwater pollution in the Cooks River catchment.

The third round of grants included a $180 000 grant to Marrickville Council.

In addition to that, the NSW Government has provided about $775 000 in grants for further clean up projects and foreshore improvements to the Cooks River.

The Cooks River Foreshore Improvement Program is an important initiative, and a commitment to working with local Councils and local communities.

The Foreshore Improvement program aims to:

  • Improve the green space along the foreshore;
  • Restore riverine habitats;
  • Naturalise river banks;
  • Improve access to the water; and
  • Extend pedestrian and cycle links along the river.

That’s a strong commitment from the NSW Government to building a healthier Sydney, and a healthier Cooks River.

The Cooks River represents the largest potential wildlife habitat corridor in the Inner West of Sydney.

Community satisfaction surveys show that most people believe that the Cooks River and its foreshore areas are being restored, and this is backed up by evidence in local State of the Environment reports.

No-one would argue that the Cooks River is the cleanest river in the country, but we’ve come a long way, and the Cooks River is now a symbol of what can happen when State and local governments work together in partnership with local communities.

The Missing Link – A National Cities Agenda

Tragically, the Howard Government has been the missing link. It has abandoned Sydney, it has abandoned our cities, it has abandoned urban waterways.

Let’s get to the truth of the matter: our cities are seeing the effects of ten long years of the Howard Government.

Our capital cities are running out of water. Power blackouts have occurred in Perth. Adelaide’s seeing the effects of a dying Murray River. Nationwide our infrastructure is crumbling.

The Howard Government has ignored our cities. There’s no national strategy for our cities, no Better Cities program, no real infrastructure support. They have vacated the field letting our infrastructure run down.

Not one single dollar from the $1.4 billion National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality has gone to the Cooks River.

Of the $3billion National Heritage Trust only a pittance has been provided to the Cooks River.

The reality is the Howard Government has privatised protection of the environment – throughout Australia it has left the job to local communities, who are struggling under the weight.

I strongly believe the Federal Government must play a leadership role in protecting the health of our cities.

We desperately need a new approach that places environmental sustainability at the heart of government, recognising that sustainability is as much an economic and social challenge as an environmental challenge.

This is a new reform agenda. It is the quadruple bottom line – economic growth, jobs, social outcomes and environmental sustainability.

It’s about getting the institutions and the partnerships right, and it’s about outcomes on the ground to help restore the health of our cities.

We need leadership from the Federal Government to create healthy cities and healthy urban waterways.

I’m committed to working with the NSW Government, with local governments and with the community in giving the Cooks River an even healthier future.