A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 44: Templestowe, town planning protests

Chapter 44: Templestowe, town planning protests

Author: Alistair Knox

I spent time every day supervising up to six jobs in locations scattered mainly throughout the outer suburban and the northeastern bush fringe of Melbourne. The long days were well filled from 6 a.m. until I fell into bed at night. The youth fellowship continued at the same pace and concentration, but we always failed unless we depended on seeking God's love and guidance through prayer all the time. The work extended from 1961 until 1972, when we gave way to the incoming full-time minister.

The youth work: some of the boys got into trouble with the police, and would turn to us for help. It was then that I discovered the actual reason for my court appearances some years earlier and for my head-on confrontations with the skipper during our voyages on HMAS Martindale during the war. I became what the sailors called a 'lower-deck lawyer'. I always used the same method of defence. The boys were nearly always guilty of the offences they were charged with, but there were generally mitigating circumstances which the police either suppressed or were ignorant of. I would get the truth out of the accused and make him confess it in court, and he would then say that he was sorry and did not intend to do it again. The magistrate would then ask whether there was anyone who would speak for the boy. I would rise, enter the witness box, and refuse to take the oath because I felt it was contrary to Christ's remarks about swearing on oath in Matthew, Chapter 5:38. If the magistrate demurred, I would read it to him - to his confusion - and then make an Affirmation instead. I would first explain that the accused's confession meant that he needed to be punished, but I asked leave to tell the magistrate of mitigating factors that may assist in determining the appropriate penalty that should be imposed. Over a period of ten years, only one of the accused on whose behalf I spoke was convicted. The charges were always reduced to a good-behaviour bond. The boys, who had arrived in the paddy wagon, would always return home in my car, often to the fury of the police, who called me the 'criminal's friend'. Despite all of their frustrations, however, none of the boys ever got into greater trouble in our time. Our worst case was one of 'grievous bodily harm' that a wild young man had committed while drunk; he went round and confessed to the police, however, when his friends told him - after he'd sobered up the next day - what he'd done. He was so ashamed of himself that he had difficulty allowing us to bail him out. Dave and I always had a discussion and a time of prayer with the accused before the case was heard, and on this particular occasion, in a large, crowded court, I told the magistrate that the accused had been converted some weeks earlier and that I thought he meant what he said: such violence would not happen again. When the magistrate asked me exactly what I meant by conversion, I could hear my voice as it reverberated to the farthest corners of the intensely silent court with my answer: 'By conversion I meant that he had accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Saviour'. I felt a bit like Paul before Agrippa. I could not believe my ears when the magistrate, after consulting with two others sitting on the bench, announced: 'It's the court's duty to reform as well as to punish. In this case, I am not going to record a conviction. I will place the accused on a good-behaviour bond'. Costs of time lost and of medical charges were assessed and agreed to, and the whole matter was settled on the spot. Blazing with indignation, the prosecuting detective rushed from the court. As they passed one another outside a few minutes later, the accused and the aggrieved met face to face and shook hands despite attempts by the police to keep them apart.

Dr Jim Cairns burns a draft card in the Melbourne Civic Square during a November 1969 protest. Picture: HWT Library Dr Jim Cairns burns a draft card in the Melbourne Civic Square during a November 1969 protest. Picture: HWT Library

It was the time of the Vietnam War, the retirement of Mr Menzies, and of 'going all the way with LBJ'. Despite our problems, it was still a world that knew no limit to growth. The sense of political change involved our participation in Vietnam. In 1970 we saw the great Vietnam protest marches in Melbourne and the rise of Jim Cairns as a polariser of national change. It was unprecedented for a crowd of over one hundred thousand to bring the low-key city of Melbourne to a halt for hours on a Friday afternoon. We protesters all sat down in Bourke Street for half an hour, and then occupied the Square in Swanston Street until nightfall. It was a heady success for the times. There was no violence, other than Jim Cairns receiving a glancing blow from a hen's egg, outside the post office. The law-abiding population of the queen city of the south had never seen such goings-on.

I became friendly with the politician Tom Uren through my association with Clif Pugh, and we made occasional trips to Canberra when Parliament was in session. It seemed probable that the twenty-odd years of Liberal government would end at the next election. A couple of years earlier, a local defence organisation had formed to fight the proposed urbanisation of the Shire of Eltham. It stemmed from the local government's intention to create a group of residential streets right in the heart of our spread-out local government district, which rejoiced in that name. Nearby areas like Montmorency were little more than dormitory suburbs, and their attitude was completely secondary. The geographical centre of Eltham had always been the Eltham Valley, which was flanked on both sides by the steep hills that had continued to keep it a self-contained community with enough determination and ability to withstand change. Its hills, valleys, mists, bush, and individual inhabitants were quite unlike any others in the wide-ranging, amorphous city and surrounds of Melbourne. Some of us organised a meeting at my house in 1968; it was attended by nearly a hundred residents whose views about the natural environment had become unified because of the depredations of the Electricity Commission, the Board of Works, and any other authority that hinted at change in favor of suburbanism. The organisation was called the Natural Development Association. It claimed that it was not against development in Eltham provided it was done in such a way as to retain the beautiful character and traditions that had always been a part of the area. It was remarkable how effective this group was at that time. We held three or four general meetings every year, and were always able to fill the Shire Hall. We invited ministers and members of Parliament, the chairman of the Board of Works, and other public figures to address us on their intentions and our problems.

The Yarra Valley The Yarra Valley

A year later the largest housing firm in the country purchased an area of two hundred thirteen acres on the far bank of the Yarra River in Templestowe and brought changes to the regulations to allow it to be changed from a rural to a built-up area. The minister for local government was Rupert Hamer, who later became premier in the wake of Sir Henry Bolte. Hamer had granted an active group, the Yarra Valley Defence Committee, an audience to hear their views on the future of the Yarra Valley, our great green finger that reached from the high country through the city to the sea. Its course included several tributaries that meandered over the Melbourne landscape to make it a conservative but unique city of restrained mood, in keeping with its peaceful, middle-class inhabitants. I attached myself to this effort as the Natural Development Association representative in order to frustrate the scheming land-developers' efforts to turn to profit every bypassed area in the Greater Melbourne Plan, which comprised an area of almost two thousand square miles.

The first indication of their designs on the Yarra Valley in the Eltham area occurred when Jann Merton, a vigilante lady, saw a small sign, on the subject land, applying for its change of use. In due course the battle lines were drawn, and we all found ourselves debating the issue one Friday morning in the RSL hall at Templestowe. If someone disapproves any change of land use that requires planning approval, he is called an objector and finds himself at an immediate disadvantage. The developer is called the applicant, and he appears to be a quiet citizen in whose mouth butter would not melt; he patiently waits until his council throws a bone or a scrap to the grumpy, antediluvian objector who does nothing and resents anyone who does. Democracy may be a matter of argument and counter-argument, but in my thirty years of non-academic approach I have always found the slightly bloodshot, angry, unswerving eyeball a far more formidable ally. Most development occurs because the applicant is silently manipulating an uninformed, amorphous majority for his private gain. The last thing he wants is to be examined by a determined, searching eye that won't go away.

I believe that day at Templestowe was the apex of the great conflict for the City of Melbourne. It would decide, once and for all, the issue: that of the relationship between public open space and the manipulation that private ownership can impose on it. Sir Henry Bolte's Royal Botanic Gardens project and the Little Desert development were straws in the wind compared with this dagger to the heart. It was blatantly clear that if this battle were lost, any hope for an environmentally oriented city would go with it. The objectors were numerous but disorganised: Len Allen, the hard-working president of the Save the Yarra League; John Stover, the Doncaster City town planner; and other leading citizens gave a well-intentioned lead, but they failed to identify the applicant as an enemy bent on destroying a great natural heritage for short-term gain. The objectors were far too polite. In the afternoon, the land developers replied through their competent solicitor, who dwelt on the possibility of a golf course close to the river and an ideal natural environment for those privileged to live there; but they were understandably silent on the loss all of this would cause the local community or the whole city. By five o'clock, the application appeared to have been won. As we all went off to have a drink, the town planner said, 'Never mind, we'll win the next one'. 'John', I replied in a white rage, 'there will not be another one! This is it!' The process of a planning appeal allows the objector to be heard, followed by the applicant; then the objector has the right of reply to the applicant; finally, the applicant replies to the objector.

I went home and wrote my reply to the applicants with all the controlled venom I could muster. I attacked the concept and the applicant, without reservation. When I read my reply to the four other objectors, they were concerned that it was too abrasive; but my only thought was, how could it be otherwise if it were stating the truth? The second day of the hearing took place at the local-government office in the city. I was the final objector to speak, and I felt the applicant's council thought it 'was in the bag'. As I started reading my reply aloud from six typewritten sheets, I could feel the developer's advocate starting to grunt, as though my remarks were body blows at him. It was quite exhilarating. The attack was as successful as it was unexpected. Upon finishing, I handed my statement to Mr Chipman, the chairman of the inquiry, and waited for the applicant's reply. He spent the whole time trying to ameliorate what I had said; no one else rated a word, good or bad. I felt we had regained the ground we had lost on the first day, but I was also very aware of how difficult conservative governments can be about stifling any opportunity to exploit undeveloped land in the colonial situation.

Rupert Hamer was an exception. He made sure he would be the final arbiter, even though there would be a three-month wait while he was overseas. The whole issue was very much in the background on the Saturday morning I walked down to get the mail (when it was still part of our way of life to receive it six days a week). I opened a large duplicated letter from the local government, and was confused because it appeared to be a copy of my submission on the second day of the Westerfolds' Planning Application. It was only when I glanced at the final page and saw the statement 'The Appeal is therefore disallowed' and went back over the communication - to observe that whole paragraphs had been taken from my submission, with the word because prefixing it - that I realised the minister had used my argument to knock back the developers. No one could have any doubt about who saved the Yarra Valley at Eltham!

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