Catherine StewartSydney’s RBG & Centennial Park trusts to merge

Sydney RBG Trust logo +cpk-main-logo

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Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands Trusts are to amalgamate. Is this A Good Thing? Good Question.

NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker has announced that the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust and the Centennial Parklands and Moore Park Trust will amalgamate, from 2014.

This means that the management of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, those at Mt Annan and Mt Tomah, as well as that of Centennial Parklands and Moore Park will merge into one.

There has been great concern among members of the RBG Foundation and Friends (F&F) that this proposed amalgamation would dilute the strong scientific objectives of the Trust, by pushing a greater emphasis on revenue generation. According to the F&F, the RBG Trust specifies that the primary objectives of the Gardens are “science, plant conservation, horticultural excellence and education of the community“. Interestingly, Minister Parker describes them in her media release as: “botany and horticulture, education, tourism and health and wellbeing“, which is a little different. There certainly isn’t any mention of tourism in the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust Act, which reads:

7 Principal objects of Trust

(1) The principal objects of the Trust are:
(a) to maintain and improve the Trust lands, the National Herbarium and the collections of living and preserved plant life owned by the Trust,
(b) to increase and disseminate knowledge with respect to the plant life of Australia, and of New South Wales in particular, and
(c) to encourage the use and enjoyment of the Trust lands by the public by promoting and increasing the educational, historical, cultural and recreational value of those lands.
(2) When acting in pursuance of its objects, the Trust shall give particular emphasis to encouraging and advancing the study of systematic botany, and to plant conservation.

The media release accompanying the announcement also hails the savings that will come from “sharing of resources, staff and equipment across the Sydney basin and the amalgamation of the executive teams”, (which obviously inevitably equals job losses – and I don’t know whether that’s appropriate or not) however it also says that “up to 50 per cent of the financial benefits come from new revenue – improved booking systems, better customer data base, new activities and experiences.” Which sounds a bit like tourism again.

The F&F are cautious in their response, with F&F Chairman Clive Austin saying “there will not be any change to the core purposes of the Gardens”. They might have to get Minister Parker and those at NSW Environment and Heritage to re-read the legislation and agree on exactly what those core purposes are first.

einstein on bikeThe Minister’s Media release goes on to say that the amalgamation “…will deliver coordinated green space education opportunities to within 30 minutes of all Sydney primary and secondary schools; it will coordinate combined recreational and sporting assets that include more than 125 playing fields, equestrian, orienteering, bike riding, running, walking, golf, and soccer. It brings major benefits for the community and the Trusts.”

Sounds like those scientists are going to be very, very active.

Clive Austin also reports that Kim Ellis, CEO of Sydney’s Centennial Parklands Trust since 2011, will temporarily take on the role of CEO during the amalgamation period. I’m sure he will know that the Royal Botanic Gardens is NOT a recreational park.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

14 thoughts on “Sydney’s RBG & Centennial Park trusts to merge

  1. The Gardens already provides a positive experience for hundreds of thousands of overseas and interstate visitors each year. Difficult to assess the $ ‘value-added’ for nearby hotels and other establishments. Over the New Year period I spoke to a lot of people enjoying the Gardens: young men from New York, Newcastle(UK) folk in Sydney for the Ashes (the Gardens providing a positive to some otherwise negatives), a family from Kazakhstan, a couple from Belgium, others from France, New Zealand, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Roumania, Italy, South Africa, various states of the USA and so on. By contrast most overseas visitors don’t know Centennial Park exists. Its visitation rate is high because of repeat visits. The RBG is the oldest scientific institution in Australia. Its history, goals and visitor profile is very different from Centennial Park. Do the ‘decision-makers’ ever stop to think that visitors appreciate a quiet natural space to enjoy the harbour views, plants and wildlife. Pity people don’t speak up. As Martin Luther King Jr said : “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

  2. Well, here we both are, speaking up, so let’s hope that others will too – and then that someone also listens. But I doubt that this NSW government will, as it seems hell bent on doing whatever makes it a profit. I’m sure the F&F will work hard to keep the RBG both the respected scientific institution and quiet and beautiful place we want it to be. But will their efforts be enough?

  3. There is a lack of appreciation for the contribution the RBG already makes to tourism and to the well-being of city workers. Suggest emailing decision-makers Mr Tony Chappel, Chief of Staff to Minister for Environment, Robyn Parker: Tony.Chappel@minister.nsw.gov.au
    Chris Eccles, Director General Premier and Cabinet at Chris.Eccles@dpc.nsw.gov.au
    The lack of transparency, particularly concerning the departure of David Mabberley has been notable. If there is a fully developed strategy for the greater public good then it should be explained, but spare the spin from Sally Barnes. Barnes demonstrated her lack of appreciation for the RBG when as Head of NPWS in 2008 she sanctioned a high profile NPWS sponsored DVD for tourists which saw a Parks ranger standing in the Gardens pointing to Grey Headed Flying Fox with enthusiasm. No interest in the plants, history or science and permission had not been provided by the RBG. This was during the period when the RBG was making application to the NSW Minister for Environment for permission to discourage the GHFF from roosting and destroying trees. Perhaps Barnes expects to use the savings made from the ‘anschluss’ to prop up some positions in NPWS. All we can do is speculate because accountability is something the Government talks – eg.
    Restoring Accountability to Government
    http://www.2021.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/NSW2021_Accountability.pdf
    – but doesn’t ‘walk’!

    • From what I’ve heard from several unofficial sources, Sally Barnes is behind both Mabberley’s sudden departure, and this new amalgamation, with Minister Parker as her ‘front woman’. What worries me is the potential for significant areas of the gardens to be regularly alienated from general public access because they’ve been hired out as paid venues. As you say, the RBG is a major city asset for us all but I think that the way the NSW Govt appreciates that asset is quite different to you and me.

  4. Hi,
    You may or not be aware that a (in some ways) similar amalgamation has occurred between the Parramatta Park Trust and the Western Sydney Parklands. Again, the Trust members remain largely separate, but the minimal staff (most work is outsourced/contracted, including field ops, rangers, etc) now have to maintain both Parklands. Again, the Parklands are intended to be self-sufficient, but this is easier ‘out West’, because the Western Sydney Parklands have some very choice leases already happening (like Wet ‘n’ Wild, and two industrial precincts).

    It does seem that financial output is more important than anything, and I think that the Hon Robyn Parker does not understand her portfolio as she should……
    I’m dispirited – especially as an ex-employee of Centennial Parklands….

  5. Just to add my bit, the acting CEO, has no scientific or botany background, just 20 years in the army at Holdsworthy Barracks. (Information he willingly told one of the vollies in the gardens.)
    30-40 jobs are expected to go because of this amalgamation and the possibility that garden maintenance will be outsourced as they are at Centennial Park.
    Difference being that the RBG has collections of plants from around the world, including rare and threatened species.

    The gardens have already raised the bar for revenue raising by increasing the number of people that attend the New Year’s eve fireworks in the gardens from 2,000 to 3,000. What used to be a family friendly affair, became a very noisy, unfriendly venue. Still only one coffee cart and similar number of toilets. Loudspeakers blaring music all night made it worse.
    Could this be what the visitors to the gardens will be treated to events at the gardens in future? I shudder to think.

  6. Dear Catherine,

    There are other dangers, less noticeable perhaps, in this amalgamation. The Government’s attitude to science is well known – that science is not the purview of the Public Service. To this end they have dismantled the scientific functions of many Departments. I believe that the only, immediate reason that the Gardens has not suffered the fate of, say Forestry, is that its scientific functions (as you so correctly pointed out) are outlined in legislation. However, the amalgamation with Centennial Parklands and the probable appointment of its present Director as head of both institutions could be a step in minimising the science done at the Gardens. Once again the Gardens will have an administrator and not a scientist in charge. His focus will be the commercialisation of the Sydney Gardens and possibly the relocation of its scientific functions to Mt. Annan at Campbelltown. Apart from separating science from the living specimens growing in the gardens itself (some of them very rare), this removes the Gardens scientific functions from the CBD. The present location of science makes it both accessible to many research partners like Universities, professional & student researchers, Museums, environmental consultants and others. Cutting the Garden’s science off from these stakeholders will, in time, reduce its effectiveness as a scientific teaching and research institution. Something the government would probably be most pleased with and use in the future as a reason to further downgrade the science being conducted there.
    One of the pillars of the scientific effort is the Gardens research Library. Established in 1852, the Library is one of the most significant botanical collections in Australia if not the Southern hemisphere. Its shelves contain rare botanical works going back to the 16th century, and many books and items can be connected directly to Australia’s own history and exploration. Cook, Flinders, La Peruse, Banks, Oxley, Leichardt and even Charles Darwin are names that can be directly connected to certain works in the Library. As the entire Gardens is listed on the National Heritage register, so too is the Library identified as one of its ‘significant collections’. Moving science away from Sydney separates it from this wonderful resource and makes it more difficult for scientists to consult such works. In turn this marginalises the effectiveness of the scientific research being done in the Gardens and lessens the relevance of the historic library collection to the Garden.
    Noises have been made by non-scientific administrators in the past as to the the possibility of relocating parts of the Library (for example its special collection of rare books) and sending them to, for example, the State Library of NSW. This would be a disaster!
    Breaking up such a collection would be to destroy a resource which has been carefully built up since 1852.
    The definition of a collection is : “A group of objects or works to be seen, studied, or kept together.”
    In a sense separating science from its main resource – the Library, is as bad as dismembering the Library collection itself.
    As with the Library collection, removal of a part is detrimental to the whole, and the science of the Gardens should be kept in Sydney with the Library lest science itself be further marginalised.

    • The thought that the RBG scientists could be separated from their very fine library is horrifying. I have a close acquaintance with the RBG library through a donation my family made from my late mother’s estate to buy a collection of books. (My mother, through her membership of the Friends, had volunteered at the library for many years). I think it is time for all of us to start to make a lot more noise about how much we value our Royal Botanic Gardens and its national and international scientific research and credibility.

  7. Dear Catherine,

    I heartily concur with you about making more noise! The scientists, technicians and horticulturalists at the Gardens are consumate professionals and have been performing in recent years under mounting difficulties – disinterested and even hostile government, diminishing budgets, and unreasonable demands – these have all conspired to diminish the quantity (but not the quality) of research conducted by the Gardens.

    I think the staff there would welcome our raised voices and activism on behalf of the science being done there.

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