Necropolis Now: crunch time for Catholic cemetery bid

by | Nov 10, 2021 | Government

An issue that concerns our eternal rest has generated plenty of living passions, and the NSW Premier may be about to find that you can’t please everyone. The decision of whether to hand over control of Sydney’s most valuable cemeteries to a company controlled by the Catholic Church may be made tomorrow, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, reports Callum Foote.

With Sydney’s cemetery sector running out of space and facing massive unfunded debts, time is running out for the NSW government to decide how to fix the problem.

There is only one solution which expert analysis from external consultants and departmental working groups agree will solve the problem: to amalgamate the five Crown Trusts which oversee Sydney’s cemeteries into a single efficient operator, OneCrown.

This solution, known as Option 1 by the NSW cabinet, is also the only option which abides by the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s (ICAC) conflict of interest rules, known as the direct dealing guidelines.

Unfortunately for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, this would mean that the Catholics lose control over vast and profitable cemetery assets which they have been tasked with managing for the past 150 years.

This would in no way impact the burial of Catholic Sydneysiders. It only means that a Catholic operator would no longer sell public burial spaces on behalf of the NSW Government.

In September, Finance Minister Damien Tudehope put forward another option, known as Option 6, for cabinet to consider.

To prepare Option 6, Tudehope demanded that the Treasury, which is not his department, develop a proposal which would leave a Catholic cemeteries operator in control of Sydney’s most valuable cemetery assets.

This is known as the two-operator model which has been championed by the Catholic Church since 2018. However, the statutory review into the 2013 Cemeteries and Crematoria Act, the 11th Hour Report, demonstrates that this model renders OneCrown incapable of operating. Under the two-operator model, OneCrown will run out of space within 10 to 12 years and have unfunded liabilities.

The Catholic operator would essentially be the ”last man standing”, accounting for 95% of the Crown sector in 50 years.

Tudehope’s Catholic proposal was developed two working days before the options were to be voted on by cabinet. MWM reported on the chaos Option 6 caused here.

Cabinet voted to send Option 1 and the new Option 6 to be decided between by the Expenditure Review Committee which exists within the Office of Premier and Cabinet.

The members of the expenditure review committee are Premier Dominic Perrottet, Finance Minister Damien Tudehope, National Party leader Paul Toole and Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello. The next meeting of the Expenditure Review Committee is tomorrow.

While the timing may just be a coincidence, on Monday this week the CMCT issued a legal threat to the author of this article over the coverage of the CMCT and NSW Minister’s handling of the cemeteries issue.

The lawyer for the CMCT is Paul Svilans, a partner at Mark O’Brien Legal. Svilans has previously threatened MWM on behalf of Angus Taylor over coverage of the Watergate Scandal and worked for John Barilaro in bringing action against comedian Jordan Shanks.

Svilans claims that the author of this article would be subject to defamation proceedings by the CMCT if the had any disruption to its business of managing Sydney’s cemeteries is disruption

The CMCT is a government-controlled trust whose only revenue arises from managing publicly owned cemetery assets. It is from this money that this Catholic-run government entity is employing the services of Svilans and Mark O’Brien Legal.

In order to sue for defamation, Svilans has claimed that the CMCT is an “excluded corporation” under the Defamation Act.

However, it appears that the CMCT has a number of mitigating factors that would prohibit it from being labelled as such. These are:

  • The CMCT is still constituted as a Trust under the Crown Lands Act 1989 (NSW) which prohibits it from suing for defamation.
  • The CMCT has associated corporate entities, such as the Catholic Cemeteries Board, which prohibits it from suing for defamation
  • The CMCT appears to have more than 10 employees, which would prohibit from suing for defamation.

Damian Furlong, head of People and Advocacy for the CMCT, and who is one of the listed clients of Svilans, has told MWM that the CMCT has not seen Option 6 and has received legal advice that there has been no direct dealing.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge has been the only prominent voice questioning the government in relation to its handling of the cemeteries sector. On October 21, Shoebridge questioned Tudehope on his last-minute Option 6, supporting Catholic interests in the cemeteries sector.

The minister, who himself was previously a board member of the CMCT, avoided the question in style, saying “the management of cemeteries is a very vexed question. There are lots of people who have views on the management of cemeteries … The issue is one which is yet to be resolved and hopefully it will be resolved at some time in the near future.”

When pressed by Shoebridge to explain why his office put forward an option which was contrary to the advice of Investment NSW and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, Tudehope replied that “The question involves lots of conclusions and imputations in relation to a proposal which has not yet been resolved. These are proposals which are potentially being considered and, in the circumstances, that is the answer … I will not be articulating any more detail around that until cabinet has made a decision in relation to it.”

Shoebridge then took his next opportunity to question Perrottet on which way he is leaning by probing whether the Premier will support an option which does not abide by the ICAC’s conflict-of-interest rules.

Perrottet committed to not supporting an option which was not in accordance with those rules, which according to Investment NSW’s advice rules out Option 6.

However, Perrottet also made it explicitly clear that he was trying to find a solution which kept “religious organisations” happy:

“Obviously there are stakeholders that need to be managed. There needs to be a resolution that works that ensures that — particularly burial, which, obviously, for many people, particularly religious organisations that have had a role to play in operating cemetery trusts forever — all those considerations need to be taken forward.”

Callum Foote a journalist and Revolving Doors editor for Michael West Media.
Callum has studied the impact of undue corporate influence over Australian policy decisions and the impact this has on popular interests.

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