Grave Concerns: Catholic bid for cemeteries finds champion in new premier Perrottet

by Callum Foote | Oct 6, 2021 | Business


The ascension of Dominic Perrottet as premier comes at a critical hour in the campaign by the Catholic Church to control NSW cemeteries for the next 200 years. Callum Foote reports.

Last Monday, key Catholic members of Parliament moved to hand control of the state’s cemeteries to the Catholic Church despite clear warnings from independent and government bodies that the move would see $5bn of excess capital controlled by the Catholic Archdiocese.

Sydney, like Melbourne, faces a capital city problem. Cemetery spaces are running out fast. 

In Sydney, major cemeteries will run out of space in 12 years. They face debts of over $300 million. In parts of Melbourne, cemetery spaces are set to run out over the next decade. In NSW, there is a fight for control, accusations on both sides of a “land grab”; and the Catholics, led by Archbishop Anthony Fisher, now have the upper hand.

Incoming NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, himself a devout Catholic, has been talking with Sydney’s Catholic authorities since 2017, and according to sources, urged them to move to control major cemeteries via an unsolicited proposal to the state government.

Perrottet’s Finance Minister Damien Tudehope, also a Catholic, moved for the Expenditure Review Committee to consider giving the Sydney Catholic Archdiocese control of over $5bn worth of capital last week on Monday.

Tudehope was previously a board member of the Catholic Cemeteries Board Limited, a wholly-owned company of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, and the appointed reserve manager of the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT).

In 2020, a report titled the 11th Hour, a statutory review of the Cemeteries and Crematoria Act 2013, was released.

The report found that two of the four crown operators running Sydney’s cemeteries were technically insolvent and lacked sufficient capital to build new cemeteries. It also found that these operators, including the CMCT, have been operating at 14% to 32% inefficiencies.

The report proposed amalgamating 5 Crown cemetery trusts into a single operator, OneCrown.

If this recommendation were adopted, extensive financial modelling demonstrates that the sector could generate significant sums of excess capital, if structured and managed efficiently. For example; by 2038 this would amount to $600m, and $6bn by 2070.

Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, this proposal would mean handing over control of the Catholic Metropolitan Cemetery Trust to the new operator. The Sydney Catholic Archdiocese is the appointed ‘manager’ of the CMCT. Despite its name, all the assets of the CMCT, land and financial investments of more than $150m, are owned by the NSW Government.

Instead of the amalgamation, the Sydney Archdiocese proposed a “two-operator” model which would mean the Catholic Cemeteries Board Ltd (CCB) would continue to manage those cemeteries currently run by the CMCT, plus Rookwood, and the other operator, OneCrown, would manage the remaining cemeteries. The CCB would be controlled by the Archbishop of Sydney.

The proposal has been canned by experts. The Department of Planning Industry and Environment received advice from Investment NSW that the Catholic Archdiocese’s new proposal ‘may constitute direct dealing with the CMCT, as it constitutes exclusive dealings between a government agency and non-Government sector body over a commercial proposition or proposal’. Investment NSW was not of the opinion that the reasons provided by the CMCT for direct dealings had been satisfied.

Moreover, the NSW Cabinet had been advised repeatedly since 2018 that any arrangement with the Catholic Archdiocese would be in breach of the ICAC Direct Dealings Guidelines and would result in a significant transfer of assets to a non-government party.

Then Treasurer Dominic Perrettot urged the Sydney Catholic Archdiocese to submit a $1bn unsolicited proposal for Sydney’s cemeteries after the Archdiocese entered into a corporate consortium with the ASX listed company, InvoCare and a private investment advisory firm, Fabrico Limited during Ministerial meetings which took place in 2017.

More recently, the former Deputy Premier John Barilaro took it upon himself to champion the Catholic cause following an intense campaign against the NSW Government by the CMCT, which announced legal action against the amalgamation earlier this year.

The CMCT also launched a public media campaign against the NSW Government; Save our Graves employing liberal party lobbyist Michael Photios and specialist public relations firm City Public Relations, seeking to threaten key seats in a campaign against the NSW Government.

NSW Premier Perrettet and Treasurer Tudehope have both declined an interview and have not answered questions as to why they are considering what independent research has deemed to be an inferior option that would cost NSW taxpayers hundreds of millions and breach ICAC Direct Dealings Guidelines – even recommendations which are not supported by the Department.

  1. Why do you continue to assess proposals from the Catholic Archdiocese which you, NSW Treasury and DPIE all acknowledge will see in excess of $5bn of excess capital being controlled by the Catholic Archdiocese?
  2. Are you familiar with advice provided by Investment NSW in relation to direct dealings with the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney on cemetery management?
  3. What commitments have you personally given the Archbishop, Mr Michael Digges (Business Manager of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney) or Mr Peter O’Meara the Chief Executive Officer of the CMCT in relation to the on-going involvement of the Catholic church in cemetery management?
  4. You have met with the Catholic Archdiocese and the CMCT on numerous occasions in relation to cemetery management. Why have you not met with any members of the Muslim, Greek or other Christian Orthodox faiths in relation to cemetery management?

Callum Foote was a reporter for Michael West Media for four years.

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