Grave dithering: control of Sydney’s billion-dollar graveyards still up for grabs as election looms

by Callum Foote | Jan 11, 2023 | Government, Latest Posts

The fight for control of Sydney’s priceless graveyards rolls on as the powerful Catholic lobby gets the green light for a new cemetery in Varroville, reports Callum Foote.

Two years on, the NSW Government continues to delay a decision on whether to force the Catholic cemetery operator off Sydney’s most valuable public burial land as per the recommendations of an independent review in 2021.

A review of the Cemeteries Act commissioned by the NSW Government in 2020, found that Sydney’s cemetery sector was in serious financial trouble. Four of the five cemetery operators, which oversee these public assets, are set to run out of space within the decade and the operators were more than $300 million in debt. 

The review recommended amalgamating the five operators into a single government operator called OneCrown.

Cemetery rescue plan

OneCrown would share the assets of the top-performing cemeteries with those which had run out of space and required either expansions or upkeep costs. The plan was designed to save several of the operators from requiring hundreds of millions in public subsidies, and it was proposed the rescue scheme would even generate a return for taxpayers.

However, one of the most powerful operators, the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT or “Catholic Trust”) strongly resisted the merger proposal. The Trust runs the most valuable cemeteries in the state on behalf of the public. These include Rookwood and the newly developed Macarthur Memorial Park in Varroville on the South West outskirts of Sydney.

An investigation by Michael West Media last year revealed the full force of the Catholic lobbying against the OneCrown amalgamation proposal, aided by the then-treasurer and now Premier Dominic Perrottet as well as the minister for finance Damien Tudehope. At stake was the battle for control over $5 billion in assets and $130 million in held by the Catholic Trust.

Battle still raging

The Trust had been made temporarily exempt from the amalgamation until a permanent solution could be decided.

Now, more than two years after the initial recommendations, a spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Environment Crown Lands division has revealed that the government is no closer to finding a solution.

“The Government has committed to ongoing consultation with faith groups to determine the most appropriate operating model for Crown cemeteries,” the spokesperson said.

The Department also confirmed that the temporary relief from an amalgamation of the Trust had been extended yet again. “The current arrangement for the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust has been extended until the Government has completed its assessments and makes a final decision on the most appropriate operating model.”

As of last December, the Catholic operator has been given the green light to develop the MacArthur Memorial Park in Varroville. The Trust’s development projects had previously been put on hold until the operating structure of Sydney’s cemetery sector was finalised.

The Rookwood General operator is also seeking a decision in the Supreme Court as to the legality of the Catholic Trust’s use of equitable trusts, which sources close to the issue have told MWM is crucial to the legality of the Varroville development.

OneCrown not yet a legal entity

Michael West Media can also reveal that the NSW government has not yet legally established OneCrown as its own entity according to sources familiar with the issue. This has the effect that the efficiencies forecasted in the initial review which recommended the establishment of OneCrown have not been realised as each operator is still compelled to operate independently.

OneCrown administrator Lee Sheerer has not yet responded to questions over the legal status OneCrown.

Samier Dandan, the president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, the largest Muslim association in Sydney, told MWM that land for Muslim burials is fast running out.

“The government is dragging its heels, it has been dragging its heels for decades,” Dandan said “One could ask about what is the political smoke in the delay of such a decision. Is it because a State election is coming up and I don’t want things to blow up and upset communities? Or is it to serve the interests of a particular group?”

No comment, look over there

The Minister for Lands and Water, Nationals MP Kevin Anderson has as yet not commented on which government department or working group is making the assessments, or on when a decision might be finalised.

However,  a spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Environment says: “The current arrangement for the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust has been extended until assessments by the Department of Planning and Environment are completed.”

The NSW Auditor-General audited the Catholic operator’s books last year but the results of this audit are yet to be finalised or released to the public.

Both NSW Coalition and Labor support the Catholic operator and oppose the recommendations supporting the establishment of OneCrown.

Unquiet graves: Muslims add to criticism over the great cemetery takeover

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

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