Writer: Michael Evans
Published Date: June 1, 2017
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore has condemned Australia Post’s sale of the Sydney GPO, declaring the Victorian-era “masterpiece” a 19th-century equal to the city’s most famous building, the Opera House.
Fairfax Media has revealed that Australia Post sold one of Sydney’s most historic buildings, the GPO on Martin Place, to Singaporean billionaires Robert and Phillip Ng for $150 million in March in a secretive deal, despite concerns raised in a heritage report it commissioned last year and never made public.
The deal is subject to final regulatory approval and Ms Moore has urged federal authorities to keep the GPO in public hands.
“I’m deeply concerned by the circumstances surrounding the decision to sell off the GPO,” she said. “This Victorian-era architectural and artistic masterpiece – the equivalent of the Sydney Opera House in 19th-century Sydney – is unquestionably one of the most important heritage properties in Australia.
“I urge Commonwealth Heritage to honour its responsibility to protect our public heritage in the public interest.
“A building as important as this should be preserved in public ownership with ongoing public access and a publicly endorsed conservation plan to protect it.”
Australia Post says it advised two “shareholder ministers” of its decision to sell the Sydney GPO: Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.
Asked about the sale, Mr Fifield, who has oversight of Australia Post, offered little hope of halting the proposal.
“The sale of Australia Post’s property is a decision for its board and management,” Mr Fifield said. “Foreign investment, planning and heritage obligations and requirements for the property are matters for the determination of the relevant state and Commonwealth authorities.”
Mr Cormann’s office, which was informed of the planned sale on May 1, did not respond to requests for comment.
Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, who has responsibility for Commonwealth Heritage, the only outstanding regulatory hurdle to the sale, did not appear to stand in its way.
“The Department of the Environment and Energy who administers the Commonwealth Heritage List will work with Australia Post through the divestment process within the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to ensure heritage values are protected into the future,” he said.
Mr Frydenberg’s office confirmed he learnt of the decision on Wednesday.
The sell-off was slammed by the president of the National Trust NSW, Clive Lucas, as “outrageous”.
“It’s a great tragedy that something like this has to be sold to foreign interests,” he told the ABC.
“I think lots of people are very against selling our heritage, selling the family jewellery. Nothing is more important to Sydney than the Sydney GPO – it’s the heart of the city.”
Mr Lucas’ firm, Lucas Stapleton & Johnson, was commissioned by Australia Post in April last year to prepare a heritage report on the property.
The report, which was never released, stressed the benefits of keeping the GPO in Australian ownership, and warned: “The sale or alienation of the place is considered to be very undesirable.
“Very substantial loss of significance may occur should any part of the place be sold or otherwise alienated from Australian ownership. Alternatives to any proposed alienation should be vigorously investigated and should alienation proceed, a high-level of mitigation is appropriate,” the report says.
NSW Heritage Minister Gabrielle Upton also offered little hope of future public ownership, stressing heritage regulations would protect the building.
Last year, Australia Post announced a public process to sell all state GPOs, including a plan to retain a 40 per cent stake. But it pulled the sale.
Instead, it entered a secretive private treaty sale in March with Far East that sold the building 100 per cent into foreign hands.
It says the deal “will free up valuable capital to invest in our people and in our services to the community”.