Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 10

Punching above their Weight

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There were important battles to be fought. In May 1988 the Daily News reported the purchase of the J & W Bateman complex in Fremantle, and asked whether this collection of hardware buildings in the West End might be the future home of a Catholic university, a project which it claimed was being promoted by notable Perth Catholic entrepreneur Denis Horgan and the head of the Catholic Education Commission, Dr Peter Tannock. It also speculated about the possibility of such a university taking over the Fremantle Prison which was soon to be decommissioned, a notion which seemed to find favour with David Parker, Deputy Premier and chair of a Cabinet subcommittee set up to decide the future of the prison.140

This rang serious alarm bells with the remaining CARD members, who wrote to Fremantle councillors and the Mayor, John Cattalini, asking that a social and physical impact study be conducted before any further moves were made to set

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up a university in Fremantle. They were concerned that ‘the views of a financier like Mr Horgan may be different from those of the bulk of Fremantle residents’ in that he may see an increase in property values (and hence rents) as a good thing, while Fremantle residents might find themselves forced out of their community by just such an increase. The Mayor said there was no need to do an impact study until the university planners put forward a formal submission.141

Bateman's hardware building, Henry Street, 1970s. [Michal Lewi]

In August 1988 rumours about a Catholic university were confirmed when Archbishop William Foley made an official announcement. There was indeed a proposal ‘in principle’ to establish such a university in Fremantle, with a final decision to be made in March 1989. it was announced also that the state government had agreed to enact legislation backing the proposal and was to set up a Cabinet committee to investigate how the plan might proceed.142

Unable to get more detailed information about the proposed university from the university planners or from the Council, CARD organised a petition to call for a special electors’ meeting to protest against the apparent secrecy surrounding negotiations about the university that seemed to be taking place between a few councillors headed by Mayor John Cattalini and chair of the Council planning

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committee Bill Latter, Council bureaucrats and the Catholic Education Commission.143 In the meantime, companies associated with Denis Horgan purchased the Esplanade Hotel, the former Trades Hall and the Norfolk Hotel.

Mayor of Fremantle, John Cattalini, c. 1987 [City of Fremantle LHC]

The Council provided no publicity for the special electors’ meeting that took place on 15 November. Fortunately, CARD was by now very good at generating publicity and the meeting attracted an estimated five hundred Fremantle residents. The residents put forward a wide range of views. A popular one was that democratic Fremantle would not make a happy fit for the hierarchical Catholic Church. There was also a demand for information about the project and how it would affect Fremantle socially and economically.

Council representatives refused to provide any details and rejected the need for any impact or planning studies. Mayor Cattalini again emphasised that the university planners had not yet put forward a formal submission.

The Catholic Education Commission sent no representatives to the meeting, which aroused anger and resentment. A unanimous motion was passed demanding that Council call another meeting, with the proponents of the university present to provide information.144

The meeting’s hostility served as a warning for the university group. The day after the meeting Denis Horgan requested a meeting with Jack Kent (who was now spokesman for both CARD and the newly formed interim committee of the Fremantle Society) and Ron Davidson, at Jack’s office. He went straight to the point: ‘You boys could be putting Fremantle at considerable loss.’ He went on to list how ‘the boys’ might be doing this. He told them that Fremantle stood to lose economically if the university did not go ahead, and that parents of would-be students were already apprehensive about Fremantle and its reputation for sexual permissiveness.145 He went on to say his university would add vibrancy to the West End with pubs, restaurants and bars thriving.

Undeterred, the CARD representatives put forward a submission to the State Government Task Force set up to oversee the university negotiations, claiming that the secrecy which seemed to surround the plans for the university had created a lot of ill feeling among residents. CARD was calling for a comprehensive impact study to ‘set guidelines to be used by the Catholic University Planning Board in formulating its final proposal’ as clearly the impact on Fremantle would be considerable; many major Fremantle buildings had already been purchased by companies linked to the university planners.146

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Deputy Premier David Parker, 1988. [City of Fremantle LHC]

Jack Kent and Ron Davidson went to see David Parker at his Fremantle office to press for a social and physical impact study to be done before matters proceeded further. That was at 1.15 p.m. Five minutes later the Deputy Premier had agreed to the study. Days later he appointed Jack and Ron to a Steering Committee to organise the study through the Centre for Urban Research at the University of Western Australia.147 The CARD representatives were amazed at the speed with which agreement had been reached on the study.

In the meantime, Fremantle’s Mayor, John Cattalini, was organising a new public meeting as demanded by the special electors’ meeting, with representatives of the university proponents attending this time. This relatively swift response was in part inspired by public complaints from one of the sitting councillors and Fremantle Society interim committee member, Alan Petersen, that no one would tell him what was happening about the university.148 The Mayor was also incensed at the critical comments about Council’s handling of planning issues published in the Fremantle Society’s revived newsletter, especially relating to the proposed university.149

Councillor and Fremantle Society committee member, Alan Petersen. [Fremantle Herald]

The public meeting was held on 24 January 1989, attended by Denis Horgan, Peter Tannock, David Parker, City Manager Ron Malcolm and the Director of Planning, Patric de Villiers. Representatives from both CARD and the interim committee of the Fremantle Society were among the crowd packing the Town Hall, but the result was disappointing. Denis Horgan was clearly out to charm the locals, though he did not always succeed. He said that the Catholic university would improve Fremantle physically and morally. Jeers followed. Next David Parker announced that he had approved a social impact study, but there was no answer to the crucial question of how the study would translate into guidelines for the proposed development. It also became apparent that the university would not be paying rates, thus adding to the already disproportionate number of rate-free properties in Fremantle.

The Fremantle Society was particularly disturbed by the large-scale purchase of Fremantle buildings by the Horgan-related group of companies, and decided to argue strongly that the social impact study group should thoroughly investigate the implications of such a concentration of ownership.150

The Society’s newly elected president, Don Whittington, initiated

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title searches which revealed that at least forty-four buildings had been acquired by companies with connections to Denis Horgan, and proceeded to organise a ‘walk against secrecy’ in March 1989 to highlight the extent to which West End properties were being bought up. The walk was joined by the Federal Member for Fremantle, John Dawkins, who was also alarmed and expressed his concerns in an interview with ABC television:

I think there is an obligation, at least at this stage, for them to tell us precisely what they have in mind, because what I’ve been told involves a proposal for a very small university indeed, one which wouldn’t on the face of it need the kinds of numbers of buildings which apparently have been acquired.

The Catholic University Planning Board refused to comment.151

The university planners finally produced the Notre Dame Australia Draft Development Plan in July 1989. It stunned both CARD and the Fremantle Society. High Street was to be pedestrianised from Henry Street to the Round House, with bollards blocking off that part of the West End. A large decorative medallion filled the intersection, with trees being planted at the four corners. The orientation of Fremantle was altered from the traditional east-west to north-south, with Henry Street and Marine Terrace now providing an elaborate

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entrance into the university, with a replica of the Town Hall on the left hand corner, complete with a ‘campanile’ as an entry statement. There were more trees and bollards in Henry Street. The Esplanade reserve had virtually been incorporated into the campus.

Victoria Quay was to be used for parking, a soccer and hockey field, swimming pool, gymnasium and squash courts. The Slip Street sheds were to be demolished and A, B, C and D Sheds taken over for university use.152

Artist's impression of 'improvements' proposed for corner of High and Henry street. [Oldham Boas Ednie-Brown Draft Development Plan for Notre Dame Australia, 1989]

The Council welcomed the submission, and invited the public to comment. The Fremantle Society responded with a comprehensive commentary, urging rejection of the plan on the grounds that Notre Dame Australia (NDA) had not acknowledged even the existence of the Burra Charter, the official document adopted by the Australian branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) providing guidelines for the conservation of places of cultural significance. It objected strongly to the change in orientation, the virtual takeover of the Esplanade reserve, the insertion of trees into streetscapes, the bollards and the closing of roads. The Society firmly rejected any plan to hand over Victoria Quay to NDA, urging instead that an independent study be done of the Quay’s heritage value and cultural significance.153

Similar comments were made by CARD, which also objected strongly to the emphasis in the NDA plan on a clearly visible separation of the university from the rest of the West End. It pointed out that the West End as a whole was included in the Register of the National Estate and that to fragment it would be to diminish its significance and possibly even cause it to be removed from the Register.154

This was to be CARD’S swansong; with renewed energy permeating the Fremantle Society and with the election of Jack Kent to Fremantle City Council in 1989 it was decided that CARD had achieved its purpose and could hand back responsibility for monitoring proposed developments to the Society.

The Fremantle Society and CARD achieved many of their objectives in this instance; the Fremantle City Council accepted the development plan in principle, but ruled against any closing off of streets, tree planting in streetscapes or street decorations. It wanted the West End kept intact, and not divided up into university and other precincts, and stipulated that any development conform to the West End Conservation Plan. Handing over of Victoria Quay was ruled out, and it was decided to set up a committee of Cabinet ministers and representatives from the :remantle City Council and the Fremantle Port Authority ‘to look at what should be done with the most prized land package in Fremantle.’155

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The NDA project was officially approved with conditions in the last week of October 1989 by the Council, and included a market in Pakenham Street for antiques and curios, a restaurant and bar in Marine Terrace and an antique furniture market in Henry Street.156 The final seal of approval came when an Act of Parliament giving official status to the University of Notre Dame Australia was proclaimed on 21 December 1989.

However, by May 1990 rumours began circulating about Denis Horgan’s corporate empire sliding into insolvency, and soon afterwards most of his Fremantle properties were being sold off as part of a $250 million asset sale.157

NDA had lost its major financial backer, and drastic changes were being made in planning the university. The planners were now looking for a less expensive site than Fremantle, possibly on the outskirts of Perth. Notre Dame Indiana was to

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play a bigger role, providing books, equipment and exchange programs to bring their staff and students to Perth. NDA was still to open originally in Fremantle in 1992, using a couple of buildings and with only fifty to a hundred students and no on-campus accommodation, it would then move by the end of the decade to a larger campus north of Perth.158

In any event these new plans also foundered. A revelation that the state government had granted 150 hectares of crown land to NDA at Alkimos, forty-five kilometres north of Perth, between Mindarie Keys and Yanchep, drew an avalanche of protest from the vice-chancellors of local universities, as well as from the Federal Minister for Education, John Dawkins.159

Fremantle Society committee member Andrew Smith, who had just established a new local community newspaper, the Fremantle Herald, then revealed after determined research that the land in question had been intended for low-cost housing, and called for the land deal to come before a WA Inc Royal Commission, a call supported a few days later by the West Australian.160

The fate of the land grant was sealed when it was revealed that David Parker had made an $80 million financial guarantee in a letter to Denis Horgan only days before Peter Dowding resigned and was replaced as premier by Carmen Lawrence. A number of ALP members resigned about this time and the Lawrence government became a minority government. The whole matter was successfully referred to the public accounts committee of state parliament, with the National Party calling for a full judicial inquiry into government land deals with NDA.161

In the end Notre Dame Australia went ahead supported by grants from the Catholic Church, religious bodies and groups, and donations from individual benefactors like Bernie Prindiville, for whom Denis Horgan had once worked as an office boy. NDA was officially opened on 23 February 1992, with a parade of representatives from seventy Catholic schools carrying school flags in a street procession from the Esplanade to a newly restored former warehouse on Mouat Street, which had become the NDA College of Education.162 The slower start was to the advantage of Fremantle, which would have been destroyed by the excesses of the original Draft Development Plan. The quality of building restoration turned out better than could have been imagined originally, but the problem of what the Fremantle Society eventually came to describe as a ‘West End monoculture’ would remain.


140 Daily News, 5 May 1988 and 6 May 1988.
141 Daily News, 8 June 1988.
142 West Australian, 13 August 1988.
143 Fremantle Gazette, 8 November 1988.
144 Fremantle, December 1988.
145 Notes, Ron Davidson, January 1989.
146 Fremantle Focus, December 1988.
147 Notes, Ron Davidson, January 1989.
148 Fremantle Gazette, 13 December 1988.
149 Fremantle Gazette, 10 January 1989.
150 Fremantle, February 1989.
151 Fremantle, April 1989.
152 Daily News, 7 July 1989 and 28 July 1989.
153 Fremantle Society Response to the Submission for Notre Dame Australia, September 1989.
154 Submission to Fremantle City Council from Community Action for Rational Development on the NDA Proposal, n.d.
155 Fremantle Gazette, 3 October 1989.
156 Fremantle Gazette, 30 November 1989.
157 West Australian, 8 June 1990.
158 West Australian, 27 October 1990.
159 West Australian, 26 November 1990 and 28 November 1990.
160 Fremantle Herald, 17 December 1990; West Australian editorial, 19 December 1990.
161 West Australian, 11 January 1992.
162 West Australian, 24 February 1992.

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