Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 5

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

The mid-1970s saw the Fremantle Society enjoying a great deal of success with a significant number of its members being elected to Council and its victory over the retention of the Evan Davies building. It was certainly a clear indication that the tide, in Fremantle at least, was turning in favour of heritage preservation. However, at the same time the Society - and the City of Fremantle - also lost a very important battle.

For some years doctors and clinical staff at Fremantle Hospital had been complaining about inadequate facilities and asking the state government for funds to upgrade these. Finally in 1974 the hospital board was able to announce that $23 million had been allocated by the government through the Public Works Department to build extensions to the hospital.53

An upgrade of facilities was welcomed by everyone, but what the Public Works Department was now proposing was really to turn Fremantle Hospital into a major regional hospital. The extensions consisted of two seventeen-storey towers in South Terrace, and involved the demolition of the South Terrace Primary School. This was not acceptable to many people.

At its meeting in July 1975 the Fremantle City Council rejected the plan, arguing that while an upgrade of Fremantle Hospital was certainly necessary, a large modern regional hospital should be built on a site near Murdoch University to serve the entire Rockingham-Fremantle-Armadale area. Fremantle was not the geographically appropriate place for such a hospital, which should be situated in the centre of the region and have ample parking and easy access. It called for an Environmental Impact Statement.54

The Fremantle Society agreed, pointing out that the Council had been trying to revive the area for residential purposes, and that the proposed extension would involve the demolition of shops, dwellings and a school. A Society spokesman was quoted by the West Australian as saying that it was ‘idle for the hospital board to be disconcerted by criticism when it consistently fails to consult the community and formulates its plans in secrecy with the Public Works Department.’55 The Society also emphasised that it wanted Fremantle preserved ‘not as a museum, but as a thriving, intact community, capitalising on its history and its unique character.’55 There was strong support for immediate action to develop a regional hospital near Murdoch University, and a deputation which included Mayor Bill McKenzie and the charismatic Mayor of Melville, Jack Howson, waited on the Minister for Health, Norman Baxter, to urge that this be done. A public petition organised by the Fremantle Society also supported this proposal, and called for a public meeting to discuss this issue.57

The Fremantle Hospital Board protested that it had long been criticised for not ensuring that its facilities kept up with demand, and now it was being criticised again when these shortcomings were about to be remedied. It pointed out that the proposed extensions, which had now been reduced to eleven storeys with only eight above ground level, would provide ‘urgently needed beds, outpatient clinics, administration, pharmacy and pathology departments.’58

The public meeting called by the Fremantle Society’s petition was held in Fremantle Town Hall on 11 March 1976. The town hall was packed, and the tone of the meeting was set by Mayor McKenzie when he opened proceedings by attacking the Minister for Health, Norman Baxter, who was present at the meeting to answer questions about the hospital.

Poster by architect Geoffrey London advetising hospital protest meeting, 1976. [Fremantle Society]

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Baxter had appeared on television the night before and had suggested that McKenzie was calling the public meeting for political motives, as there was a mayoral election in May and a state election the following year. Bill McKenzie strongly objected to this insinuation, pointing out that he had no intention of standing for the Fremantle seat, and that he was obliged to call a meeting when a ratepayers’ petition demanded it. He condemned the minister’s remarks as ‘snide’.

Things went from bad to worse. Opponents of the extensions pointed out that the excessive enlargement of the hospital would involve resumption of desperately needed inner city housing as well as causing traffic problems, noise pollution, and parking difficulties while also inappropriately dominating the city skyline. They also strongly objected to what they called the ‘secrecy’ surrounding the extensions and the lack of consultation with the public.59

Two resolutions were overwhelmingly passed at the meeting. One, moved by Councillor Dick Cotton, was ‘that an environmental impact study of the proposed extension be undertaken immediately.’ The other, moved by Councillor Les Lauder, was a several-part motion calling for ‘an early start to the Lakes Hospital, and a restriction of work at Fremantle to that necessary for the Fremantle community’s needs.’60

The minister’s response was uncompromising. He said he would take no notice of the resolutions, and was ‘not prepared to mess about any longer with environmental studies.’61 He held aloft a large plan, the latest version of the hospital, demanding, ‘Now isn’t that a good building?’ ‘No. It’s horrible,’ came the reply, along with intermittent booing. The minister exploded. He threw the plans on the floor, stamped on them and threatened to leave the meeting. He took particular exception to a cartoon drawn by architect and Society member Geoffrey London that showed a hospital bulldozer demolishing a Fremantle church. ‘Bulldozers are never bigger than churches,’ said the minister dismissively.

The minister was not at his best that evening. Earlier he had made a comment about being surprised at the ‘strange’ and apparently sinister voices he had heard attacking the hospital extensions. A number of the speakers had recognisably English accents, one of these being Councillor Gerard MacGill, whose distinctive northern speech the minister had apparently found unacceptable.62

The crowd erupted. The meeting passed a motion of no confidence in the minister with loud cheers, whistles and foot-stamping. Deputy Mayor Dick Cotton summed up the feeling of the crowd: ‘I don’t think any fair-minded person here tonight could be anything but utterly disappointed with this minister. The way

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the minister has behaved tonight is an insult to the people of Fremantle.’63 While the meeting had seemed like a triumph for the Society, there had been straws in the wind to suggest otherwise. Two women spoke of how the their daughters had been saved by prompt action by the hospital staff. Others mentioned the hospital pay cheques.

The Fremantle Society’s position was unequivocal: ‘Expanding Fremantle is a panicky, interim, stop-gap, attempted solution to this crisis. Not only is disastrous for Fremantle, it is of doubtful value to the region and only evades the real issue: the provision of a proper regional hospital at the proper place - the Lakes site, near Murdoch University, where over two hundred acres is set aside for hospital purposes.’64 It also announced the formation of a Lakes Hospital Action Group, convened by solicitor Peter Batros and consisting of Mayor Bill McKenzie, Councillors Les Lauder and Gerard MacGill, architect Geoffrey London and Melville Councillor Terry Lockwood. It was to argue its case before the Premier and the Metropolitan Regional Planning Authority.65

However, the Society was shocked when Deputy Mayor Dick Cotton (who was also a member of the Fremantle Society) moved from being a leading opponent to a very public supporter of the hospital extensions. He was by then on the Fremantle Hospital Board and had changed his mind on the issue. He moved a motion at Council which said ‘the development was urgently required to provide the upgraded hospital facilities so badly needed for the people of Fremantle and its near neighbours. It was not feasible for the building to be altered - except for a minor modification - and construction should start without delay. The overall planning by the Medical Department rightly gave priority to the Fremantle extensions because of its current hospital needs.’66 He explained his change of attitude: ‘Initially I had some misgivings about the extent of the hospital development. Later I saw the people most concerned at the hospital and I changed my mind. I make no apologies for doing so. What I saw led me to believe that the Council has no option but to support the project because of the substandard accommodation and overcrowding at the hospital ... What is more important, the aesthetic appearance of a building or the hospital services the city so badly needs?’67 Councillor Cotton’s motion failed to pass by just one vote, with another hospital supporter absent. The close vote meant Society supporters would have trouble getting Council to mount

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a costly injunction against the state government, which had been their much advertised tactic.

The once useful weapon of union bans was also becoming problematic. The Amalgamated Metal Workers Union had put a ban on the Fremantle Hospital extensions a couple of months before Councillor Cotton moved his motion. However, the Trades and Labor Council was simultaneously asking the state government for ‘urgent action on sixteen building projects, including hospital extensions, to ease unemployment.’ With building jobs becoming hard to get, union enthusiasm for such bans was waning.68

Another blow to the anti-extension lobby was dealt by the Director of the Department of Conservation and Environment, Dr Brian O’Brien, who prepared an environmental issues report that came out in favour of the extensions. He stated that while ‘environmental factors should be an integral part of the design of such projects’ he felt that the hospital’s surroundings were presently unattractive, and, interestingly, that ‘ugly buildings can be tolerated.’

He summed up his findings in a letter to the Commissioner of Public Health:

In summary, while there may reasonably be objections to the proposal on the above environmental issues, none is sufficiently compelling, in my opinion, to justify intervention and delay in providing urgently to the community additional hospital facilities which your medical advisors clearly believe are needed.69

The Fremantle Society was outraged at what it saw as a ‘betrayal’ of the Fremantle Council and community when at the end of 1976 it was announced that the state government had awarded a contract for coordination and management of $25 million worth of additions to Fremantle Hospital. It was claimed that the improved hospital would work closely with the future Lakes Hospital which would I eventually become the regional and major teaching hospital south of the river.70

The Society was disgusted at the lack of consultation, claiming that the building had been ‘designed in a vacuum without reference to the local authority, MRPA or anyone else’71 and that no concessions had been made to the local environment. It also hit out at the opinions expressed by Brian O’Brien:

For this space scientist to make such a statement about a complex architectural and town planning issue on the basis of one afternoon's

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discussions is to abuse the trust the public places in him as Director of the Department of Conservation and Environment.72

The Society sounded an interestingly contemporary note when it criticised the excessive emphasis on hospital building and treatment at the expense of preventative medicine and promotion of healthy living. It also expressed the opinion that with this very large expansion of Fremantle Hospital, the Lakes Hospital would get put on hold.73

The Fremantle Society was right. It was not until 2006, thirty years later, that the State Minister for Health, Jim McGinty, announced that a regional hospital was to be built at the Lakes site at Murdoch.

Stopping the massive extensions to Fremantle Hospital proved beyond the Fremantle Society despite them winning most of the arguments about the project between 1974 and 1976. Hospitals are different from other developments. They are seen as good per se, regardless of how hideous they may look and however geographically wrong the chosen site may be for a regional hospital. Medical politics always beat resident politics. And so it proved.

Another near disaster happened soon afterwards. On 23 August 1977 Mayor McKenzie announced without warning that he would be resigning in the following month and there would be a by-election in October. He was responding, he said, to ‘mischief making’ in the Council. He didn’t say what the mischief was but it was thought to be the mayoral ambitions of Denis Sowden. The resignation was chilling news for the Society, which had benefited from the mayor’s rulings and guidance.

The Society was galvanised. Fremantle Society councillors Lauder, Newman and Fred Watson asked for a meeting to discuss the matter but the mayor refused to call one. However, support flooded in from trade unions, Fremantle organisations, business, local politicians and eleven councillors, and culminated in a full-page advertisement calling on the mayor to stay. In the face of all this support Bill McKenzie relented, agreed to stand and was elected unopposed.74

One disaster may have been averted, but the Society was facing another divisive problem which had a less happy result. A newsletter in September 1976 had advised members that the committee was investigating the possibility of establishing a Fremantle Society Small Houses Scheme. This was an idea inspired by a Scottish National Trust scheme, which involved purchasing a run-down house, restoring it and selling it under a protective covenant which prohibited its modernisation or demolition. The proceeds could then be used to buy more

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houses and follow a similar process, and eventually enable the Society to acquire permanent headquarters. Members were invited to comment and make suggestions on this idea.75

Not long after the announcement in the newsletter, Les Lauder announced to the committee that he had taken out a personal loan to purchase a neglected but potentially impressive house at 70 Hampton Road, one of a duplex pair.

He requested that the Society take over the loan in its name, and begin restoration work; the committee agreed to this, though some members, particularly Vice-President Don Whittington, expressed reservations about the process.76 Academic architect John White also questioned whether enough volunteers with trade skills would come forward for the project to be viable.

There were some enthusiastic supporters of the housing scheme, and donations towards the project were received from a considerable number of members; the Society arranged for tenants to occupy the house, and restoration commenced quickly.77

However, opposition to the purchase of the house was also gaining momentum. In May 1977 a letter from Society member Kevin Dwyer was published in the newsletter expressing the feeling of a growing number of members. Kevin objected to the Society acquiring a debt of over $20,000 without referring the matter to a general meeting in order to start a process that by definition would make cheap houses expensive. He also queried the need for a permanent headquarters, claiming that the use of different venues was a preferable option.

Les Lauder responded in the same issue, pointing out that members’ views had been called for, and there had been no opposition to the plan when It was put forward; he also reminded members that the Society had been trying to find a headquarters since 1974 in order to store materials it had acquired and which were currently ‘scattered amongst many members.’78

However, the issue continued to cause growing dissension among members, especially over the amounts being spent on its restoration, and finally the Fremantle Society committee voted to sell the house and end the conflicts once and for

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all. However, members who opposed this decision and wanted to retain the house asked that a special genera! meeting be convened to vote on the matter.

The special meeting was held in August 1977 at the Fremantle Town Hall and attracted 120-odd members. A motion was put to the meeting calling for the house to be kept and the current tenancy retained pending eventual sale to acquire headquarters, and the motion was carried. The Society’s newsletter reported that eight members who had supported the committee’s decision for an immediate sale of the building then walked out of the meeting, including the Society’s Vice-President Gerard MacGill, committee member Don Whittington and the Society’s Secretary Winnie Dwyer. As minute taker for the special meeting, Winnie had to hastily find a replacement before departing. Gerard then resigned as vice-president through a public letter in the Society’s newsletter. He claimed that the Society was spending much of its income on the house as a top priority and he did not feel that this should be its main concern. He did not, however, resign his membership at this stage.79

The purchase of the Hampton Road house caused serious division in the Society, and its restoration continued to drain its coffers. An attempt was made to auction it in 1979 but a series of administrative problems made it impossible to dispose of until May 1981 when it was finally sold for $39,500.

The Society’s then treasurer, Brian Jeffries, made an exhaustive analysis of income and expenditure on the house, calculating that in the end a profit of only $2696 had been made, as the original mortgage had been taken out at a time of very high interest rates. However, the price of the house had doubled so the Society was able to recoup much of its considerable expenditure on restoration and maintenance, and to emerge with a healthy bank balance.80

The treasurer warned against any further dabbling in property, and the Society’s constitution was amended to prohibit any real estate purchases over $2000 without approval by a two-thirds majority of members at a general meeting.81

It was an unfortunate experience for many on the Society’s committee and executive. Ironically, had the Society kept the house for another few years it would have seen its value skyrocket with the news of the America’s Cup challenge.


53 West Australian, 19 February 1974.
54 Fremantle, vol. 3, no. 3,1975.
55 West Australian, 18 December 1975.
56 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 6,1976.
57 ibid.
58 West Australian, 17 February 1976.
59 West Australian, 12 March 1976.
60 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 2,1976.
61 West Australian, 12 March 1976.
62 Recollection by Ron Davidson, who was present at the meeting.
63 West Australian, 12 March 1976.
64 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 2,1976.
65 ibid.
66 Daily News, 17 August 1976.
67 West Australian, 23 September 1976.
68 West Australian, 5 June 1976.
69 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 3,1976.
70 West Australian, 7 December 1976.
71 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 3,1976.
72 ibid.
73 ibid.
74 Daily News, 31 August 1977
75 ibid.
76 Recollection by Ron Davidson, who was on the committee at the time.
77 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 4,1976.
78 Fremantle, vol. 5, no. 2,1977.
79 Fremantle, vol. 6, no. 1,1978.
80 Fremantle, vol. 9, no. 3,1981.
81 Fremantle, vol. 11, no. 1,1983.

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Garry Gillard | New: 17 June, 2020 | Now: 19 June, 2021