A hundred years ago, Sydneysiders were concerned about a lack of water, congestion in the CBD, the problems caused by public-private development and a severe skills shortage. Sound familiar? According to Dr Clive Beauchamp, Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Charles Sturt University’s (CSU) Social Sciences and Liberal Studies School, “in some ways, public expectations never seem to change.
“Most of the projects of the NSW Public Works Committee were trying to address the very same problems that are uppermost today, for example, a shortage of water. In 1900 the Prospect Dam dried up so the Government had to build Cataract and later Wyangala dams, and also the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.
“There were problems with traffic congestion in central Sydney and what modes of transport were needed. In the inter-war period there were some projects which were reliant on public-private partnerships, and those threw up problems. There was a tremendous skills shortage.”
The NSW Public Works Committee was formed in 1888 by Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales and architect of Australian Federation. It was an attempt to de-politicise decisions on projects and counteract the practice of “log-rolling“ that existed at the end of the nineteenth century. It was the premier NSW parliamentary committee until its demise in 1930.
Dr Beauchamp describes “log rolling” as “’you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. In other words, mutual support for each other’s pet projects, and every community wanted a railway. There was great disquiet about public borrowings and insufficient parliamentary scrutiny of public works projects.”
The Committee was responsible for scrutinising and recommending various iconic public works projects across NSW including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the North Coast Railway, Sydney Central Railway Station, the Fisher and Mitchell Libraries in Sydney, and Burrinjuck and Wyangala Dams as well as many branch lines and local sewerage and water schemes.
One project that never did get up was a new NSW Parliament House. “It was going to be on the same site as it is now in Macquarie Street and in the 1890s was considered a fire hazard.”
Another was for Byron Bay. “One interesting scheme I found was that there were plans for Byron Bay to become an international deep-sea port.” The failure of successive governments to act on this plan meant Armidale and Tenterfield never did achieve their much wished-for direct rail line to the coast.
“It’s a very important part of NSW history which has been neglected. The Committee saw the Great Depression and the rise of the Labor Party in the 1890s, the first Labor government in 1910 until 1916, and the development of wheat growing. Then there was the Depression from 1929 onwards, and the growth of the Country Party in the 1920s. All this influenced the decisions that were taken in public works.”
Dr Beauchamp’s research was commissioned by the NSW Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government Trust.