‘It’s just ridiculous’: Key unions demand premier scrap $500m Powerhouse redevelopment

  • Published June 16, 2023

Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 2023

Two of the state’s most powerful unions have called for a halt to the proposed $500 million redevelopment of the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo, and the reinvestment of the savings to top up pay rises for frontline health and emergency sector workers.

The Public Service Association, representing 40,000 public sector workers, says it will press for Premier Chris Minns to personally intervene to shelve plans the Labor government inherited for the knockdown rebuild of the museum’s 35-year-old modern wing.

The Public Service Association’s general secretary Stewart Little said his members, including more than 100 permanent museum staff, believed the project was an extravagance the state could ill afford at a time of crippling cost of living increases.

He was joined in his criticisms by Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes who said spending to redevelop and reconfigure the museum’s inner-city location made as much sense as knocking down and rebuilding the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
“As a health service person, we are in very difficult economic times. Why would we be dealing with luxury wish lists when we are not dealing with providing the necessities?” Hayes asked.

Union criticism of the project comes at a sensitive time of wage negotiations with the Minns government which went to the election promising to scrap the cap on public sector wages.

Unions are agitating for an improvement in the government’s standing offer of a 4.5 per cent wage increase and have identified the Powerhouse redevelopment as a potential source of budget savings to fund a more generous wage offer – all at a time when treasurer Daniel Mookhey says the NSW budget is facing $7 billion in unexpected cost pressures.

At the March election, Labor pledged to “save” the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo as a “world-class institution” and is currently undertaking broad community consultation about the museum’s future.

These reorient the museum’s entrance and demolish the museum’s galleria, home of NSW’s first train, Locomotive No 1 and the priceless Boulton & Watt rotative steam engine, and the Wran wing along Harris Street.
In its place, a new six-story annex is to be built (containing a library and new fit-for-purpose exhibition spaces), which museum chief executive Lisa Havilah says is necessary to draw international shows and upgrade public circulation spaces.

After a meeting between the union and museum management last week, Little said the Ultimo museum remained on track to close its doors on December 31 for up to three years.

“We were advised by management on Thursday that there was no change to the former government’s plans to substantially demolish the Powerhouse museum and move the collection,” he said.

“The union is supportive of this government providing for much-needed maintenance, after a decade of financial instability, to get the Powerhouse Museum back to where it once was.
“It’s been tragic to watch its decline. The collection should be kept at Ultimo, and if anything expanded. This is an iconic cultural institution with a unique history and from the union’s point of view we do not want to see the museum effectively taken down and turned into a fashion centre.

“It’s such a perfect opportunity now to have a proper look at this and save some money. Given the demands for wage rises for the state’s essential services, we can put the savings [from the Powerhouse] into frontline services.”

Hayes said: “You’ve got a perfectly built museum and the cost of knocking it down and rebuilding it and dismantling these big exhibition items and storing them to do the same thing . . . why don’t we pack up the Sydney Harbour Bridge and send it to Gladesville? It’s just ridiculous. It doesn’t make financial sense when people are struggling to put bread on the table.”

The Public Service Association is seeking to delay the departure of 58 staff members who are scheduled to leave Ultimo for the museum’s Castle Hill storage facility ahead of Ultimo’s from June 20 as the museum prepares for closure.

Three weeks later another 76 staff will shift to offices overlooking the riverside construction site of the Parramatta Powerhouse, where core parts of the new building’s steel exoskeleton are going up.
Staff say hot desk arrangements and facilities at the museum’s newly extended Castle Hill storage facility are inadequate for the intensive research work they perform. Soft forms of industrial action including a refusal by staff to relocate have not been ruled out.

Arts Minister John Graham said the NSW Government was committed to the delivery of a world-class museum at the Powerhouse site in Ultimo.