Barry O'Keefe

Barry O’Keefe AM was elected to Mosman Council in 1968 with bushland conservation and control of development his key principal policy areas. He served the people of Mosman for 23 years including a record ten terms as Mayor of Mosman. In this interview he speaks with enthusiasm about living in Mosman and his involvement in public life.

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22 May 2011, 18:12 · #

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Didn’t realise Barry was such a greenie !

peter maccormick oam
24 January 2016, 13:45 · #

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Thank you Barry for making Mosman a great Place to live and for your love of the bush land the Mosman council

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Moving to Mosman

There were two places that were possible, one was Mosman the other was Hunters Hill. I chose Mosman, Clifton Gardens because the first ferry ran at 6 o’clock; the first ferry from Hunters Hill didn’t run until about seven which meant that you lost an hour’s working time. Why to cross the bridge?

Well, it was that we couldn’t afford to live in the eastern suburbs, then once we had moved to Mosman we moved to Clifton Gardens and stayed there in the same house for just on 37 years and there’d be no way that I’d ever go back to the eastern suburbs. You haven’t got the open space you haven’t got the bushland. You didn’t have then the community sense that you have now or did have, less I think these days then it was back in 1965 when we came to Mosman, but economics dictated initially and then the quality of the environment kept us here.

Elected to Mosman Council 1968 – bushland and control of development

Yes, I came into the council in December 1968 the election used to be in December, then in September. The reason that I came into the council was – I’d moved to Clifton Gardens in January 1965. I’d met up with the Bradley sisters, became involved in bushland regeneration, which was close to my heart and then in ’67/68 there was a building erected by a man called Earl Cameron down at 17 Raglan Street.

It was almost on the Point, a quite fine house had been demolished – well that was not good, but it wasn’t all bad, but the building that was erected there was very high, very prominent. It started off three storeys higher than it is now and it was found that it exceeded what was allowed under schedule 7 of the Local Government Act, but what really got me into the Council was going on the ferry each morning I would see the spoil that had been just tipped down the foreshore, massacring the trees and turning it into, really, a rubble dump. And I kept railing against this and saying, ‘they shouldn’t allow this to happen’, and some people on the ferry said, ‘well why don’t you do something about it?’

So I thought about it, discussed it with my wife, and decided to stand for the council and I did. The principle purpose being, because of that building and what I thought was slackness on the part of the council. And a policy decision to ensure that we had proper planning that didn’t permit that sort of thing to happen, so I ran for the council and topped the poll, which became a habit thereafter and I was independent of all the others.

So that’s how I came to come into the council and bushland and control of development were my principle policy areas.

Bradley Bushland regeneration

The Bradleys lived in Iluka Road, Joan and Eileen. They were both spinsters. Joan was a Science graduate. Eileen was an Arts graduate. They were very different characters, Joan was very mannish, whenever you saw her in the bush she would have her shorts on and a knife, and a cigarette in her mouth and she was absolutely fearless when it came to protecting the bushland, and she had a whole group of us who were working, weeding Morella Road and various places like that to get rid of the lantana and she and Eileen had been concerned about the habitat for the blue wren.

That’s how they became interested in bushland. And then they devised a method for restoring bushland, not going in and razing it and burning – slash and burn, which was then the accepted norm – but rather working from the good to the bad so that you allowed the good to expand gradually. It was slow but it was very effective and she got me interested in that.

And then I thought – well, we should try and get the National Trust involved. I wasn’t president of the National Trust at that time, this was back in the ’60s, early ’70s, and I didn’t become president of the National Trust until 1991. But their method had been adopted by the National Trust recognising that it was a long-term thing not a year-by-year thing and the association between the National Trust and Mosman had always been good. There’s a high percentage of Mosman people who are members of the National Trust.

So Joan and Eileen were the fons et origo of that, the National Trust then came in and of course when I became president of the National Trust I made sure that the association between Mosman and the National Trust remained.

More on Bradley Bushland and Bradley sisters

There was a very strong push to turn the Bradley Bushland Reserve into tennis courts.
That was resisted and then in 1983 when we were coming up for an election I can see that there was going to be a change in the composition of the council and that unless the Bradley bushland – well, it wasn’t called the Bradley bushland then, unless that parcel of bushland was protected in some way it would become tennis courts, which I thought would be an abomination.

So I devised a scheme whereby we named it as the Bradley Bushland Reserve after two pioneer women of Mosman. That would make it more difficult to turn it into tennis courts and you’ll find the plaque talks about that dedication, taking place in September 1983. It took place just before the election, and the election did change the nature of the council. But by that time the fact that it was a named Reserve after two pioneers of bush regeneration and who were residents of Mosman, protected the land.

As we came further down the track however, by 1986/7, there was a resurgence of people who wanted to turn it into – at least part of it – into an expansion of the tennis courts, so Lloyd Edwards and I then devised a secondary scheme and that was to get money from the Commonwealth for the Bicentenary and put it into the Bradley Bushland Reserve, so that now if you were going to change its nature you would have to consult with the Commonwealth.

So we got $35,000 and it was very interesting. It was to be presented by somebody from the Commonwealth and I as the Mayor in late ’87, early ’88 I think, was to get the cheque. I was in court and it was a difficult case and my opponent just kept droning on and on so it was getting closer and closer to the time – around 3.30 I think it was when we were due to get the money.

I didn’t finish in court until about 3, so I’d raced out. My clerk had ordered a taxi, which was on the opposite side of Philip Street to my chambers. I raced out getting dressed, put a nice tie on, raced out onto the road and I was struck by a truck as I crossed the road and the near-side mirror of the truck hit me in the chest and it smashed and the arm of the mirror dug into my chest and tore it. I didn’t realise this.

I got into the taxi and the taxi driver said to me, would I lean forward please, and I said, ‘Why?’, ‘because you’re dripping blood on the seat’. So I lent forward and there was blood everywhere. I got out here to the Bradley Bushland Reserve with all this crowd waiting including the then Deputy Mayor, I think it was Mrs. Lee Hutley, Mr. Justice Hutley’s wife, and my shirt was all stained and I was worried that it was going to spoil my suit, which was a very (laughs) expensive suit and so Lee Hutley took my coat from me – it was a bitter cold day I remember and there was a photograph taken with this big blood stain all over my shirt and down into my trousers, and the headline on The Daily was: ‘The Mayor shed blood for Mosman’. (laughs) So I got the 35,000.

No, I remember Peter Clive was the Deputy Mayor and Lee Hutley took my coat. When the ceremony was over we were to have a reception. Well, by that time I’d lost a lot of blood and I was feeling rather weak, as I had to go to hospital, so Peter Clive conducted the reception and I went off to hospital to be stitched up.

It was quite a dramatic time but it meant that the Bradley Bushland Reserve now was twice dedicated – Commonwealth money – safe.

Defence land at Middle Head and Balmoral

There are really two episodes – one was in the early ’80s when the Commonwealth was proposing to sell off, for development, the area of bush land and trees between what is now the walkway down to Balmoral from the extension of Middle Head Road, and the hospital at HMAS Penguin. I can’t remember how many acres there are but there was a big protest about that down at Balmoral and that’s when I first met Tom Uren.

Tom Uren, who was strong Left Wing Labor, came down there and he and I stood on the same platform and addressed a very big crowd, and the net result of that was the conjunction between the Council and Tom Uren with his strong Labor party connections meant that that didn’t happen. Tom still reminds me quite frequently about the time we first met and stood on the platform together. Of course Tom is one of these very tall men, 6’ plus, and I’m 5’ plus, not very many inches, and the long and the short of it on this platform must have been quite amusing for people to see but it was very effective. So we repulsed that.

The second one was when the Commonwealth was shifting the military from Middle Head and George’s Heights to Holsworthy or wherever they were going to send it, Townsville as well. And there was a thing called the preferred solution that would have involved many 100s of houses on Middle Head. The Council agreed with it, I think, because it felt it didn’t have any alternative. But a number of us, Phil Jenkin of the Harbour Defenders, Don Goodsir of what is now the Headland Preservation Society, all clubbed together to oppose this and I was strongly opposed to it, and worked pretty hard.

Then just before an election in – I think it was probably 1998 the then Prime minister John Howard was convinced that all the defence lands around Sydney Harbour should go into one Trust and that these lands should be made available for public access and not developed for private purposes.

That was a genius decision. It meant that vast tracks of land around Sydney Harbour, including North Head, Middle Head, George’s Heights, Woolwich, Cockatoo Dock, and later the lighthouse at South Head, and the former biological station at Watson’s Bay, all went into this Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.

For Mosman it’s been fantastic, for Sydney it’s been fantastic.

HMS Sirius Bas relief at Mosman Bay opening Sir David Martin

The 52 tonne rock down at Mosman Bay, which was Great Sirius Cove, it was where HMS Sirius was careened in 1789, after it had done its round-the-world trip of 12,800 and something miles through the Cape of Good Hope and through the ‘roaring 40s’ and around the world to get provisions to keep the starving colony alive. So it came back and it was careened there.

So I thought that it would be very nice to have some monument that recorded those events, so we got a sculptor called Kolozsy, I think, Hungarian in origin, an interesting man, and we got him to do this bas relief.

Sir David Martin was the Governor, so we got him to open – unveil the memorial and he arrived by barge at the wharf in full naval uniform – he looked absolutely splendid.
Now, he came up to unveil – all he had to do was pull a cord. Brian Leckey was the engineer, and I said to Brian, ‘Brian for god’s sake make sure this blessed thing works’. He said to me, ‘Mr. Mayor, it will work, we’ve done it 12 times, and it worked every time’.
So Sir David comes up, and he pulls the cord and nothing happened. So he pulls the cord again and nothing happened, so he pulls it a third time and still nothing happened, so then he draws his sword and he’s about to slash the cord – all the photographs, they’ll be in the library here – of Sir David Martin with sword drawn – a great picture.

Just then a man whose name was not Knott, which I thought was rather amusing, raced out with a ladder, put it round the back of the rock, and loosened the rope down it fell and it was opened. So it’s very dramatic – it’s a great story for an event like that.

New Library building opened 1978 and John Coburn tapestry

Max Park was the town clerk at the time the library was opened. The Governor was late. He was worried – Max was worried. It was close to Christmas, everything was happening, it wouldn’t be ready, T.C. I said to him it would all work out, and it did.

The library itself was an interesting building. To get the council to agree to it was not easy. You had these disparate interests in the council but this was going to be a building that if it was properly done would endure as a monument to all the aldermen who saw it as an important feature in Mosman, so there was a committee formed, and I chaired this committee.

We would meet and we had a very, very good architect design it. In fact, I thought the building would get a prize. I can’t remember where I was when I saw this building that was sheathed in copper and I thought – what a wonderful finish this would give, as it aged it would get the green verdigris on it – it would colour up and it would be a beautiful looking building.

We had quote for about 100 and something thousand dollars to do it, we couldn’t afford that, so I went and saw Crane Copper & Aluminum, and convinced them to do it for cost in return for which they could use it in their advertising and submit it for a prize, so they’d get publicity.

And when it was opened – I’m surprised it didn’t win a prize actually, because it was very highly thought of, and it’s an excellent space and then it needed some decoration so I knew John Coburn, the artist, now dead of course, and he had this great tapestry and I saw it and I thought – oh, this would be great, but I couldn’t afford it, so I did a whip around and I think we got maybe 12 or so people including a couple of the aldermen, Dick Palmisano was one I remember, I was another – Sir Tristan Antico – I think Ron Luke if I remember correctly, and we all put money in and bought the tapestry, which has been really, one of the prides and joys of the library and it gives a wonderful finish to the wall.

Being Mayor and Mosman Council a trailblazer

It was a great thing to have been Mayor of Mosman, it’s an office that interesting people have occupied over the years. George Ferris was another man who was Mayor here for some years. He was very high in local government he became President of the Local Government Association, as did Ron Luke who also became chairman of the Cumberland County Council. There is a plaque, a coat of arms in the aldermen’s room, or the councillors’ room as it now is, which Ron donated to us. I later became President of the Local Government Association, so Mayors of Mosman have been in the forefront of local government for many years and Mosman has been a trail blazer in many ways and particularly in financial ways, and particularly under the present General Manager, who used to be Town Clerk, Viv May, a very astute man, very good with finance and this council has done things that councils, many times its size have not been able to do and remain solvent.

Living in Mosman and ‘One words’ on Mosman

Why do I like living in Mosman? Its environment, it has an extraordinary sense of being part of the big city, yet there are places where you could be 100s of miles from the city. You go to Chowder Head, you walk through the bushland there, the birds are singing, there are trees around you, you can see glimpses of water, then you walk out onto a little rocky promontory and spread ahead of you is the high rise of Sydney. So you move from bush to city in an instant, so it’s that environment that is so wonderful in Mosman.

Environment, bushland, water glimpses, birds, safety for children, and a great sense of community.