“State cemeteries must remain under a state operator, not under a religious entity”, affirms with conviction the outgoing president of the Association of Lebanese Muslims, Samier Dandan.
The Catholic Church does not agree at all. He is fighting a proposal by the government of New South Wales to place cemeteries on Crown land under the control of a single agency and to end Catholic control of several large cemeteries. The church accuses the responsible minister, Melinda Pavey, of being “at war” with her.
Now the scuffle over who controls Sydney’s cemeteries should be referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and has already sparked threats of injunctions.
It is one of the most divisive issues the NSW government has faced in years, engulfing the Catholic Church and Muslim and Jewish organizations, while pitting ministers against each other. .
Despite an NSW cabinet decision in September last year to create a single ownership structure, OneCrown, a rearguard action led by the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT) upset the plan.
With the rise of a prominent Catholic, Dominic Perrottet, to prime minister, the CMCT has stepped up its campaign, led by some of Sydney’s most powerful lobbyists to try to achieve its preferred option: two bodies, with the CMCT controlling the newest and most lucrative cemeteries.
He encountered equally passionate opposition.
Dandan has campaigned on behalf of Sydney’s Muslim community on the issue for over 15 years.
Burial space is essential for Muslims, who are not allowed to cremate loved ones. A growing share of Sydney’s population, they account for 40% to 45% of underground burials in Sydney.
The LMA claims that as the providers of 85% of all Muslim burials, it is the body that can speak on behalf of the community, although this has been contested by representatives of the CMCT.
The question of who controls Sydney’s cemeteries has been prompted by the much more pressing issue: Sydney is running out of burial space.
A report, ominously titled 11th Hour: Solving Sydney’s Cemetery Crisis, which was handed over to the government last year, warned that the problem of new cemeteries was urgent and could no longer be ignored.
“Some of the cemeteries that have served Sydney for a century will close within three years and all existing operational crown cemeteries will close to new burials within 10 to 12 years,” he said. “This is much earlier than the previous time frames indicated and requires immediate action.”
He recommended that the government create OneCrown, a single body to manage all cemeteries, instead of the current five trusts, which include the CMCT, which is controlled by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.
This, he said, would reduce overhead costs and was in line with the Ipart report on burial costs in New South Wales.
Ipart found that cemeteries on Crown land were not managed very effectively by the five trusts that control them. There was little transparency for consumers, who often made a purchase at a very stressful time.
Although there were cost differences between operators, the differences were mainly due to the different characteristics and age of each cemetery and differences in the faith and cultural mix of burials in each cemetery, Ipart said. .
“The most efficient way [to reduce costs] is by reducing the indirect costs associated with a burial right, ”he said. “These include one-time administrative and overhead costs, sales and marketing costs. “
The 11th Hour report proposed to combine the five trusts into OneCrown.
He also identified another problem: Most nonprofit trusts were operating at a loss and had unfunded liabilities totaling $ 300 million. These responsibilities arise from the fact that part of the cost of running a cemetery is its maintenance. People contribute to a perpetual maintenance fund when they buy land. But in older cemeteries, these payments are not enough to cover future costs.
On top of that, the 11th Hour report said $ 200-300 million would be needed to purchase land for new cemeteries.
The only trust that was in the dark was the CMCT. It manages Rookwood, Liverpool and Kemps Creek and holds the development rights for two new cemeteries in Varroville and Wallacia.
The merger into one would solve the financial problems, according to the 11th Hour report. The CMCT’s “perpetual care fund” would be worth $ 1.2 billion by 2045 and $ 5 billion by 2070.
The OneCrown proposal
The OneCrown option is supported by Investment NSW, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and Pavey, the Minister of Crown Lands.
But it is fiercely opposed by the CMCT and the Catholic Church and by some powerful ministers close to the Catholic Church.
Supporters of the OneCrown option say the reason the Catholic trust is better off financially is the youthfulness of its cemeteries, while other trusts, all government-owned, deal with older cemeteries that are nearly full. .
If the government opts for the two-body option favored by the Catholic trust, it will have a very well-resourced cemetery organization and one that has no means of maintaining or maintaining existing cemeteries. create new ones.
Critics say this is in effect ceding control of Crown land and the funeral business to the Catholic Church.
In 2017, the Catholic Church proposed to the government of New South Wales a billion dollar privatization of Sydney cemeteries.
As part of the sale plan, the four Sydney Cemetery Trusts currently owned by the NSW government and operating on Crown land were to be consolidated into a new company and leased for 99 years to Fabrico.
Fabrico then offered to sublet the management of the combined cemeteries covering all religious denominations to the CMCT.
Perrottet, who was then treasurer, was told by his ministry in 2018 that privatization could not be dealt with under the government’s unsolicited tendering rules because it was not unique enough. There should be a call for tenders.
There were then discussions among senior ministers in favor of the Catholic Church’s proposal for an alternative: an act that would lease the land for 200 years and the transfer of the Perpetual Care Fund for $ 1.
The talks were overseen by then-Minister of Crown Lands Paul Toole and Minister of Finance Damien Tudehope, both Catholics.
But the proposal met with resistance from the Ministry of Planning, Industry and Environment because it believed it would violate the provisions for direct transactions.
When Pavey took over the portfolio, she requested a statutory review which led to the OneCrown proposal.
“We don’t want winners and losers”
The Catholic Church continued to push forward alternative proposals – the latest being the “two operator” model, which would mean that the Catholic Cemeteries Board Ltd (CCB) would maintain its hold over the cemeteries currently managed by the CMCT.
Catholic Cemeteries board member Danny Casey, management consultant and former advisor to Cardinal George Pell, who spent two years in Rome between 2014 and 2016 to help Pell reshuffle Vatican finances, is only one of those leading the charge.
Former Attorney General Greg Smith, a devout Catholic, is also a member of the Catholic Cemeteries Council.
They called on the heavyweights of the lobbying world to help them out: Michael Photios, ex-Liberal politician and former moderator host, and one of Sydney’s most connected image specialists, Tim Allerton.
In June, when Pavey threatened to appoint a director at CMCT, the trust responded with a threat of injunction.
Pavey has now effectively been sidelined and former Deputy Prime Minister John Barilaro has chaired meetings with stakeholders.
Dandan continued to promote the OneCrown model and sought legal advice on whether the Catholic proposal violated direct selling bans. Catholics responded with their own legal advice, from Geoffrey Watson SC, saying it was in order.
“It’s not about whether Catholics will do a bad job or a good job,” says Dandan. “That’s not the point. This responsibility, logically and pragmatically, must remain in the hands of the government. “
The Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities also have a stake in the outcome.
The NSW Jewish Council of Deputies said it simply wanted a long-term, sustainable solution that would pave the way for work to start on new cemeteries.
“We don’t want winners or losers,” says board chief executive Darren Bark. “We focus on the community side and it’s the results that matter. Experience should also be taken into account.
It is understood that the Jewish community, which needs a much smaller number of burial sites, has secured an agreement for the sites for the next 25 years.
The CMCT operates under extensions of its legislation. The last extension expires on December 30.
“We are committed to finding a solution that gives the people of NSW access to affordable, faith-based funeral services,” said Pavey.
“The ongoing consultation regarding the future operating model for Metropolitan Crown Cemeteries has been and will be conducted in accordance with all necessary probity protocols, including, where applicable, Direct Trading Guidelines from Investment NSW, the government unsolicited proposal process and Icac guidelines for direct negotiation, “she said.