Catholic Church in $1bn plot to sell ceme­ter­ies

The Australian - - THE NATION - BRAD NORINGTON AS­SO­CIATE ED­I­TOR

All ceme­ter­ies across met­ro­pol­i­tan Syd­ney could be up for sale, with a $1 bil­lion pri­vati­sa­tion pro­posal be­ing con­sid­ered by the NSW govern­ment that in­volves hand­ing con­trol to the Catholic Church.

Catholic Arch­bishop of Syd­ney An­thony Fisher has been an ac­tive sup­porter of the pro­posal ad­vo­cated by an in­vest­ment ad­vi­sory firm, Fabrico, which claims “a com­mer­cial way of think­ing” is needed to tackle a burial-space short­age on crown land in greater Syd­ney.

Un­der the sell-off plan, Syd­ney’s four ceme­tery trusts cur­rently owned by the NSW govern­ment and op­er­at­ing on crown land would be con­sol­i­dated into a new com­pany and leased for 99 years to Fabrico.

Fabrico would then seek to sub­lease man­age­ment of the com- bined ceme­ter­ies cov­er­ing all re­li­gious faiths to the Catholic Met­ro­pol­i­tan Ceme­ter­ies Trust, which cur­rently man­ages Aus­tralia’s largest ceme­tery at Rook­wood in Syd­ney’s west, and is con­trolled by Syd­ney’s Catholic Arch­dio­cese.

The CMCT would man­age the ceme­ter­ies in a com­mer­cial part­ner­ship with In­voCare, a large pri­vate fu­neral home and cre­ma­to­rium op­er­a­tor.

The pro­posed deal, out­lined in de­tail by Fabrico ex­ec­u­tives at a CMCT board meet­ing in April, and put to NSW Trea­surer Do­minic Per­rot­tet in July, could pro­vide a $1bn pri­vati­sa­tion wind­fall or more to the state govern­ment.

But the un­usual plan for a takeover of the city’s pub­lic ceme­ter­ies has al­ready caused enor­mous in­ter­nal ruc­tions, in­clud­ing CMCT board res­ig­na­tions and protests to Arch­bishop Fisher that fu­neral costs will go up if ceme­tery trusts are pri­va­tised and lose their tax­ex­empt sta­tus as char­i­ties. An- other po­ten­tial dif­fi­culty is that non-Catholic Chris­tian, Jewish, Mus­lim and other re­li­gious faiths have been shut out of con­sul­ta­tions and could ob­ject to a Catholic man­age­ment regime for all Syd­ney ceme­ter­ies.

For­mer Lib­eral leader John Hew­son, who chairs the North­ern Met­ro­pol­i­tan Ceme­ter­ies Trust, said he had never heard of Fabrico and was “com­pletely sur­prised to hear of the ma­noeu­vring by the Catholic Church in re­la­tion to the man­age­ment and gov­er­nance of ceme­ter­ies.”

Dr Hew­son said the pro­posed deal seemed to have sought to cir­cum­vent the nor­mal process for un­so­licited bids to govern­ment. “I can only sus­pect a base fi­nan­cial mo­tive would be driv­ing both the church and the govern­ment, rather than a gen­uine con­cern to im­prove the qual­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity of fu­neral ser­vices,” he said.

Dr Hew­son said the NSW govern­ment had only re­cently es­tab­lished the trusts with pro­fes­sional and ex­pe­ri­enced trust boards.

“It is in­con­ceiv­able that they would now con­tem­plate pri­vatis­ing the gov­er­nance and man­age­ment, by of­fer­ing 99-year leases, es­pe­cially to an or­gan­i­sa­tion that might in­clude en­ti­ties such as In­voCare that al­ready has a sub­stan­tial level of con­trol across the sec­tor. I doubt that it would re­ceive ACCC ap­proval.”

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief ex­ec­u­tive Vic Al­had­eff said: “We were un­aware of the pro­posal, and ex­pect to be briefed.”

Ja­mal Rifi, a prom­i­nent fig­ure in the Le­banese Mus­lim com­mu­nity, said run­ning out of space was a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem — but a sell­off was not the an­swer. “We’ve al­ways known there was a lot of money in death,” he said. “It is a busi­ness, but we are al­ways con­cerned to keep costs as low as pos­si­ble be­cause many of our com­mu­nity mem­bers come from low-in­come and low so­cio-eco­nomic back­grounds.”

For­mer se­nior ALP fig­ure Leo McLeay, whose res­ig­na­tion as chair­man of the west­ern Syd­ney­based CMCT over al­leged board “in­ter­fer­ence” by Arch­bishop Fisher was re­ported by The Aus­tralian yes­ter­day, asked Fabrico ex­ec­u­tives dur­ing a recorded board brief­ing in April what would hap­pen if the North­ern and South­ern ceme­tery trusts said, “No, we don’t want to do this.”

Fabrico ex­ec­u­tive Si­mon Want, who in­sisted the plan be kept con­fi­den­tial, replied it was up to the re­spon­si­ble NSW min­is­ter. “He can ap­point and dis­miss a trust. It is at the min­is­ter’s dis­cre­tion,” he said.

The Catholic Arch­dio­cese be­gan dis­cus­sions early this year with Fabrico about what CMCT board min­utes call the “Crown Ceme­tery Trust pri­vati­sa­tion”.

A spokes­woman for Arch­bishop Fisher said he had no com­ment to make when asked about his sup­port for the pro­posal, the rea­sons for it, and whether there was any ben­e­fit in pro­ceed­ing.

The Aus­tralian asked Mr Per­rot­tet if he was re­cep­tive to the pro­posal, and whether he shared Fabrico’ s con­cerns about the al­leged “un­der­funded” state of ceme­tery trusts. A spokesman said ap­pro­pri­ate as­sess­ment pro­cesses ap­plied to all pro­pos­als, and un­so­licited ones were man­aged by the De­part­ment of Pre­mier and Cab­i­net.

Hew­son

Rifi

Al­had­eff

Fisher

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