Catholic Church in $1bn plot to sell cemeteries
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.