Minister’s war on graves

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Catholic cemetery operators had believed the issue of cemetery management was settled but are now facing moves to push them out of operation by Minister Melinda Pavey. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Catholic cemetery operators had believed the issue of cemetery management was settled but are now facing moves to push them out of operation by Minister Melinda Pavey. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Catholic cemetery operators have accused NSW Property Minister, Melinda Pavey of leading an ongoing war on religious groups by continuing her push for faith-based groups to be removed from the management of cemeteries in Sydney.

The Minister last month issued a notice to the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries and Crematoria Trust (CMCT) that it would be placed into administration on Friday 1 October 2021, which has now been extended until 30 December 2021.

This was despite the NSW Government informing Archbishop Anthony Fisher in June that the CMCT would be permitted to continue its work providing affordable faith-based burial services for more than 150 years.

Ms Pavey recently merged three other struggling and unsustainable State-controlled cemetery trusts into a single model called One Crown.

CMCT Director, Mr Danny Casey said Ms Pavey is attempting to fold the unprofitable operators into the profitable and successful CMCT and the public should be sceptical about the Minister’s motives.

“The Premier and Cabinet has authorised the Deputy Premier, now Paul Toole, to solve this issue and all the Sydney faith groups welcomed his calm hard work on this issue …”

“It is no surprise that Minister Pavey is seeking to merge the CMCT and One Crown, which through many years of mismanagement, is facing a $160 million shortfall while the CMCT has about the same sum in surplus, perpetual care funds to ensure many faith groups can bury their dead”, Mr Casey said.

“The Premier and Cabinet has authorised the Deputy Premier, now Paul Toole, to solve this issue and all the Sydney faith groups welcomed his calm hard work on this issue. In an otherwise competent government, Minister Pavey’s anti-faith bias shows no similar competence.”

Close to 20,000 people have signed an e-petition calling on the NSW Government to ensure Catholic operators are able to continue playing their part in the management of Sydney cemeteries.

The work of the Catholic cemetery bodies is strongly supported by other faith organisations including Jewish and Muslim groups which also rely upon the Catholic providers to ensure that faith-based burial customs are closely observed in the management of cemeteries.

Mr Casey said the CMCT has had development applications approved for two new cemeteries in Varroville and Wallacia to meet growing demands for burial plots in western Sydney.

But he said both have been prohibited by Ms Pavey from commencing construction ,with no justification given.

Rookwood Catholic Cemetery. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

“The Minister has continuously delayed the future construction of new burial grounds in Sydney over the last three years, with the CMCT the only operator to have acquired substantial new burial grounds during that period”, he added.

The CMCT said flawed arguments have also been raised of probity concerns over the conduct of discussions between the NSW Government and the CMCT over the management of cemeteries.

Critics have raised allegations of “direct dealing” which refers to exclusive dealings between a government agency and non-government sector body over a commercial proposition or proposal.

The concerns have been strongly rejected by the Director of the Centre for Public Integrity and senior barrister, Mr Geoffrey Watson SC, who has acted as Counsel assisting in several large scale public inquiries, investigating allegations of corruption in NSW.

Mr Watson has provided written advice to the CMCT, maintaining that there is no issue of “direct dealing” with the government in regard to the negotiations.

“It is absurd to suggest that there has been inappropriate direct dealing when former NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and his staff have been transparently speaking to multiple faith groups.”

“Assets are not being handed over at all and the discussions here relate to the management of assets”, Mr Watson explained.

“Moreover although the Catholic Cemetery Board and the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust are obviously connected to the Catholic Church, they remain separate and distinct from the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Board and the Trust work in conjunction with a variety of other bodies, some religious and some not”.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP believes the claims raised against the Catholic cemetery bodies are politically motivated.

“It is absurd to suggest that there has been inappropriate direct dealing when former NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and his staff have been transparently speaking to multiple faith groups, including the CMCT, for several months on behalf of the NSW Government”, Archbishop Fisher said.

“The claims appear to be another attempt to de-rail the logical move to allow the CMCT to continue acting on behalf of many faith groups in providing perpetual care of graves and acquiring new land to ensure sufficient and cost-effective burial plots and cremations into the future”, he added.

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