Historic Sydney Harbour island to be restored,handed back to Indigenous landowners

Me-Mel,or Goat Island,in Sydney Harbour will finally be returned to the Aboriginal community in a significant move by the NSW government,which will spend more than $40 million on regenerating the landmark before it’s handed back.

The island,once home to senior Eora man Woollarawarre Bennelong and later used to house convict workers in the 1800s,will be returned to Indigenous owners within four years.

More than $42 million will be set aside in next month’s state budget for the restoration and regeneration of the small island,which lies to the west of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The NSW government will allocate more than $40 million in next month’s state budget to the restoration of Goat Island before it is transferred back into Aboriginal hands.

The NSW government will allocate more than $40 million in next month’s state budget to the restoration of Goat Island before it is transferred back into Aboriginal hands.Wolter Peeters

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said it was only right that the island be returned to its traditional owners,but it needed to be handed back in good condition after centuries of varied use.

“Returning Me-mel to the Aboriginal community is the right thing to do,and it helps deliver on my commitment of improving outcomes and opportunities for Aboriginal people across all parts of Government,” Perrottet said.

“A big part of my commitment is ensuring the island is remediated before it’s transferred to the Aboriginal community.”

Perrottetrevealed his ambition to return Me-mel to traditional landowners earlier this year and promised to fly the Aboriginal flag permanently atop the Harbour Bridge.

Remediation work on the island,which was also used to store gunpowder and later as a water police base,will involve seawall repairs and removing contaminants including asbestos.

Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council deputy chair Yvonne Weldon said state government acknowledgement of the true ownership of Me-mel was an important step.

“Me-mel is a place where we can go to be within our culture,pass culture on to our younger generations and share with other people,” she said.

“Me-mel is an opportunity for truth telling,and it’s about recognising the past and unlocking the future.”

Environment and Heritage Minister James Griffin said the state government had established the Me-mel Transfer Committee,and was seeking expressions of interest from the indigenous community to join the panel.

“It’s easy to see why Me-mel is such a cherished Aboriginal site. It sits in the middle of our magnificent Sydney Harbour,” Griffin said.

“This is a significant transfer from the NSW Government to the Aboriginal community,and we need to ensure it’s done right,which is why the National Parks and Wildlife Service is now calling for expressions of interest to join the committee.”

The Baird government in 2016 promised the transferral of Goat Island to the local Gadigal people,but a years-long,internal government stalemate over the remediation cost prevented any progress.

Me-mel is listed on the State Heritage Register and is home to important Aboriginal sites as well as more than 30 buildings and other structures dating from the 1830s to the 1960s. Some of the buildings were built by convicts using sandstone quarried from the eastern side of the island.

The diaries of Lieutenant-Governor David Collins,published in 1798,record that Bennelong said the island “was his own property,that it was his father’s”. Bennelong appeared to be “much attached” to Me-mel and was often seen there with his wife,Barangaroo.

Me-Mel will continue being managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service until its transfer is finalised.

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Tom Rabe is a State Political Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.

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