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Water Fight: How Sydney’s Pools Became A Contested Space In Council Elections

By Angus Thompson November 26, 2021 — 5.00am
Astride the teeming breadth of Kogarah Bay sits a former body of water, a rectangular void that lays idle in disrepair.

Kogarah War Memorial Pool at Carss Park has been empty for more than two years – a length of hoarding wraps around what locals have long considered a sacred place.

The 50-metre, post-war swimming pool has gone from being the hub of south Sydney families and sporting champions – such as distance swimmers Michelle Ford and Susie Maroney – to a council’s lingering headache.

Whether they are presented as a symbol of unity, equality – or sometimes elitism – swimming pools have become a battleground for the upcoming local government polls.

“I was absolutely terrified of water,” Georges River Council candidate Natalie Mort said of a childhood fear only deepened by being caught in a rip at Bondi as a young, Irish backpacker in 1980.

It was a near-death experience that eight years later prompted her to conquer her fear while her son was receiving swimming lessons at the Carss Park pool.

“I basically hopped in and one of the coaches threw me a kickboard,” she said. From that point her affinity with the pool was sealed, spurring her to add her name to the list of champions who’d lapped its length by becoming world number one in ironman triathlons in 2018.

But the same year, a council report canvassed demolishing the complex, citing extensive corrosion and cracking to the pool and surrounding structures.

A $5 million funding promise from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, impassioned support from local Labor MP and now Opposition Leader Chris Minns, and a 10,000-signature petition were not enough to save it in 2019 when the council closed the facility after discovering pool water leaking into the bay.

A groundswell of voices calling for the salvation of the pool came up against those who saw it as a money pit, and an opportunity to build something elsewhere. Repeated motions to demolish it have been quashed.

It was the galvanising factor in the formation of Georges River Residents and Ratepayers, a local party featuring Ms Mort that puts the pool’s reinstatement on a campaign footing.

Its fate has also been wrapped into the campaigns of Ms Mort’s rivals at the December 4 council elections. Blakehurst ward councillors Sam Elmir and Sandy Grekas are both calling for the complex to be razed, remediated and replaced with green space.

“My position on the matter has always been that I always look at it from a financial perspective and what it means for the council, and I just want value for money,” Cr Elmir said, adding he wanted to see a pool at Jubilee Stadium – the home of NRL club the St George Illawarra Dragons – and Carss Park returned to open space.

“What the experts have made pretty clear time and time again is you just don’t build outdoor 50-metre pools any more ... they’re losing money.”

RMIT University academic Ian McShane, who has researched the cultural, economic and infrastructural factors of suburban pools, said while the historical value of such facilities loomed large, their functionality was open to question.

However, the associate professor said they were an important part of Australian culture. “I certainly wouldn’t like to see them disappear and go completely indoors, or be completely privatised. The publicness of the facility has a role to play,” he said.

The prospect of a cool-down in the open air has become attractive election fodder for other council candidates across Sydney. As pandemic restrictions eased, western Sydney mayors called for pools to be opened to give struggling ratepayers some reprieve.

The reopening of Balmain’s Dawn Fraser Baths, said to be the city’s oldest public pool, became the threshold for inner west residents to resume some sort of normality.

Deposed Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne was there, having entwined the pool’s $8 million restoration with his eventful leadership after referring his own council staff to the NSW Auditor-General in March over repeated delays to its reopening.

“If the last lockdown has taught us anything it’s that the community values public pools as highly as assets like schools and hospitals,” the Labor councillor said, gearing up to reclaim his mayoral mantle by spruiking the past term’s revamp of Dawn Fraser and Ashfield pools.

“Now it’s time to invest in Leichhardt Pool. If I’m returned as mayor, I’ll deliver $10 million to secure the future of Leichhardt Park Aquatic Centre, including a new landscaped water play park with BBQs and shaded recreation space, as well as replacing the Olympic pool, which is at the end of its life cycle.”

He has also promised to bring privately operated pools in the former Marrickville Council area back into the fold.

Perhaps the most grandiose pledges have been from those looking to take Town Hall, with Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore aiming to add another term to her 17-year tenure by spruiking the prospect of harbour baths at Pyrmont, Elizabeth Bay, Barangaroo, Rushcutters Bay and the Glebe foreshore.

The announcement prompted an outcry from the Sydney Liberal candidates, who had already announced their plans to expand the number of harbourside pools, while the first Aboriginal lord mayoral candidate, Yvonne Weldon, described Cr Moore’s plan as elitist.

“Giant concrete pools built in the middle of the harbour, targeted to those residents who are lucky enough, and probably rich enough, to live close to the water. I just thought, there has to be a better way,” Ms Weldon said.

She has instead engaged a landscape architecture firm to help come up with an idea for a network of shallow lagoon-style “urban billabongs” that would be concentrated further inland by adding Belmore Park, Alexandria Park and Sydney Park to slated spots at Barangaroo and Pyrmont.

“They will be across a number of locations and be able to be used by vastly more Sydneysiders than a pool, built at huge cost in the middle of the harbour, which conjures up images of something that would be built in Dubai,” she said.

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