Schumann / When a Redgum takes on a redgum

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I FIRST came to Canberra with Redgum in 1979. We were touring to promote our first album “If You Don’t Fight You Lose” and, as I recall, we played to a moderately large and gratifyingly appreciative crowd at the Ainslie Hotel – now The Mercure.

John Schumann… “God help you if you have a significant tree on your own land.”

Since then, I’ve been in and out of our nation’s capital quite often – and I enjoy my visits. Unlike any other city in Australia and, in the absence of raging bushfires, Canberra and its surrounding bush coexist quite happily. I note with approval the wide variety of natives that line the streets and populate the parks, carefully protected, I have no doubt, by Canberra’s Tree Protection Act (2005).

For my part, I am well versed in legislation to protect trees.

In 1956 mum and dad bought a little red-brick house in Lower Mitcham, Adelaide. A long time before mothers drove everywhere in Landcruisers and Pajeros, mum and I used to walk a mile or so to the Mitcham shopping strip. One day, she spied a tiny eucalyptus seedling growing in a crack in the asphalt just behind the fence of the railway station. In under an hour it was in a Vegemite glass 2/3 full of water on the laundry window sill. When it was sufficiently robust, and despite dad’s protestations and dire predictions, she planted it halfway down the block up against the fence. Its tap-root found the underground stream that ran under our block and it thrived. Really thrived. A significant feature on Google Earth, you can still see this tree from outer space. Had I known then what I know now, I would have flushed that wispy little seedling in a heartbeat.

Dad died in 2002 and, until mum moved into care, I spent my Saturday afternoons for the next 10 years trying to prevent a monsoonal downpour of redgum seeds, leaves, bark and branches from burying mum’s house.

When she was no longer able to live at home, we found her a room in a residential care facility. We also had to find $450,000 to secure it for her so, with some regret, we put the family home on the market. In very short order, we discovered that the river redgum was deemed a “significant tree” and that it could not be removed without planning approval.

Its size and the “exclusion zone” effectively precluded all renovations and redevelopment. In fact, the canopy of the tree was such that the existing footprint of the small house already encroached on the exclusion zone. After several weeks of fruitless open inspections, the real estate agent wrote to me: “Unless we can resolve the status of the tree, it is going to be the cause of a significant financial loss for your mother.”

Before the Development Assessment Panel, I approached the neighbours. Apparently, a huge bough had dropped destroying one neighbour’s fence and his pergola. Another neighbour lived in fear of another branch dropping and killing his dogs. Without exception, everybody hated the tree with unbridled passion.

In trying to resolve the matter quickly, I spoke to the mayor, one of the councillors and one helpful council officer. All were sympathetic but shoulders were shrugged and palms were turned upwards. I was ushered into the planning process, which took months. I had to complete forms, secure a sitemap, gather letters of support, produce photos, pay for a professional assessment of the tree’s condition and get a quote for its removal.

Despite a detailed and logical application, it was rejected quickly by a bunch of bureaucrats, presumably devoid of common sense. (I was reminded of Morris West’s observation: “Bureaucrats are the accursed of God.”) The Development Assessment Panel, apparently, decided that the survival of the poorly sited, inappropriate and demonstrably dangerous tree on private land should prevail over the interests of the woman who planted it.

One of my mates in real estate looks after lots of commercial property for his clients. He told me that owners of land with trees approaching “significance” size simply remove them before they grow big enough to fall under the legislation. This practice, while understandable, defeats the very purpose of the legislation.

In Canberra recently, I observed that lots of natives are being removed from Northbourne Avenue to make way for the light railway. I have no doubt that the ACT government has exempted itself from its own Tree Protection Act. But, if my experience in SA is anything to go by, God help you if you have a significant tree on your own land. Because the bureaucrats won’t.

Singer/songwriter John Schumann will perform in concert at the Harmonie Club, Narrabundah, on Saturday, March 11. Tickets from Songland records, Cooleman Court, or call 6293 4677.


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