<i>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman.</i>

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman.

The Sydney Botanic Gardens and Domain, while a gift from governors Phillip and Macquarie to the people of Sydney, is of its essence, a gift of nature.

Its attractive deep cove, with its two long tongues of green reaching down to the harbour at Bennelong Point and at Mrs Macquaries Chair, is essentially the landform shaped down the aeons. It is broadly as it was before European settlement. That is what is so wonderful about it – a place defined by naturalism. But even more than that, a garden space made richer by its developed horticultural heritage.

The Sydney Botanic Gardens is one of the great gardens of its kind in the world. We therefore have a duty of care to maintain and protect it.

The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust has outlined a plan which fundamentally commercialises this historic garden place. The plan seeks to give the gardens a railway station, a ferry wharf, a hotel, a permanent sound stage and, as inappropriate as these things are, worse than that, three clumsily placed buildings. According to the draft plan, a 100- to 200-seat cafe and function places in each of the very points that the two green tongues touch the harbour – Bennelong Point at the foot of the Opera House and Mrs Macquaries Chair and a separate extension of the Art Gallery of NSW jumping the expressway to land in the gardens themselves.

Jorn Utzon set his Opera House and the steps to its podium against the immediate rolling green hill rising from the Man O’War steps reaching to Government House. It is a poetic picture of nature juxtaposed with major architecture. Where that rolling hill meets Utzon’s steps, the gardens trust wants to erect a building. And a big one. The insensitivity of it is breathtaking. And to what purpose? The draft plan tells us – "an orientation centre, associated retail, 200-seat cafe, 100-seat outdoor dining area and public toilets". In other words a mini-mall.

But not happy with that detraction against the site, the trust seeks to repeat it at Mrs Macquaries Point. Here, on what is probably Sydney’s most natural and sacred site, with panoramic views from the Opera House and Harbour Bridge to Bradleys Head, the trust intends to construct another building.  And that building, according to the draft plan, is another cafe, retail and function space with a terrace under a glass canopy. In other words, a blot on the landscape. But in this case, the most sensitive bit of landscape in the city.

One can only imagine the growth in the tourist bus traffic that will tear Mrs Macquaries Point to pieces as tourism operators pour their clients into the cafe and function space. These tourism operators want to sell the nature that Sydney offers while reserving the right to trash it wherever they think they can make a faster and more convenient buck.

One can understand the greedy and crass tourism industry wanting to build these things, but having them done at the behest of the gardens trust – the supposed trustee of this natural domain is what is truly disturbing.

But the story does not stop there. The gardens trust has thrown its lot in with the management and board of the Art Gallery of NSW, for the gallery to jump the expressway separating the gardens from the Domain, extending the gallery building into the gardens proper, a whopping 10,000 square metres of space. And this is proposed despite the fact that the natural and obvious place for the gallery to extend itself is along its own southern wall, taking new development space from the existing Domain car park.

Instead, the plan has the Domain car park being developed as a hotel. And why would the Art Gallery of NSW want to sully the gardens’ green profile with another large outbuilding? The answer: the view. The view over Woolloomooloo Bay to the broader harbour.

The Art Gallery board and its director should be fulfilling their primary mission: bringing art to the people. Instead, they want to bring harbour views to the people. The north-eastern corner of the gallery, where its restaurants reside, already look over Woolloomooloo Bay. The gallery does not need an incongruous extension with a separate building in the gardens itself. It has its views and, if it needs more gallery exhibition space, it should get it by extending itself south over the Domain car park and not north, hopping the expressway.

The whole idea of a hotel along Sir John Young Crescent, built within the current car park space, is about allowing the Art Gallery to push itself north, to squat in garden land that belongs to the public.  But the gardens trust has a weasel word for this too: it calls it the "land bridge".  This is simply code for facilitating the Art Gallery’s mindless ambition to skip itself north.

These are among the real issues in this so-called plan – the real subplot. There is no reason whatsoever the Art Gallery of NSW should not extend itself south on the site adjacent its current boundary – the Domain car park – and every reason to prevent it distorting the gardens precinct by leaping north.

But no critique of this unhappy story can be made without mentioning the proposal for a permanent Domain "sound shell".

The trust invokes the name of Dame Joan Sutherland to defend its decision to provide a permanent sound stage to allow what it describes as "year-round events" in the Sydney Domain. Such a decision would, in essence, turn the Domain from a garden and congregation space into an arena; an arena open primarily to use by concert promoters. The trust will say it is for carols for Christmas and summer concerts, and it might be. But it will also be open to massive exploitation by the for-profit music industry.  And if the shell is to be placed back, further south towards St Mary’s Cathedral, as is mooted, this will necessitate destruction of more of the historic tree-scape. Given all the places in greater Sydney pop music concerts can be held, why should the trust be bending over to facilitate this kind of abuse?

Other cities have hallowed open space, space they have the maturity to preserve. Central Park in New York does not have, nor need, its own railway station, its own hotel, "orientation" centres, any more than does Kew Gardens in Britain.

At the core of these preservations is the sense the people of these cities have of themselves. They set the standard, they instruct the political system. If Sydney is prepared to allow itself to fall prey to every trashy tourist and retail lobby, the city will not remain ours to protect or enjoy as we do now. The paid mouthpieces providing the media comment will occupy the available space, leaving the concerns of a conscientious citizenry disorganised and dishevelled.

The Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust draft master plan is a place to draw the line.  I am hoping the best instincts of the NSW government – and there are a good many – will get these proposed changes adjusted to better suit their historic context.

Paul Keating is a former prime minister of Australia.