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No Black Faces on the Block? - May 2005

The Carr Government’s plans for the rundown suburb of Redfern are yet to be revealed, but anyone taking a white brush to the black heart of Sydney is surely in for a fight. MARNI CORDELL reports on the battle for Redfern-Waterloo.

‘The Block’, a hectare of land opposite Redfern train station, was first bought for Aboriginal housing in 1973 with a grant from the Whitlam Government. The area was a nucleus for Indigenous activism, and gave life to some of Aboriginal Australia’s greatest social legacies, including the first medical and legal services.

According to Shane Phillips, whose family has lived in the area for three generations, it was a dynamic place to grow up. “We saw a lot of strong Koori people, who all worked hard and fought for what they believed in,” he says, “and just wanted to raise their kids and get what everyone else was getting.”

But in the mid-1990s, says Phillips, “the gear hit”. The area became known for its heroin trade, attracting users from across Sydney to score and shoot up in the dark alleys of the area’s 19th century housing. “That infection just grew, and destroyed what was a great, strong place,” Phillips says.

To the local Aboriginal community, the Block is a significant and symbolic place, with the potential to house a vibrant community. To developers, it’s a near-empty piece of land in an overcrowded city.

Prime real estate just five minutes from the CBD, Redfern has been an obvious ‘black spot’ on developers’ maps for some time. However, last year’s riots following the tragic death of 17-year-old TJ Hickey, and the subsequent parliamentary inquiry in to the area, have given the NSW Government the impetus to push ahead with major redevelopment plans.

In November last year the Carr Government’s agenda was revealed in documents leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Soon after, the Redfern-Waterloo Act went through parliament with full support from the Liberal opposition. “I said the day after the riot at Redfern that the real solution to this was to bulldoze the Block. I can hardly argue when the Government comes forward to do that and so much more,” said opposition leader John Brogden.

In its mandate to improve the socio-economic standing of the area, the newly formed Redfern-Waterloo Authority has the power to acquire private land, bypass heritage and planning laws, and delegate its powers to private subsidiary corporations. According to property lawyer Damien Barnes, while these powers are not unprecedented, they are extraordinary considering the area is highly residential.

The Block has a problematic history, closely tied to mismanagement by its guardians, the Aboriginal Housing Company. In 1997, the company demolished a number of houses and relocated residents in an attempt to get rid of the drug trade. Ann Weldon, Chairperson of the Aboriginal Housing Office, says there was a lot of division over this decision, and the AHC has still not delivered on a promise it made at that time: to build one house for every two that it knocked down.

“I would like to see that promise obligated, irrespective of what the company are negotiating with other people, because there was major rivalry and discontent within the Aboriginal community over relocation, and the implications of that,” says Weldon.

Peter Valilis, AHC Project Director, concedes that the AHC has not been an effective community representative. “The Company didn’t do two things in the past: it didn’t get the support of the majority of the stakeholders, and it didn’t start off with a social agenda.”

“We now recognise that there are a lot of direct and indirect stakeholders of this area. Even though the Housing Company owns the land, and no one, legally, has a say beyond that; you have government stakeholders, tenants, local people who live near the Block, the business community, academics. There’s a long list of people who have an interest in this area.”

For the last five years, the AHC has been developing plans to revitalise the area. The Company’s ‘Pemulwuy Plan’ would see 62 new houses built on the Block, along with an open-plan retail district, offices, a gymnasium and an Aboriginal business college. The plan has received two social planning awards, but is reliant on Government funding to proceed.

Valilis explains that the Pemulwuy Plan came about following lengthy community consultation: “Everyone had a say, and eventually, not everyone was happy, but we found some common ground.”

That is, until the Redfern-Waterloo Authority weighed into the debate.

In February, Frank Sartor, the NSW Minister responsible for Redfern-Waterloo, visited the AHC to discuss the future of the Block. According to Peter Valilis, the Minister told the Company’s board members that he wanted “no black faces on the Block”.

Sartor’s spokeswoman denies the claim.

However, the Minister has made his opposition to the Pemulwuy Plan clear, dubbing it an experiment in high-dependency housing.

Valilis is adamant that the plan will go ahead, with or without State Government support. He describes the Minister’s approach as “it’s my way or the highway”. “Well, we got in the car and drove off down the highway,” he says.

However, if negotiations between the two parties sour, Sartor could, in line with the Land Acquisition Act, compulsorily acquire the Block and develop it as he pleases. Valilis’s response to this suggestion is a defiant “let him try.”

Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway takes the threat more seriously. He believes the local community does not have the political clout to take on a money-hungry Minister, backed by some very rich developers.

“There’s good argument to say that any decision to compulsorily acquire what is private land could amount to a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act, on the grounds that it is treating one group differently to the rest of the community,” he says.

“I think Australia’s become so immune to looking at these things in certain ways. If [the ‘no black faces’ comment] were said in the United States or the United Kingdom you’d have race riots on the streets. Aboriginal people locally have somehow been conditioned into accepting that this is normal, and the government and the rest of the community is saying that it’s okay. Well I’m saying it’s not. The standards of the law should apply equally, irrespective of the colour of a person’s skin,” says Ridgeway

If the Redfern-Waterloo Authority acquired the Block, it would be the first time in Australian history that land won by Aboriginal people as a result of the 1970s land rights struggle was taken back from them.

Shane Phillips believes that much of the local Aboriginal community is behind the AHC’s Pemulwuy Plan, and is prepared to fight for it. “There are so many people who want to come back to Redfern. They don’t want to come back while it’s all drugs, and drug dealers are still living here. That’s the intention of the housing company: bring back some working families and give the kids an opportunity to help rebuild the place, but also to see positive role models in their community.”

“A few weeks ago there was a fundraiser for a bloke, a great family man from the area, who’s ill at the moment. Everyone came together and it was great to see all those faces, who you know have had words or had disputes, all come together and sit at the same tables.”

“People come together for a cause,” says Phillips.

The Redfern-Waterloo Authority might be just the cause to bring community back to the Block.