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Plans drawn in black and white - 01.10.2005

Elizabeth Farrelly in the SMH reports. There are uncomfortable echoes of the past in the battle over Redfern's future.

It was just before dinner the other evening when the phone rang. Nuisance charity, I thought, peeling the usual excuses along with the metaphorical spuds. But the voice said, "Hi, I'm doing a survey on Redfern." That got me. Redfern's interesting and here are three reasons why. One, I live there. Two, it's hot and getting hotter, even without global warming. Three, there had been rumours about this mysterious push-poll and I was delighted to be among the chosen. I didn't tell him that, though, and the caller didn't ask. I did ask who had commissioned the survey, but my interlocutor was not prepared to divulge the origin of his 30 silver pieces.

There were 11 questions, ending with "How much do you earn" and starting with "Have you ever heard of the Block?" In between were not questions at all but propositions, with which one was expected to agree or disagree, mildly or strongly. For example: the Block should be rebuilt for non-residential purposes but still managed by Aboriginal people; the Government should prevent the Aboriginal Housing Company from building 62 houses on the Block because they will just repeat the problems of the past; the Government should not allow anything to be built on the Block because whatever it is will just be a mess; the Aboriginal Housing Company should not be allowed to manage anything on the Block; Aboriginal people should be allowed to control the Block because they will manage it well and there will be no repeat of the problems of the past. As if the only condition upon which We should let Them stay on their own land is if they clean up their act.

The Block is black Australia's urban heartland; the point at which the footprints converge. A two-hectare area bounded by Eveleigh, Caroline, Louis and Vine streets, the Block houses our oldest continuous urban Aboriginal community, dating from the Great Depression when people came to work as fettlers at Eveleigh Railyards. Now it is owned by the Aboriginal Housing Company, headed by the fearless Mick Mundine, and must stand as one of the only communities in the country to have rooted out its own drug problem by demolishing the houses of the dealers. Chewing off your own foot to survive - now that's brave.

And how does the State Government respond? By doing everything possible to rid the Block of the blacks. Of course, the Government might be entirely innocent of the survey, though its denials run so thick and fast it makes you wonder. Who else, anyway, has the motives and resources to play such games? Plus, there's the on-the-ground evidence - namely, everything else the Government is doing to Redfern.

It was Thomas Paine who said "that government is best which governs least". And there's nothing like tricked-up institutional racism in this overgoverned country to persuade you that he was right; three levels of government is at least 21/2 levels too many. Especially in Redfern, where federal and state governments are now showing unnatural solidarity towards what to some might look like apartheid.

It's an ugly word for an uglier ideal, and a battle you might have thought was won. Well, think on this. Just as the State Government is pushing to get the blacks off the Block, the Federal Government has "defunded" the 21-year-old Elouera-Tony Mundine Gym, the Block's centrepiece, because it's not black enough. The housing company project officer, Peter Valilis, says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services representatives inspected the gym last year, commenting that too many whites train there. They're only interested, he says, in funding blackfella boxing. "Not fully satisfied at the level of service" was the official wording.

It could be coincidence, of course. But that does nothing to reduce the ugliness of the motivation and the mechanics behind the push to distinguish on grounds of colour.

Meanwhile, the State Government enacted its Redfern-Waterloo Authority Act 2004, giving one minister discretion over Redfern, suspending the Heritage Act and bestowing broad powers of resumption, as if no one lives there. Terra nullius, all over again.

But people do live there. The land is freehold and the people are citizens. Now, after the drug demolitions, they want to rebuild from the remaining 19 houses up to a critical mass of 62 dwellings, one for each of the Gadigal clan's last 62 families killed by smallpox in the 19th century. That was the original scheme, called Pemulwuy, by Col James and others. Now it has been strengthened with a proposal for two-thirds owner-occupation and a large commercial component - including an indigenous business college (several universities have already shown interest), a market, a Block museum and a rebuilt Elouera gym. These additional buildings, by Innovarchi architects, are edgy and handsome and designed to invite people into the new Red Square spanning the rail tracks.

Just as all this was happening, though - and ironically (as The Guardian in Britain noted) at the start of Reconciliation Week - the Minister for Redfern-Waterloo, Frank Sartor, declared the Block "state significant", making him its sole planning and consent authority. There was no consultation, Valilis claims, despite the minister's obligation under the Redfern-Waterloo Authority Act to consult the housing company on "issues and strategies affecting ... the Block".

Next, the propaganda war. It started with Sartor's "open letter" in August, accusing Mundine of "boycotting all discussions with Government" and of wanting to increase housing numbers on the block. (In fact, the housing company proposes to replace the previous 102 houses with only 62.) Curiously, Sartor also used the same "repeat the problems of the past" phraseology as the anonymous survey.

Into the same document, the minister tossed a tactical red herring, attacking Sydney's Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, for not handing Redfern Oval exclusively to the Indigenous Land Council. It's the old divide and rule, a time-honoured colonial tradition.

The real issue, though, is one of equality before the law. What if it was whitefella land the state proposed to resume? Bondi Junction or Chinatown, Lakemba or Cabramatta? Think how many holes there'd be in Vaucluse if demolition was the official response to drug dealing. Even Waterloo's towers have managed to stay the Government's axe. Indigenous people alone are seen as sufficiently weak for government bully-boy tactics.

Where are our ethical guardians? The Law Society, for instance, defends the right to equality of refugees and would-be terrorists, but is quiet on the Redfern front. Why aren't we outraged by what's happening? Is it because these are what Sartor calls "high-dependency" people, "that type of socio-economic group"? Because they're black?

Sartor has denied claims he wants "no black faces on the Block". He told the Herald in August: "I don't care if it's white or black, it's not a racial issue. When you've got people of that [socio-economic] profile, no matter what their ethnic background, you can't afford to create another mire."

For the Aboriginal community it's about equal treatment as land owners; about self-determination, integration. Just like anyone else. And it could happen, with or (better still) without government help. Imagine, for instance, if the Aboriginal quarter was seen as a jewel in the city fabric, like Chinatown or the Spanish quarter, rather than a wound. Imagine if, instead of a new government-funded indigenous art museum, the Block achieved its rightful role as a vibrant, self-funding urban-Koori hub selling its own art to the world. Imagine if it could generate not just money but status, genuine cultural status. Now that'd be speaking the language.