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Battle for the streets – 13 March 2006

Plans to fix Sydney's Aboriginal ghetto have angered locals and white activists. But that does nothing to solve The Block's problems, writes Imre Salusinszky. Imre Salusinszky is The Australian's NSW state political reporter.

'FRANK would like to see no indigenous people here, or very few -- and that's just not possible," says Peter Valilis, project manager with the Aboriginal Housing Company, which owns the notorious Block in Redfern, in inner Sydney.

"Frank" is Frank Sartor, the bustling, bristling, take-no-prisoners Planning Minister in Morris Iemma's NSW Labor Government. His plan for redeveloping Redfern, and especially The Block, unveiled last month, has brought him to a head-on collision with the indigenous owners.

Sartor, a former Sydney lord mayor who was parachuted into state cabinet by former premier Bob Carr in 2003, is known for many things, but diplomatic finesse is not one of them. This was exemplified in a radio interview last September when he instructed AHC head Mick Mundine to get his "black arse" down to Sartor's office for talks.

But in the face of criticism that his plan favours business over indigenous residents, Sartor is not about to take a step back: "Where you have a separatist push for something that, in itself, is not sustainable, then it's hard to guarantee a win in the long term," he tells The Australian. "You wouldn't concentrate a whole lot of people who are on welfare together.

"What we're looking for here is a presence for Aboriginal people in a sustainable way in the broader community of Redfern. When you can integrate them better -- not in a homogenous sense but in a harmonious sense -- there are wins for everybody."

Handed over to Aboriginal owners by the Whitlam government in 1973, the two hectares of The Block once symbolised the whole progressive vision of how Aborigines could interact with the mainstream community: separate but equal.

More than 30 years and $30 million of taxpayers' money later, The Block symbolises nothing more vividly than the collapse of that vision. There are now only 19 ramshackle terraces remaining on The Block. As aspirational Aborigines have fled the area, the AHC has bought up the derelict properties and knocked them down. The resulting open ground has been turned into what the new Redfern-Waterloo built environment plan euphemistically describes as "an informal park area" -- in reality, a Third World wasteland of violence, family dysfunction and drug and alcohol abuse.

If any place in Australia is due for a break, it's The Block. But the latest tragedy to befall the area appears to be that, having gained the full-on attention of the state Government's Mr Fixit, in the shape of Sartor, local indigenous leaders seem prepared to squander it on bickering over details.

Instead of becoming a testing ground for practical reconciliation, The Block has become the latest battleground in the reconciliation culture wars. And the protagonists seem to have stepped straight out of central casting. Along with the can-do, iconoclastic Labor politician, more interested in outcomes than symbolics, we have an Aboriginal leadership divided between an older language of identity and resistance, and a newer language of economic advancement and property rights -- the language closely associated with Noel Pearson, director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership.

Meanwhile, barracking from the sidelines, there is a familiar chorus of white activists and conservationists, also intent on berating Sartor and his department.

While we have seen this conflict between two visions of indigenous advancement -- one symbolic and separatist, the other pragmatic and integrative -- played out before, the physical settings for that conflict have been remote to most Australians -- such as Hindmarsh Island, in South Australia, and Coronation Hill in Kakadu. This time, it is all about the most famous plot of indigenous ground in urban Australia.

It was just down the street from The Block, in 1992, that Paul Keating chose to make his keynote address on reconciliation, which he said was "a test of our self-knowledge" that would have "a significant bearing on our standing in the world".

"The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians," said Keating in his Redfern Oval speech. "We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us."

But after the drug-fuelled riots that gripped the area two years ago, the state Government realised that what Redfern needed was fewer displays of white self-knowledge and empathetic imagination, and a completely new plan. It got to work on a vision of urban regeneration for the area.

Sartor's is a vision that stresses the creation of jobs through the rezoning of key sites to attract developers and businesses to the war-torn area. For The Block, that means the replacement of some housing with commercial and retail space.

The AHC and its supporters say Sartor's plan will destroy the cultural significance of a place that has been sacred to Aborigines ever since the ancient Gadigal clan made it part of its its annual hunter-gatherer circuit.

They have their own renewal plan for The Block, much more focused on living and cultural spaces -- and Sartor has gazumped it.

"We're going to fight tooth and nail to prove to him that he's wrong," says Mundine of the Sartor plan. "The Block is an icon -- it's like sacred ground. I blame Bob Carr and [former treasurer] Andrew Refshauge. They put Frank in, thinking he'd come down and kick some black heads around."

Sartor's urban design would place irresistible zoning pressure on The Block's owners to reduce the number of new indigenous dwellings to about half the 62 they have planned. Even the arithmetic of that represents a symbolic affront to Sartor's opponents:

"It's a very spiritual number," says Mundine, "because there were 62 Gadigal families wiped out by smallpox [in the 1790s]. It's like a memorial to them."

While Sartor guarantees the retention of 62 designated indigenous public housing units, he says they will be spread around the Redfern-Waterloo area.

"You've got to learn from history," he says. "We are trying to stop a concentration of high-dependency housing because there the probability of anti-social behaviour and crime is greater. Thirty-five years of history here is not something you'd want to repeat."

Meanwhile, trying to build a bridge over these troubled waters is Labor Party president Warren Mundine, a prominent advocate of Aboriginal integration into the mainstream economy.

Mick is Warren's cousin and was best man at his wedding. Of the fight over The Block, Warren Mundine diplomatically says: "You have to have a mixture of commercial activity as well as residential activity.

"If they could sit down and talk that through together, there could be a win-win situation. The problem is, we shouldn't go back to the bad old days, with lots of residential, when a minority dragged the whole place down."

Just to add to the intensity of the culture war that is brewing in Redfern, white activists and conservationists are also fired up over Sartor's plans. Former Whitlam government minister Tom Uren, a sponsor of the AHC counter-proposal, told The Australian yesterday: "It's sad that Sartor took such an arrogant position. He makes decisions and then says, 'we can talk'.

"The thing is that the land near Redfern station is very valuable [government-owned] real estate, so his general attitude was they should minimise, if not get rid of, the Aboriginal influence there."

This criticism -- that he is selling out indigenous residents to white developers to bolster government coffers -- is one Sartor vehemently rejects: "Contrary to the propaganda that this thing is developer-driven, the truth is the opposite. We want investment, but my problem is getting developers interested."

That doesn't convince Sartor's critics in the latte belt. Elizabeth Farrelly, planning and architecture writer in The Sydney Morning Herald, has described Sartor's plans to bring jobs and development to Redfern as "Machiavellian", "dastardly" and "terra nullius, all over again".

"If The Block is no longer a living community," she wrote earlier this month, "it won't matter how many government-endorsed indigenous cultural centres you build there, it'll still be just another faked-up bit of white-flight conscience-salve."

Another vocal critic has been Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor Verity Firth.

"What worries me most is that urban renewal doesn't have to be just about sitting down with the business community and deciding what they want," she says. "Jobs are important, but I don't think the debate for having a more community-driven renewal is anti-job. Seriously, how many of these jobs are going to be local jobs?"

To the calls from such people, whom he labels "Gucci socialists", for broader community consultation, Sartor says: "Interminable public meetings do not a sustainable society bring. I just have a conviction that the way we do everything has to be different."

On that point, at least, there seems to be near-unanimous agreement. The plain truth is that Farrelly's phrase, "a living community," would be an extremely far-fetched way to describe The Block today.

"I wouldn't live in the area myself," says Warren Mundine. "I'm thinking of my children."

And Mick Mundine has a no less bleak account of a place that, perhaps for thousands of years, was a sacred watering-hole in the travels of the Gadigal people: "At the moment, it's a stagnant well."


•  1930s and 1940s: Aborigines in search of work at Eveleigh rail yards join relatives.

•  1970: Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service becomes a lightning rod for radical US ideas, including Black Power.

•  1972: Squatters move in and the Aboriginal Housing Company is formed.

•  1973: Gough Whitlam hands The Block over to indigenous owners.

•  1974: Redfern Housing Project proposes renovating 41 terraces as a "model for inner-city communities".

•  1976-81: Aboriginal population triples.

•  1980s: As drugs infiltrate the area, indigenous families flee.

•  1992: Paul Keating declares European "failure to bring much more than devastation and demoralisation to Aboriginal Australia continues to be our failure".

•  2004: Following the death of indigenous teenager TJ Hickey, Redfern explodes into rioting.

•  2006: Plan that promises 18,000 new jobs.