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Issue #1654      September 3, 2014

Division runs deep in battle for The Block

The Aboriginal Housing Company’s proposed redevelopment of The Block in Sydney has sections of the community up in arms. Amy McQuire investigates the history of the dispute and why many Aboriginal people have such a strong connection to Redfern.

It was raining the day the Koori Mail visited the Redfern Tent Embassy. The sacred fire, its embers transported and reignited from the Canberra Tent Embassy, was hidden under a tin sheet. There are only four people manning the site currently, but the tented fortresses that span the grassy space between the iconic Aboriginal flag mural and the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC), are a visible reminder that this protest still burns, even if its flames flicker in and out.

Redfern Tent Embassy.

The embassy was built earlier this year following community concern over the Pemulwuy Project, the Aboriginal Housing Company’s plan to redevelop The Block. Named after the legendary freedom fighter, the development is being spearheaded by AHC chief executive Mick Mundine, and is split into stages.

Stage one is the development of a commercial precinct, which includes student accommodation, retail and commercial space and a childcare centre. Stage two will build 62 affordable houses for Aboriginal people as well as a new Tony Mundine gym. At the time of press, the Koori Mail was unable to confirm whether the AHC had secured funding. The NSW government granted approval to the application in 2012.

There have been long-running tensions between the AHC and some members of the Redfern community, but the Pemulwuy Project has heightened the division, with protestors outraged that the organisation is giving commercial development precedence over urgently needed social housing, particularly against the backdrop of a gentrifying Redfern.

Wiradjuri Elder Jenny Munro says the AHC’s development plans do not honour the organisation’s original aims, and especially not the legendary Pemulwuy.

“It’s insulting to people like Pemulwuy, and to name it after him is a double insult. He defended country. He didn’t sell it out,” she tells the Koori Mail from the embassy.

The AHC emerged in the midst of a vibrant political arena in the 1970s, when the fights won by Redfern activists spread to other parts of Aboriginal Australia. It was the first Aboriginal housing company set up in the country, and was the first time an Aboriginal organisation bought and owned freehold land – The Block is widely referred to as the first Aboriginal land won back by blackfellas.

Its historical significance and cultural resonance is strong, even sacred.

A profile of the AHC’s beginnings is on the organisation’s website. Written by founder Bob Bellear, the first Aboriginal judge, it tells of how the AHC began as a way to provide housing to destitute and homeless Aboriginal people caught trespassing in abandoned houses, largely because they had nowhere else to go.

The homeless of the time were forced into the local Archdiocese and were vulnerable to police. The AHC was formed to house the homeless and also for the other Aboriginal people who converged on Redfern, many of them political refugees from Queensland, escaping the harsh conditions imposed under Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Bellear’s brother, Sol Bellear, currently the chair of the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service and instrumental in the early days of the AHC, said the company had retreated from the original purpose of its founders.

He’s concerned that The Block will be lost to white developers and that the hard-earned fight will have been in vain.

“We keep protesting the theft of Aboriginal land all the time,” Mr Bellear says.

“Well, this is what’s going to happen here in this situation. This is Aboriginal land that was very, very hard to get back.

“It wasn’t just given to us. We had to protest. I had shots fired at me. When the developers first started in the place, they had security guards coming in there, beating Aboriginal people up, slamming doors in our faces, being chased down the road.

“It was a very hard-won battle for land.”

The AHC did not respond to calls from the Koori Mail. But Mick Mundine has previously told media the commercial aspect of the project has to come first in order to fund Aboriginal housing. That’s not accepted by Ms Munro. She doesn’t believe the AHC has tried hard enough to get funding.

“The original concept was about housing. There was no mention of commercial development or student accommodation. It was about housing,” she says.

The AHC has been unable to secure funding for affordable housing from the federal or state governments, and an approach to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council was also rejected over concerns about the ability to repay it.

Mr Mundine has told media it is hard to get anyone, particularly government, to fund social housing.

But the decision to build the commercial arm first has made many in Redfern wary that the 62 houses slated for Aboriginal people will never be built.

And as the gentrification of Redfern continues, and rents skyrocket to $1,200 a week, there are concerns that the AHC’s plans will only speed up the process.

“What will happen is you’re going to get some white developers or some white businessman who will bankroll the business side, or they’ll go to the bank and get a loan and they won’t pay it back and then the banks will own The Block,” Sol Bellear says.

“Divisive”

“And that’s why it’s so divisive. One of the things I’m scared of is we’ll gradually lose The Block to the white man.”

Last month, Mr Mundine told the Saturday Paper the developer DeiCorp was working for the AHC, not the other way around. The AHC signed a contract with DeiCorp, reported by the Sydney Morning Herald as “the biggest developer in Redfern” in 2011.

“DeiCorp are working for us. They have a contract with us to design and construct – that’s all,” Mr Mundine told the Saturday Paper. “They don’t get a piece of the cake. When this is built, the Aboriginal Housing Company will own everything 100 percent. We will pay the builders with money from a bank loan for the commercial development.”

But Mr Bellear says the board of the AHC also has to be more transparent with community. And there’s another concern about the changing face of Redfern – that the influx of students into Pemulwuy will disadvantage Aboriginal students who want to enter higher education.

Kyol Blakeney is a Gamilaroi student at the University of Sydney and a key supporter of the Redfern embassy. He’s concerned that it will only disadvantage Aboriginal students and discourage them from further study if they can’t find affordable accommodation.

“I believe that an area should be set aside for them, and what better place than here,” he says. “This Block should prioritise Elders and upcoming students and all Aboriginal people, rather than non-Aboriginal people. Just because of the ratio in numbers. We need more Aboriginal representation in universities and we’re not going to get it if we don’t have a place to stay. It’s going to deter students from wanting to come in from rural and remote areas.

“ ... This land has become a central hub for blackfellas around the country. I’ve grown up knowing Redfern is a place to go when I need to feel comfortable and when I need community.

“You can tell the type of history Redfern has had: You can walk down to The Block and you can see the mural, and the big community centre and you can walk to Redfern station and see the paintings on the walls.

“You know there is a strong black presence and that’s something that needs to be maintained, and that people need to know about.

“All of Australia is our land, but Redfern is where we had full control over this area, and it’s where the government pushed us into, and now we are making something positive out of it, it’s being taken away.”

Ms Munro says the fight is about a bigger issue – about the preservation of Aboriginal culture and ideals over the white man’s view of success. “The basic element that assimilationists don’t really grasp is that to assimilate into another culture is to commit your own cultural genocide – to turn your back on thousands, if not millions of years of history and heritage.

“I’m too black to acknowledge that sort of rubbish. Our people have a right to be Aboriginal.”

It’s clear this issue will not go away. It will continue to burn just like the fire of the embassy. Ms Munro says the development application will take two years to progress. There is still no confirmation on funding.

As the rain falls on The Block, she tells the Koori Mail she has a warm bed at home, but that this is about principle, and fighting for Aboriginal people who do not have a roof over their heads.

“We’ve come through the worst of it now. Now that winter is over, summer will be a breeze,” she says with a smile.

Koori Mail

Next article – Long live Cuba Socialista! – A talk at Politics in the Pub, Sydney

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