Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
No favours for Aboriginal developer
Elizabeth Farrelly Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning, architecture and aesthetics issues for the Herald.
ALL across the state, honest developers are on their knees, wearing out their breeches in prayer. The object of their fervour is that champagne moment when the LLDC (Lib-Lab Development Coalition) will declare their site “state significant”; when they are lost no longer but, thankgoda’mighty, saved at last. Their eyes glaze and halos of tiny dollar signs glow above each head.
Becton, for example, whose contentious 117-unit resort on the eco-sensitive Byron Bay beachfront received ministerial blessing last week, fought in court for the right to the minister’s lap. Foster’s, similarly, whose Broadway brewery site was plucked from council purview, lobbied long and hard for the privilege.
For them, ministerial favour is a given. Some are less fortunate. To the Aboriginal Housing Company, owner of Redfern’s the Block, the state’s attentions taste less like champagne, more like hemlock. Like precision bombing. Like history. As the oldest and central urban Aboriginal community in Australia, the Block is the centre. It’s where the songlines meet.
The new Redfern plan, gazetted the same day as last week’s Byron blessing, will end that, allowing about three-quarters of the original housing. This inhibits rebuilding private houses on freehold (black) land but hugely increasing the capacity of adjacent lands owned by (you got it) the Government. It’s unjust and bizarre. Down-zoning doesn’t happen. This is perhaps the only inviolable rule of Sydney’s erectile planning tissue: everything goes up, nothing comes down.
Why single out the Block? Not for environmental reasons, if Byron Bay’s anything to go by. And not for heritage or contextual sensitivity, since all such legislation has been specifically waived on Redfern-Waterloo Authority sites.
For Mick Mundine, Aboriginal elder and Aboriginal Housing Company chief executive, the reasons are simple: “Racism and greed … It’s more than bricks and mortar now. It’s the morality. And it boils down to this. They want the land.”
Mundine has been slow to radicalise. He was always trying to reason, trying to make peace. Now that’s changed. “They never gave us anything,” he says, “except the needle bus.” The bus that brought the junkies, that fed the smack empire, that cost him his son, that forced him to bulldoze the diehard drug houses that were killing the Block.
It was an act of desperate courage; the trapped fox chewing off its leg to survive. It worked. But now, in a dreadful irony, the reward is official depiction of the Block as beyond help, well beyond self-help. And a ban on rebuilding. Could it be a simple land grab? So cynical, so blatant?
Well, there’s no planning rationale. Redfern sits a good kilometre from the CBD. It has two towers, the TNT twins, generally seen as a mistake. Soon, under the plan, it’ll have a whole cluster, a mini-metropolis there. Why? Not because it’s the place for high rise. Not because it can ever be part of the central business district (at least until Central Station freezes over). But because the towers – and the towering price tags they’ll generate – happen to fall on government land.
The Block, they think, threatens this. As confidential cabinet papers advised back in 2004, “if the Block is not redeveloped [to reduce Aboriginal housing], the commercial benefits flowing … would face a substantial reduction … probably in the order of 25-30 per cent”. In other words it’s not so much a racist government as a monetarist government, presuming on, and pandering to, a racist market.
Many blame a rogue Planning Minister. Frank Sartor, after all, gave us the “no black faces” and “get your black arse in here” gems that made international headlines. Tom Uren, whose federal ministry deeded the Block to the Aboriginal Housing Company in the 1980s and who now chairs its Pemulwuy taskforce, is appalled by the state plan. He sheets it home to Sartor. “Frank,” says Uren, “isn’t Labor. He’s just a person of excessive arrogance who’s been in the Labor Party five minutes and seems to be making most of the decisions.”
But while Sartor may be hatchet man, he’s clearly under orders. Appeals to cabinet (from Uren) and to the Premier are ignored or “lost”. The local MP, Kristina Keneally, whose last appearance in this column had her assure Parliament at length that she’s “never worn … stilettos”, has also never visited the site. She attends press conferences, often disguised as a nodding dog, but her first scheduled visit last week was canceled so she could read the plan. Like, she hadn’t seen it?
Carmel Tebbutt, whose Marrickville electorate – should she beat Anthony “The Man” Mundine – will next year include Redfern, has visited the Block, at Uren’s behest, but changed nothing.
Sartor describes the Aboriginal Housing Company as “ideologues”. He’s cut funding, and plays divide and rule by appointing Aborigines (including Mick’s cousin, the ALP president, Warren Mundine) to his team. They know the talk.
The “ideologues” answer with support from the Governor, Marie Bashir, the University of Sydney vice-chancellor, Gavin Brown, the City Council, Hillsong and Catholic churches, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, and the Metro-Strategy adviser Professor Ed Blakely.
In the end, though, that’s all ping-pong. The main issue is devastatingly simple. Whoever they are, whatever they say or think, the people of the Block have a right to inhabit their land. It’s not terra nullius.
“Why can’t we be treated equal?” asks Mundine. “We’re not asking for half Redfern Station, like some people wanted. The Block is our land. What they’re trying to do to us is not right.”
PHOTO: Bitter taste … a new plan restricts the replacement of houses on the Block. Photo: Dean Sewell