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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 18-Jun-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 765

Danger of refuge being destroyed in Block battle


Perhaps the most wrenching moment in Bill Simon’s autobiography, Back On The Block, is when, as a young man, he meets the mother from whom he was stolen as a child. Throughout his wretched teen years, No.33, as he was in Kinchela Boys’ Home, had sustained himself and his three younger brothers on hopes of reunion. But when the moment comes she barely knows him. Worse, he finds himself unable ever to forgive her failure to protect them.

By this time, Simon’s adored father is already deceased, having fallen to his death while running to reunite with the sons someone had told him (jokingly) were back at home.

It’s a truly dreadful story, not only for Simon, or for other lives similarly shattered, but for us all. This is not 19th-century stuff, though the attitudes may say so. The Simon boys were taken more than halfway through the modern century.

“Charged as Neglected Children,” declares the official form in stern carbon copy, as if the kids themselves were the villains, “and brought before the children’s court … on 8th July, 1957.”

But there was no neglect. If the story is accurate, and there is no reason to doubt it since Simon does not disguise his subsequent wrongdoing, the boys were fed, clothed, schooled and loved by their parents.

Further, in a sequence reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, they were routinely drilled in evading the Hairy Man, just as our kids learn fire drill.

The family’s crime had been to walk off the mission. There, as Simon tells it, the men in particular were chronically humiliated in their provider role by rules that reduced their already meagre rations of weevilled flour if they caught a kangaroo or rabbit to supplement the family diet.

Having escaped, the family was forced into frequent moves just to stay ahead of the Welfare. When, as was inevitable, this failed, the kids (the youngest being two) were taken, charged, shorn, stripped, disinfected, beaten, kept in solitary and forced to hurt and inform upon their friends. They were systematically taught to hate; to fear and loathe whites and to despise blacks as the “scum of the earth”.

Now, having been repeatedly punished for refusing white-fella welfare, they are punished again for succumbing to welfare-dependency. Take the seemingly endless battle over the Pemulwuy Project, the proposal to rebuild the original 62 houses on Redfern’s Block, where Simon is the pastor. “Everything’s negotiable except for a concentration of high-dependency housing there,” said the then Planning Minister Frank Sartor in 2005 in rejecting Pemulwuy.

“The focus of the Block ought to be other than residential,” he continued. “Symbolically … it’s important to have some [housing], but the focus ought to be on other things that bring people here, not necessarily highly dependent people, [such as] Aboriginal support, Aboriginal culture, Aboriginal education, even non-Aboriginal.”

Simon’s story shows just how wrong-headed this is. Repeatedly, in his tale of damage and delinquency, the Block is the refuge to which Simon turns, the one sure source of shelter and fellowship when all else fails, as it so often does. Even now I have friends who choose the Block deliberately as a good, strong community for raising children.

Without its houses with the Block transformed into a collection of tourism and business enterprises, in the Government’s preferred, sanitised option this refuge would vanish.

Accordingly, despite Sartor’s antagonism and after another year’s negotiation, the Aboriginal Housing Company lodged the Pemulwuy application in November 2006. A year later they relodged it, after the Redfern-Waterloo Authority changed its plan, and a year on again, in October 2008, the proposal was finally exhibited.

The six-page list of Director General’s requirements, dated October 2006, carries the usual “90 days deemed refusal period”. But still, after 2½ years, silence.

Why? The Department of Planning blames the Aboriginal Housing Company, claiming delays in providing information. This particular project, it says, needs “a thorough assessment of important issues including building design, social and heritage impacts”.

But in truth, Part 3A, under which Pemulwuy has been “called in” to state control, was set up specifically to reduce such hurdles. Recent legislation like the Nation Building and Jobs Plan (State Infrastructure Delivery) Act 2009, and the revised Heritage Act further weaken these constraints for everyone else.

Why the special treatment? Why the fast-tracking for all other “state significant” developments and the slow-tracking for Pemulwuy?

The Aboriginal Housing Company, notes one commentator with what might be called black humour, must be the only developer in town not to have crawled on broken glass for a Part 3A listing. Chances are, under Sydney City Council jurisdiction, they’d be in their houses by now.


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