Originally published in the Koori Mail, August 27th 2014 edition under the title “Divisions run deep in battle for the Block”
By Amy McQuire
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 which span the grassy space between the iconic Aboriginal flag mural and the Aboriginal Housing Company, are a visible reminder that this protest still burns even if its flames flicker in and out.
The tent embassy was built earlier this year following community concern over the Pemulwuy Project, the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC)’s plan to re-develop the Block. Named after the legendary freedom fighter, the development is being spear-headed by the AHC’s CEO Mick Mundine, and is split into stages.
Stage One is the development of a commercial precinct, which is being developed with student accommodation, a 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 only 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 organisations 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 70s, where 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.
It’s historical significance and cultural resonance is strong, even sacred.
A profile of the AHC’s beginnings is currently on the organisation’s website. It is written by founder Bob Bellear, the first Aboriginal judge, and 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 built to house the homeless and also for the other Aboriginal people who converged into 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 Aboriginal Medical Service and instrumental in the early days of the AHC, told the Koori Mail the AHC had retreated from its original purpose of the AHC’s founders.
He’s now concerned that the Block will be lost to white developers and that the hard-earned fight would have been in vain.
“We keep protesting the theft of Aboriginal land all the time,” Mr Bellear tells The Koori Mail.
“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 by the time of press. But Mick Mundine has told media the commercial aspect of the project has to come first in order to fund Aboriginal housing.
That’s not accepted by Aunty Jenny 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 from federal or state governments, and an approach to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) was also rejected over concerns about the ability to repay funding.
Mr Mundine has told media it is hard to get any one, 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 sky-rocket to $1200 a week, there are concerns that the AHC’s plans will only fasten 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.
“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 developers – DeiCorp – were 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 is 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.
“My main concern about students is that they have housing or a place to stay while studying, but when it comes down to the rate of Aboriginal students that study, and the ratio that miss out on studying because they don’t have adequate housing, I believe that an area should be set aside for them and what better place than here,” he tells the Koori Mail.
“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. And as me, growing up in a new generation, 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 its where the government pushed us into, and now we are making something positive out of it, it’s being taken away.”
Aunty Jenny 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. Aunty Jenny says the development application will take two years to progress. There is still no confirmation on funding.
As the rain fell 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.