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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 100


Senator RIDGEWAY (7:30 PM) —I want to speak tonight about an issue that should be important to all Australians, and I would hope that it receives a lot more debate—certainly in Sydney. I think it goes to the question of a prevailing attitude in relation to Indigenous affairs in this country and that there is an injustice waiting to happen. It is not a popular issue but one that people cringe at and tend to walk away from, and this is the question of Redfern. I raise this because there is no other neighbourhood in this nation that carries as much weight with the mere mention of its name. Even though there are large Indigenous populations in areas of Western Sydney, it is Redfern that is seen as Sydney’s black heart—specifically the area known as the Block, which is bounded by Eveleigh, Louis, Caroline and Vine Streets.

I was alarmed—I would hope like many other Sydneysiders—when I woke up at home in Sydney on Saturday morning to read the news on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald that the new minister responsible for Redfern, Frank Sartor, had told the local Aboriginal housing company in Redfern that he wants no Aboriginal housing on the Block. Frank Sartor has already revealed that the heritage laws will no longer apply to four sites around Redfern: the Australian Technology Park, Eveleigh railway workshop, the 23-hectare public housing estate and the Block. It is almost stating the obvious to say that Aboriginal people have lived in Redfern for 60,000 years; but, to be more specific, it has been the main area in Sydney where Aboriginal people have lived since the 1930s—attracted mostly by the work at the nearby Eveleigh railway yards. Indeed, when my family first came to Sydney from the North Coast, we stayed first in Caroline Street and then lived around Redfern, Alexandria and Waterloo, because that was where Aboriginal people stayed when they came to Sydney.

The Redfern Indigenous community have been involved in the conception and development of Indigenous community control services since the 1970s and were amongst the first to look at the establishment of legal services, medical services and the housing company, to name a few. I think that they provided the models for a way forward, but there have been some difficulties along the way. One issue was the lack of affordable housing for Redfern’s increasing population, and it resulted in an extreme housing crisis, with people living in the Black Theatre, then the Catholic church hall and then eventually squatting in houses in Louis Street on the Block. In 1973, after much publicity and despite protests from non-Indigenous residents and the South Sydney Council, the houses within the Block were bought by the Commonwealth government and given to the Aboriginal housing company. The aim at that time was to provide a communal living environment run by Indigenous people, for Indigenous residents, with affordable rent.

As the housing company have promised to deliver some 62 new houses on the Block, the new minister, sadly, announced that in the brave new world of Redfern there will be hardly a black face on the Block. After the Redfern riot of February last year, the New South Wales government’s response of 54 extra police and the Redfern-Waterloo Authority does not take into account or appreciate the nature of the long relationship between Indigenous people in Redfern—especially the Block—that goes back over a significant period of time.

The New South Wales government’s response is a tired and lazy solution that says that the only way forward is to open up Redfern to the free market. I read Frank Sartor’s letter in the Sydney Morning Herald today, about accusations about the government’s response being racist, but if it does not come close to it I do not know what does. It is the likes of which we have not heard for a long time: the targeting of one race of people for exclusion. As many letters in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, would Mr Sartor call for the removal of Jewish people from Bondi? Would he call for the removal of Italians from Leichhardt? Would they remove the Chinese from Haymarket if the developers needed that particular land? Nowhere in Mr Sartor’s grand whitewashing plan for Redfern can Indigenous people on low incomes buy affordable housing. It is shameful that there is no talk about the people in Redfern and in the Block having aspirations to own their own home.

This is something that the government has been going on about for some time: moving from communal to individual ownership, yet we do not talk about and apply that same concept in places like Redfern. I think in this respect we have to ask the question: why can’t Indigenous people hold prime real estate in this country and why can’t they make something from it? In this plan there is still only talk about making the local residents just tenants; or, worse still, attempting to relocate them completely—probably to some far-off place like Macquarie Fields. We saw what happened there and we know it is going to happen again in the future.

It is no accident that the Block itself is in the state it is. It is the result of decisions and policies that have maintained both poverty and crime—and, yes, we do need to tackle those issues, but doing it this way is not the best way forward. I think there is a lot of credence in looking at what happened in Harlem with redevelopment there. Certainly the problems were far worse than they are in Redfern—and probably will ever be—and it is now back on the tourist map. People have not had to relocate. In the process, even former US President Bill Clinton relocated his office to Harlem. I see no reason why we ought not venture down a similar path and be brave enough to do the right thing—the morally correct thing. Redfern is, in my mind at least, the best example of a remote community in the biggest and wealthiest city, where local people cannot attract local jobs, they are not working in the local retail outlet centres, and they do not have all of life’s opportunities at their fingertips. They are not unlike everyone here. In that respect it makes it harder to understand why it is that these people do not get the same life choice to be able to own their own home.

Fingers are being pointed at the housing company, and people are saying that it has to deal with every problem on the Block—just because it has title to the land. The point I make here is that it is a housing company; it is set up to deal with the provision of housing. How does a housing company also deal with the issues of law and order, drugs, alcohol abuse, the abuse of women and children and so on? It simply cannot. That solution is the wrong way forward. It also raises a question. The housing company holds title to land that is held privately. How can a government, even using some notion of just terms compensation, all of a sudden decide to single out one group as against the rest and say that they are going to relocate them? It is an absolute travesty; it is a miscarriage of justice waiting to happen. That is why this issue needs to be raised.

Most of all, I accept the weight of public opinion: the range of problems that have existed in the Redfern community and in communities right across the country hardly garners support from the broader community to be able to recognise what is there. The sad thing about the whole debate is that even when you speak to local people they have somehow become immune or conditioned to accepting that this is pretty normal—there is no need to kick up a fuss or resist what the government proposes and it is okay that on privately held land, irrespective of whom it is held by, the minister can step forward and dictate what is going to happen in respect of that land. It seems to me that, if the new authority goes ahead with its plans, its ‘us and them’ mentality will perpetuate and entrench inequality in this country. Whether we talk about it in terms of reconciliation or practical outcomes, we have to recognise that the whole approach is one that entrenches the wrong outcomes and entrenches a perceived inequality that sometimes we fail to see.

To me it was a perfect opportunity for both black and white leaders to show leadership to create a relationship between the Redfern community and the business community. We have to realise that you cannot just draw this artificial line around the Block to the exclusion of what is happening beyond that. There are the non-Indigenous residents and the business community. If we expect to fix the problems in Redfern we also have to include those people as stakeholders—as people who have an interest—and make sure that they are involved in finding the solutions. We are not doing any of that. We are focusing on a geographical area and treating it very differently from what any person in this place would expect, irrespective of where they live in the country.

Whilst there is a unique opportunity and whilst I have read Mr Sartor’s response in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, I think that we really do need to recognise that something is wrong, something is amiss. We should not allow this sort of injustice to occur. If it happens here with Indigenous people—and I accept that it does not always attract full public community support—it can happen anywhere in the country to any other group. If the law is meant to apply equally and to be colourblind, the statue of the lady who sits up there with the blindfold has to make sure it applies here as well. (Time expired)