Join the fight for Aboriginal heritage

October 16, 1996

By Doreen Kelly and Chris Martin

SYDNEY — Activists campaigning for the preservation of a building of historic and cultural significance to Aboriginal people have reacted angrily to a decision by NSW planning minister Craig Knowles to allow demolition of all but the facade of the building.

The Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street is the site of the first national Aboriginal civil rights protest. Held on January 26, 1938, the 150th anniversary of invasion, this action was called the "Day of Mourning and Protest". Aboriginal people — William Cooper, Pearl Gibbs, Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten, to name but a few — demanded "full citizens rights" for Aborigines.

Knowles has rejected a commission of inquiry recommendation that a permanent conservation order be placed on this site.

In a press release on September 20, Knowles described the decision as a "win-win compromise" and claimed that preservation of the facade "honours Aboriginal concerns". However, members of the National Aboriginal History and Heritage Council (NAHHC) have labelled it an act of desecration.

"This site is of enormous significance to Aboriginal people, and we consider this an act of cultural vandalism. It is a travesty and an insult to Aboriginal people, their history and their heroes. At least 629 sites of significance to the white community have been preserved, but Knowles is telling us that one building important to Aborigines cannot be saved", said Jenny Munro, NAHHC national chairperson.

The NAHHC contends that the decision is a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act. It has lodged a complaint with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Following the commission of inquiry in 1995, environment and planning commissioner William Simpson described the "Day of Mourning and Protest" as "the embryonic assertion of land right claims which have been recognised in the historic and contentious 1992 Mabo decision". He rejected all objections to heritage listing for the site and specifically ruled out preservation of the facade as an acceptable option.

For over a year, Knowles refused to make the inquiry recommendations public ,and the NAHHC received a copy of the inquiry report only after twice making application under the Freedom of Information Act. Numerous NAHHC requests for consultation were ignored by Knowles, as were appeals to deliver over 1000 petition-letters signed by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal individuals and organisations in support of the building's preservation.

In an open letter to Premier Carr, NAHHC national treasurer Doreen Kelly described the decision as evidence that "in your eyes we mean nothing, our history means nothing, our heritage means nothing, our heroes mean nothing". She and other members of the NAHHC were ejected from state parliament on September 25 after attempting to read the message to the premier from the public gallery.

The Carr government has failed to act on the recommendations of its own Commission of Inquiry, the Australian Heritage Commission, the National Trust and the Sydney City Council. The NAHHC is calling for support from all individuals and organisations. Protest messages to Knowles can be faxed on (02) 9230 2274 and to Carr on (02) 9232 4029 or mailed to State Parliament, Macquarie Street, Sydney 2000.

The National Aboriginal History and Heritage Council may be contacted by phone: (02) 9267 6074, fax: (02) 9264 6092, mail: PO Box A765, Sydney South, NSW, 2000.