The Redfern Tent Embassy survives, a week after an eviction notice was served demanding that they vacate by February 23. For four long days, locals and supporters have kept watch to protect the Block from an expected hoard of Redfern police coming to enforce the eviction.
About 20 people gathered at the embassy on Monday after the initial 5am call out for supporters, and about 150 people were at the embassy after Mick Mundine, the Chief Executive of the Aboriginal Housing Corporation (AHC), said on NITV that he would “definitely be coming in the afternoon”.
The courts have ordered mediation between the Tent Embassy and the AHC, which was supposed to take place on February 24. However, Mundine said there was too many media present and left. The meeting has been rescheduled for March 9 at a closed venue.
Mick Mundine, in conjunction with the AHC, first proposed the creation of the Pemulwuy Project in 2005. It was an ambitious $70 million commercial and residential development badged with the name of the Aboriginal warrior who led the resistance to the first white settlers in Sydney. Endorsed by the AHC in 2007 as an attempt to ensure ownership of traditional land, the concept was lodged with the Department of Planning, which eventually granted approval in 2009.
The original plan was that AHC would rebuild the Block into a modern, affordable housing project for Indigenous people. The project would include 17 storeys, 14 of which would be student housing. There would also be a commercial shopping area.
The Block is legally owned by the AHC. The first houses were purchased on the land when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam provided an initial grant to the AHC in 1973.
The Block became historically significant as the birthplace of urban land rights in Australia. This gave the Block historical significance and it was consequently seen as the first opportunity for Aboriginal people across Australia to celebrate their heritage, rights and community.
The AHC’s website claims that “we are at risk of losing the land if we continue to stand by and allow the wave of crime and drugs to thrive, which gave the government ammunition to justify their position on forcible acquisition of the Block in the first place”.
The Tent Embassy has a “no drugs or alcohol” policy, which the aunties and other residents of the embassy strictly maintain. Mundine, who has been to the Tent Embassy many times, is aware of this policy.
In a rushed move on February 20, amid fears the NSW government would take back control of the project, AHC said in a statement: “We do now need to get on with the Pemulwuy Project so that we can ensure an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-controlled future”.
However, the project represents commercial interests more than those of Aboriginal people. When asked by the Sydney Morning Herald whether the development would provide affordable housing to Aboriginal people, Mundine said: “That’s on the backburner at the moment. Our first priority is the commercial build.”
"In 10 years the Block will belong to developers, that's my sad prediction," said Jenny Munro, one of the founders of the AHC who is now holding fort at the embassy. She is skeptical of the current management's ability to deliver affordable housing on the Block.
For Sol Bellear, another founder of the AHC and chairperson of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, the Pemulwuy project smacks of "overreach" and a departure from the AHC's primary mission to look after the housing needs of less well-off Indigenous people.
In an area of increasing gentrification, the Block is the last chance Aboriginal people have left to hold onto an area that gave them their first land rights. In the past two years AHC has sold $2.4 million worth of land assets, boosting its reserves to nearly $3 million. Included in this sell-off were five terrace houses across the road from the Block. The houses have since been renovated and now command rents of up to $1100 a week.
Lorna Munro, another Tent Embassy member, told NITV News that the Block is one of the key centres for black empowerment in the country. "This is the birthplace of black power and land rights and self-determination as we know it. You get rid of the Aboriginal faces here, you get rid of the Aboriginal faces everywhere.”
The NSW state government and the AHC are prioritising the opportunity to milk the cash cow the Block has the potential to be, over addressing the current social cleansing and broader ethnic cleansing of its rightful landowners.