Redfern Tent Embassy succeeds in fight for Aboriginal housing

Issue 
Wiradjuri elder Auntie Jenny Munro outside the Supreme Court. Photo: Peter Boyle

BREAKING NEWS: Aunty Jenny Munro announced on August 31 that the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy had forced the hand of the Aboriginal Housing Company to sign a commitment to guarantee that housing for Aboriginal families will be built as a part of the redevelopment of The Block. The signing is due for September 1, 2015.

The Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy (RATE) is claiming victory in its fight for Aboriginal housing on The Block. This comes after the federal government arranged a $70 million deal — a $5 million grant and help to organise a $65 million bank loan — which will ensure that all 62 dwellings in the Pemulwuy project are built for Aboriginal families.

For more than a year RATE has insisted it would not move from The Block until the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) prioritised affordable housing for Aboriginal people on the site.

AHC insisted the affordable housing could only be built after the commercial development, including retail space, offices and student housing, had been completed. Eventually AHC took legal action to have RATE evicted from the site.

The Supreme Court ruled on August 24 that RATE was trespassing and would be evicted so construction could begin on the development. The ruling on August 27 gave it until September 3 — one week — to pack up and move off the Block.

But RATE is now claiming victory after a deal, brokered by the federal indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion, in which 62 new affordable homes will be built for Aboriginal people.

At a media conference after the August 27 ruling, Wiradjuri elder Auntie Jenny Munro said: “From day one we have been fighting for affordable housing on the block. Today we can rightly claim a victory.

“Affordable housing will now be built for our people on Aboriginal land. It is a breakthrough, regardless of what the Aboriginal Housing Company has told people. It is a breakthrough. Our people will live to see Aboriginal housing on The Block.

“The AHC was saying that they would not be able to build the houses until the commercial precinct had been built and they had a return from that deal. That now no longer is the case.

“The federal government’s intervention with $5 million means the housing company can build Aboriginal housing at the beginning of the project, not the end. So our people will see the vision and the dream of houses being built on that land at the same time as we see the commercial and student accommodation being built.

“This victory is very significant. We are not blind, deaf or dumb. We have had a very hostile government in office for the whole of [Prime Minister Tony] Abbott's tenure and if anyone can get $5 million out of the Abbott government, then they are walking on water.”

Greens MLA David Shoebridge said: “There is no doubt this was a significant victory bought about by some amazingly resilient Aboriginal elders who have stood up for one basic principle — build Aboriginal housing first.

“Today, with the intervention of the Commonwealth government, they have had that victory and we will see Aboriginal housing built first. The government has put $5 million on the table and Aunty Jenny and the Aboriginal community will have a rare victory for affordable social housing right in the centre of the city.

“This mob has taken $11,000 a day for their continued occupation. That $11,000 a day will now be ploughed into Aboriginal housing. That is an extraordinary victory.”

In an interview on National Indigenous TV (NITV) news, Scullion said: “Congratulations to Jenny Munro and the Aboriginal tent embassy for what I consider significant leadership in these matters. Everybody wants, on Aboriginal land, affordable housing for Aboriginal people.”

The NITV report noted the AHC are yet to sign off on the deal. AHC's Alisi Tutulia told NITV: “To be honest it was the first time I had seen the statement in relation to that grant. So over the next couple of days we will be working with the Commonwealth, the Minister and the Board, to workshop some of those terms and conditions so that we can make an agreed outcome and move forward.”

In the same report Munro said: “The court has given an order that we vacate on September 3. I think the problem is the prevarication of the housing company — the fact they are wavering about signing or not.

“They reserve the right to make their decision but we reserve the right to make the decision about what they decide. It ain't over till its over.”

RATE’s lawyer Lisa DeLuca said: “At first the federal government spoke about offering a low-interest loan of the $5 million, but it has now committed to it being a grant. Additionally, it has brought a large bank to the table to lend the remaining $65 million.

“This is in a situation where up until now the AHC did not appear to have finance for any part of the development.

“The way I understand it, that $5 million grant will be paid to AHC under strict conditions, namely that Aboriginal housing is built before, or at the same time, as the commercial part of the development. This is exactly what RATE has fought for these past 15 months.

“Had it not been for pressure from RATE and the local Aboriginal community, I do not believe minister Scullion would have been forthcoming.

“It is disappointing that the state government would not put any money into the project.

“During lengthy negotiations with the minister, RATE required one of their people to be on the Board of Directors as an act of goodwill. AHC would not agree to this.

“However, I expect now, under the terms of the government’s offer, the government will require experts to be appointed to the board, or work in close consultation with the board, such as project managers and Aboriginal consultants.

“In the end, AHC will just have to step up and build Aboriginal housing, which is what it was set up to do.”

Outside the court Munro said: “We will go back to the embassy and gather our thoughts. But we can walk away from this with our heads held high.

“We have achieved a lot in the last 15 months. The people in our community will know the truth. The AHC have been saying from day one that they stand for Aboriginal housing, so they can't contradict themselves and walk away from that.

“I'd like to say to black Australia think about whose country this is, whose land this is, and take a lesson from us. Resistance will get you a whole lot more than acquiescence will.

“The lesson from this campaign is that resistance works. Communities in struggle can win. We have had so much support from unions and community groups. It is these groups I have hope for in the future — not Parliament or the courts.”

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