Four Decades On, The Fight Juanita Nielsen Led To Save Our Cities Rages On

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Every year, Greens MP Lee Rhiannon hosts the annual Juanita Nielsen lecture, to honour the extraordinary work of a woman who paid with her life fighting rich Sydney developers. This year, sacked Greens councillor for Marrickville, Sylvie Ellsmore pays tribute to a legend, and sends a warning to the Baird government.

We are here tonight to recognise and celebrate the women activists and communities who have stood up and fought against developer and government corruption, who have stood up and fought powerful interests in order to protect the rights of working class people to live in the inner city communities they helped build.

The Juanita Nielsen lecture is hosted each year by our fearless Senator for NSW, Lee Rhiannon, in particular recognition of another fearless community activist – Juanita Nielsen – whose activism ultimately cost her her life.

The Juanita Nielsen lecture is also an opportunity to reflect on the struggles we continue to face: the ongoing struggle against governments and politics that are captured by the development industry, governments and industries who are willing to displace and destroy communities in pursuit of the “universal good” that is private development.

For the Greens this struggle for community needs over developer greed is at the heart of why we were formed as a political party.

The Greens take the name of our party from the cooperative struggle between communities, students and unions in Sydney, taking non-violent direct action for the protection of our urban environment and heritage – the struggle that was known as the Green Bans.

One of the most bitter of the campaigns involving the Green Bans was Victoria Street, Kings Cross, the struggle of which Juanita Nielsen was part.

And this year, more than many years previously, with the sacking of democratically elected Councils across the State, announcements of plans for more mass sell offs of precious public housing in the inner city, and the inner city staring down the destruction and forced compulsory acquisition of homes from the $17 billion dollar WestConnex private tollway, now more than ever is the time to reflect and strengthen our resolve for how we beat the bastards.

 

About Juanita Nielsen

Juanita Nielsen is a legend in the history of urban Sydney. She was an unconventional heiress and publisher, part of the Mark Foy family that owned the famous department store.

She was a key activist in the early 1970s in the struggle between developers, residents and conservationists to protect the diversity and heritage of the inner city – a struggle which stretched across Kings Cross, Wooloomooloo, the Rocks and Redfern.

Juanita Nielsen founded and operated the NOW community newspaper out of her small terrace home in Victoria Street – one of the now heritage protected terraces with million dollar views.

Like many parts of the inner city, Victoria Street was a traditional working class area. But in the early 1970s times were changing. Just like today – it was a time of booming property prices in Sydney.

Although the residents of the area were still wharfies, low-income city workers, labourers, artists and pensioners, these once “unattractive” working class areas or slums were being eyed off by developers for their multimillion-dollar development potential.

A developer called Frank Theeman set his sights on the redevelopment of Kings Cross. Between March 1970 and June 1971, Theeman spent $7 million – a huge sum at the time – buying properties in Victoria and Brougham streets.

Kings Cross, pictured in the 1970s.
Kings Cross, pictured in the 1970s.

The vision he sold was of Victoria Street as a ‘beautiful tree-lined street close to the city which needed rehabilitation’ and his plan was the demolition of all existing buildings in the area, so that three 45-storey towers and a 15-storey office block could be built.

Theeman had developed close political connections with the Liberal Party of Australia, which won the State election in 1965.

In parallels with today, the Askin Liberal Government introduced changes to planning laws to make it easier to undertake commercial development in residential areas.

In a further parallel with today, determined to break Labor’s then hold on the City of Sydney Council, the State Liberal Government also abolished and reformed the City of Sydney Council in the late 1960s, re-drawing ward boundaries, increasing the percentage of business voters and devaluing the votes of residents who actually lived in the inner city.

And just as we are seeking today, the Liberal State Government established “development authorities” (the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority which took control of the future development of the Rocks area out of the hands of the local Council.

It was not until the election of the Wran Labor State Government in 1976 that the NSW Parliament restored compulsory voting, popular election of the Lord Mayor and proportional representation for the City of Sydney Council.

Though of course, we also need to note that it was a State ALP Government that would go on to sack the Sydney City Council in 1987, on the basis that the Council was insufficiently committed to some major infrastructural projects such as the monorail and the redevelopment of Darling Harbour.

Later, it was also a State Labor Government which sacked South Sydney Council (2004), in what was widely seen as an attempt to unseat the independent Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore.

The story of the shaping of the inner city of Sydney has always been one of the struggle between developers and the community, and for influence of the two old parties.

 

Victoria Street residents get organised

Back to the battle for Victoria St.

Developer Theeman’s plans required the demolition of all existing buildings in the area. When the details of these plans were made public the community got organised.

Juanita Nielsen was one of several who refused to sell her house. She formed the Victoria St ratepayers association and joined the Wolloomoolloo residents action group. She used the community newspaper NOW to support the campaign and rally people to the cause.

Juanita and the residents opposed the development plans because they would have seen the eviction of workers and the elderly, who would not be able to afford to live elsewhere in the inner city. Sound familiar?

Mass development would have meant both the heritage and the community would be lost. Theeman began issuing mass evictions for the properties he had purchased, forcing more than 300 out.

But in addition to residents like Juanita – who refused to sell – around two thirds of the other residents refused to be evicted.

The Residents Action Group approached the Builders Labourers Federation – the BLF – who put a work ban on the site in 1973. A Green Ban.

The Green Bans arose from partnerships between communities and the left wing Builders Labourers Federation, BLF, whose leaders included Jack Mundey.

Legendary organiser of the Green Bans in the 1970s, Jack Mundey. He's pictured being arrested in The Rocks, during a protest to save community housing.
Legendary organiser of the Green Bans in the 1970s, Jack Mundey. He’s pictured being arrested in The Rocks, during a protest to save community housing.

In the 1960s and 1970s corruption was rife in NSW politics and among police. At the same time there was a growing understanding about the importance of protecting the urban environment and a rise in the number of people taking protest to the streets.

The BLF and other unions recognised that ensuring a decent standard of living for working people meant addressing social issues beyond wages and working conditions.

The BLF used its organising muscle to strengthen social justice and environmental campaigns, the first of which was the protection of Kelly’s Bush in Hunters Hill. The protection of environmental concerns using work bans led to the name “Green Bans”.

In the end more than 50 Green Bans were imposed across Sydney. In Victoria St, the BLF imposed work bans that prevented any unionised labour working on the site and effectively stopped the development plans.

The BLF also supported the civil disobedience, which included squatting in the targeted buildings. The squat was organised along ‘commune’ lines, had child minding, and ran regular Sunday meetings and film screenings.

 

Intimidation and disappearance

As the community opposition grew, so did the threats and intimidation. Arthur King, the convenor of the Victoria St Resident Action Group, was abducted for three days. On his return he withdrew from the campaign.

In 1974, the squatters were forcibly evicted by police. After they were evicted, residents continued to campaign, as did Juanita Nielsen through her newspaper.

And in 1975 Juanita Nielsen disappeared, never to be seen again. Charges were laid against two standover men for conspiring to abduct her, but not for her murder.

Eddie Trigg, charged and jailed over the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen.
Eddie Trigg, charged and jailed over the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen.

An inquest later found that Juanita had died as a consequence of her opposition to Victoria St and that there had been a police cover-up

No-one has ever been charged with her murder.

The Green Ban at Victoria St was lifted late in 1974. It had been successful in saving most of the heritage houses and preventing most of the overdevelopment, but at a great cost.

In addition to the murder of Juanita Nielsen, the mass evictions succeeded in bringing forward the gentrification that makes the inner city of Sydney one of the least affordable places to live in the world today.

 

The Rocks

Nearby in the Rocks, the battle to save both the heritage and community was more successful.

There the NSW Government also had plans to demolish the working class public housing, with the State Government authority envisioning two-thirds of the Rocks being cleared and rebuilt as commercial office space, new hotels and new high-rise residential blocks.

The residents and BLF imposed a Green Ban in the Rocks in late 1971. The BLF and the bulldozer drivers’ union (FEDFA) joined residents in protests, and in occupying buildings which were to be demolished.

There were many confrontations and mass arrests. That Green Ban remained in force until 1975 and eventually succeeded in ensuring that all buildings north of the Cahill Expressway would be retained, conserved and restored.

And, importantly, that the existing residents could remain.

 

Current Millers Point campaign

These historic battles can only be understood in light of the larger war that successive State Governments have continued to wage on working class and low-income people in the inner city, a war which sadly it appears we are not winning.

It is a battle to protect the rights of people who aren’t wealthy to continue to live in the heart of our city.

We are privileged tonight to have guests from the Millers Point Community Working Party, and I strongly encourage you to introduce yourself and sign up to support their campaign.

The housing at Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks was originally built for waterside workers. The properties that were protected by the community in the 1970s are properties that people have lived in all their lives, some for generations.

In 2014, the State Liberal Government announced its plans to sell of around 300 properties at Millers Point, properties that had been protected by the Greeen Bans, evicting the residents and destroying the community and threatening the heritage of the area.

Despite a now 16-year long waiting list for public housing across NSW – 60,000 people – successive governments have deliberately let the housing run down, and left properties vacant.

They have done the same in other areas like Redfern and Glebe – allowing the excuse to be made that housing is too expensive to maintain, and must be sold off in pieces to support the remainder of the housing.

The properties at Millers Point are prime real estate, with many waterfront views and individual terraces selling for $1, $2 and even $3 million each.

Residents have faced bullying and intimidation from the Dept. of Housing to force them out – not least of which has been the threat that if people don’t take a volunteer relocation to somewhere close like Glebe or Erskineville, they will be sent somewhere in far western Sydney or out of Sydney altogether, where it would be impossible to maintain the connections to family and community that they rely on.

Barney Gardener, one of the leaders of the Millers Point Residents Action Group.
Barney Gardener, one of the leaders of the Millers Point Residents Action Group.

This threat is particularly sinister because many of the residents of Millers Point are elderly.

Despite clear and repeated warnings of the impact on the health of vulnerable residents the State Government has persisted. Several residents have died or committed suicide at the prospect of losing their homes.

But residents have also continued to resist, to hold out. The MUA has promised to help fight any forced evictions.

It has been very humbling to talk with Barney and the residents, whose dignified and simple request is to be able to continue to live in the areas they helped build and protect over the generations.

The State Government now has enough vacant properties at Millers Point to sell to make the half a billion dollars the Government claims it needs. On its own terms, there is no financial reason for the government to evict the remaining residents.

In part because of a strong community campaign so far, only a handful of houses have been sold, most of those being the ones prepared for sale by the former Labor State Government.

The fact that the government has left hundreds of properties vacant for years – forgoing thousands in rental income each week – suggests that their real future plans are about purging the area of all that remains of the traditional community,

Or the sale and mass demolition for the area.

Or both.

 

Waterloo

We are yet to hear the final details of the planned changes at Waterloo, but we do know that plans involve demolishing the existing public housing towers, to make way for 20 or 30 storey private development.

This is called “Urban renewal”, and involves densities greater than cities like Singapore, and no commitment to ensure that the new developments contain any affordable housing.

Public housing residents remain in the dark about what will happen to them, when and where they are supposed to be moved.

Every community is different and in Waterloo one of the great risks is that the public housing includes many people with significant disabilities and mental health issues – people who the State Government has historically moved into the area precisely because it is close to the city hospitals and community support services people need.

 

Amalgamations

Writing this lecture and reflecting on historic battles between community, developers and governments, it feels that this is a particularly dark time.

To put it frankly, it feels as though developer greed is winning.

Last Thursday, I stood outside NSW Parliament with other former Councillors who had heard about the abolition of our local Councils through the media that morning.

Marrickville Council – the Council where the Greens first broke through 25 years ago – is no more. Councillors have been sacked and there will be no elections for more than a year.

There was little attempt to hide the pro-Liberal development agenda behind the amalgamations. Council boundaries were redrawn to increase Liberal majorities. Councils where there are marginal Liberal seats were spared. Former Coalition MPs were appointed as Administrators.

A former Liberal Shadow Mining Minister, Mr John Turner, was appointed the administrator of the new Mid-Lake coastal Council, despite continuing to be paid by mining companies including Whitehaven Coal, Glencore, Idemitsu Resources, Vale and Yancoal.

In Marrickville and Leichhardt – two Councils where we have strongly campaigned against WestConnex and were moving towards the launch of a legal challenge against the project – the former Deputy of the Planning Department which approved parts of the WestConnex project, was appointed.

We’ll wait and see if the rumours about Bronwyn Bishop being appointed as the administrator to a merged North Shore Council – if they lose their current case before the Land and Environment Court – comes true.

 

Conclusion

It is important to remember the Green Bans and Juanita Nielsen, to remember the strength that ordinary people and communities have and that powerful interests can be challenged and defeated.

Now more than ever we need to reflect and draw strength from our social history as activists, because it feels as though we are once again facing a time when greed rules Sydney – and is winning.

There are strong pockets of public and community housing that are under imminent threat.

A liveable, equitable Sydney means a Sydney which is not just for the rich. I am not interested in a city with beautiful heritage buildings, if they can only be afforded by the wealthy.

If there is any light it is that, at this moment in history, I feel we are also seeing a renewal in the willingness of residents to take to the streets against developer destruction.

The residents who have blockaded WestConnex in St Peters and Haberfield – some of those same people were involved in the historic 1970s Greens Bans.

It feels as though we are again reaching that tipping point when government action becomes so obvious in its motivation to deliver for developer mates, so blatant in its willingness to override residents’ voices, that it is willing even to override or rewrite the boundaries of our democratic institutions.

It cannot go unchallenged.

We remember Juanita Nielsen and the Green Bans to remind ourselves that as activists today we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.

We have a responsibility to them, to the current communities of Sydney and to those who will inherit this city.

I, for one, will be using my extra time not attending Council meetings to support these struggles.

I know that many in this room will join me.

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Sylvie Ellsmore

Sylvie is a Native Title lawyer, a former Marrickville Councillor (before the council was outrageously sacked by the Liberal government) and is currently the preselected Greens candidate for the Federal seat of Sydney. She has worked for more than a decade in the community sector as an anti-racism campaigner and Indigenous rights advocate, including coordinating the ReconciliACTION youth network and publishing a number of major reports about Indigenous cultural heritage law reform. Sylvie also has a background in environmental, planning and heritage law and policy, has worked as a senior policy advisor for the NSW Government, for the Greens in NSW Parliament, and volunteered with a range of community legal organisations including the Environmental Defenders Officer and Welfare Rights. Sylvie has a blackbelt in karate and is a volunteer teacher of adults and students of all ages, at her dojo in Darlington.

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