• The Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy. (AAP)Source: AAP
The Aboriginal Housing Company's plan to develop retail space and affordable housing on 'The Block,' in Sydney, has been opposed by members of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy. NITV takes a look at the history of the dispute.
By
Andrea Booth

Source:
NITV News
24 Feb 2015 - 3:07 PM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2015 - 9:09 AM

"The Block" is known as the heartland of the Aboriginal struggle in the city of Sydney.

The land, located in the inner-city suburb of Redfern, has become a symbol for the movement to protect and preserve the cultural ways of Aboriginal people.

The Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC), incorporated in 1973, is passionate about how it wants to define the future for The Block, through the Pemulwuy Project - which it planned to roll out from Monday.

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The first stage of the project incorporates retail and office-space development. The second stage of the development is to build affordable housing for 62 families and a childcare space for 60 children.

But in the past nine months a group of men and women established the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, determined to resist any development that they believe could disempower the vulnerable, such as the Pemulwuy Project’s commercial development.

The protesters are concerned that the commercial development may take priority and that affordable housing may not be built.

"Our community have been concerned for a very long time about the development plans and how Micky [AHC CEO Michael Mundine] is running this Pemulwuy Project," Aunty Jenny Munro, a founding member of the Aboriginal Housing Company who is now one of the Tent Embassy protesters, told NITV News.

"[The Block is] so important to all of us. It’s a part of us, you know, our hearts are here. It’s sacred land, a lot of births here, a lot of deaths," embassy member Aunty Debbie Bell added.

"Our community have been concerned for a very long time about the development plans and how Micky [AHC CEO Michael Mundine] is running this Pemulwuy Project."

Lorna Munro, another Tent Embassy member, says 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," she says. "You get rid of the Aboriginal faces here, you get rid of the Aboriginal faces everywhere.” 

But the AHC issued an eviction notice last Friday to members of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy on The Block.

The AHC said in a press statement that the Tent Embassy protesters were on AHC-owned land and that it was working to "protect The Block" to ensure it remained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned and controlled.

The AHC website said that Aboriginal people were at risk of losing their land to the NSW government if crime and drugs were allowed to thrive in the area, which would give the government reason to justify its "position on forcible acquisition of 'The Block'."

In 2004, the NSW government created an urban development corporation in Sydney known as the Redfern-Waterloo Authority to address the social problems in the Redfern- Waterloo area. A combination of railway workshops, housing development, 12 percent of Redfern’s households receiving less than $200 per week, and drug dealers living at The Block, led to it acquiring a low socio-economic status in early 2000s.

Later in 2004, the state government passed the Redfern-Waterloo Authority Act to set up the Redfern-Waterloo Authority (RWA). The RWA was set up to manage urban development covering built environment and human services.

The AHC, in an effort to ensure ownership of traditional land, formed the Indigenous-controlled Pemulwuy Project to address the issues the government said concerned it. The Pemulwuy Project Concept Plan was lodged in 2007 to the Department of Planning NSW and by 2009 was granted approval.

In August 2005, Minister for Planning Frank Sartor expressed in an open letter to Mundine disagreement of the AHC’s development plans, “We disagree on your development plans because the Government believes it will repeat the problems of the past.

"Six months ago I proposed a joint taskforce of Government and AHC representatives, to come up with a shared vision for The Block…You rejected this taskforce, and since you have been boycotting all discussions with Government."

Mr Mundine says he is still concerned the Redfern-Waterloo Authority would transfer ownership of The Block from Australia’s First Peoples to the NSW Government. “We do now need to be able to get on with the Pemulwuy Project so that we can ensure an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander controlled future,” the AHC’s Friday media release said.

"Six months ago I proposed a joint taskforce of Government and AHC representatives, to come up with a shared vision for The Block…You rejected this taskforce, and since you have been boycotting all discussions with Government."

The 2004 Redfern-Waterloo Act was repealed in 2012 and the Sydney Metropolitan Development Authority (SMDA), established in 2010, assumed its functions. The SDMA became known as the Urban Growth NSW Development Corporation (UGDC) in 2013. The UGDC told NITV News on Tuesday that it had neither “any authority or control over The Block” and it understood that it was the Aboriginal Housing Company that did.

In the eviction notice, the AHC says it is willing to meet with the protesters: “The AHC reiterates its position that it is prepared to meet with you to discuss any concerns which you may have,” it read. 

The question of when the Pemulwuy Project will begin remains unanswered. Mundine cancelled today’s planned meeting between the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Aboriginal members of the AHC to address their respective concerns, citing media presence as the reason.

- Additional reporting by Tara Callinan