A community meeting to provide information about a radically enlarged student housing development at the Block in Redfern came to an abrupt end after protesters disrupted the event and the meeting was closed.
The Aboriginal Housing Company which owns the Block has applied to the NSW Department of Planning to increase the size of the development from 6 to 16 stories to provide housing for 522 students, up from 154, without any increase in new social or Aboriginal Housing, which remains at 62 homes. The student housing would be sold to commercial operator Atira on a 99-year lease.
The meeting was interrupted 25 minutes after starting, when members of the audience began to shout and overwhelm speakers, expressing anger at the plans for increased student accommodation.
Protesters yelled, "no one cares" and demanded to go straight to the question and answer session.
Aboriginal Housing Company General manager, Lani Tuitavake, told the audience the reason for the lease was to avoid incurring in debt to fund the development of the Block and the creation of Aboriginal housing, so that no part of the land would be sold.
"This is for the next generation. For years we have endured substandard housing, crime and mismanagement," she said.
"There are people out there that deserve an opportunity to be able to raise their children and to be able to live in good standard housing for Aboriginal people."
Her comments were met with cheers and claps from some sections of the audience, while others shouted: "You sold us out!" and "we don't want it".
Journalist Deborah Cameron, who was at the event as an independent facilitator, was repeatedly shouted over and called a "white woman". She was unable to keep control of the proceedings, as she was scolded by people screaming, "you don't understand, you'll never understand".
The increasingly tense meeting was briefly stopped when, about 30 minutes in, an audience member experienced a seizure and was taken out. The woman returned shortly after and was able to resume her seat.
Lyall Munro, one of the original founders of the Block, stood up and attempted to address the audience in the middle of the meeting, but the microphone was cut off. Undeterred, Mr Munro continued to address the audience. He explained the issue had become very "emotive for many many years" and said the vision of housing for Aboriginal people had been lost.
"It's not just Martin Luther King who had a dream, there's Aboriginal people, black Australians who had a dream, and that dream's been thwarted and it's sad."
"Your plan is not a reflection on our plan," he said, before labelling the AHC's proposal as an "Asian student Taj Mahal"
One woman attempted to bring in a "battle for the Block banner", but was pushed out of the room by another audience member.
After 30 minutes, the AHC co chair Alisi Tutuila cancelled the meeting amid shouts and more heckling from the audience.
Government funding on hold
The AHC has blamed a lack of government funding as a key reason for the dramatic increase in the scope of the development.
NITV News was told by the office of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, that the AHC has not attempted to access a $5 million grant offered by the Government last year to cover the cost of 62 affordable homes.
"The Minister has not received any requests from the AHC to progress this grant, but remains committed to working with all stakeholders on this project," the spokesman said.
The $5 million was put on the table to end a standoff between Indigenous activists and the AHC over the future of the development, with activists claiming the AHC had sold out the local community to increase profits, something the AHC has strongly denied.
AHC Chairperson Alisi Tutuila said the organisation had been in regular contact with the government in relation to the $5 million grant.
“At our last meeting with the Minister’s advisor late last year, the Minister’s office presented the terms of the grant to the AHC. However, the AHC proposed the grant to be released once we have obtained a certificate of occupation on completion of the project, which minimises the risk on the Government,” she said in a statement to NITV News.
“At this stage, the terms of the proposed government grant have not yet been agreed to.”