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  • A club member outside the Ashfield Polish Club on the day of the annual general meeting (SBS Polish)
A heated debate is raging in Sydney’s Polish community right now. Furious members have brought an injunction against the potential sell-off of the historic Ashfield Polish Club to court, saying they were not given their right to vote on the issue. The case raises a broader question for Australia’s migrant communities about who will remain custodians of the cultural clubs that have been sanctuaries for Australian migrants for decades.
English
By
Dorota Banasiak, Presented by
SBS Polish

31 Mar 2017 - 3:40 PM  UPDATED 5 Apr 2017 - 4:59 PM

On the 19th of March 2017, in front of the Ashfield Polish Club people from the Polish community held a protest. They opposed a resolution to change the club’s land from core to a non-core property - meaning that the club is then allowed to undertake steps to develop or sell the property. The members fear was that the community club would then be sold off, at profits to developers. 

The protesters demanded the resignation of club’s President Ryszard Borysiewicz, as well as the other directors on club’s board. 

“If they sell this club, it would be as if they sold something which is holy"

People voiced their deep concern for the club’s future. Roman Korban, well-known former Polish Olympian and author compares the club to a sacred place. “They can’t sell the club,” Korban tells SBS Polish.

“If they sell this club, it would be as if they sold something which is holy - like the Polish church in Marayong.” 

Waclaw Jagoszewski, a former club’s director, expressed concern that part of the club will be sold and that it will happen without community consultation. He says, “This resolution means that only a group of few – six or nine people - will decide what will happen to the property which belongs to the Polish community.”

Meanwhile, as evidenced in footage obtained by SBS Polish, the vote at the annual general meeting (AGM) on the resolution to change part of the club’s land to a non-core property went on inside the club’s building.

Two security guards stood in the main entry to the club with 3 police officers nearby.  The crowd of around 200 people gathered around the main door with only some being allowed in while others were denied entry. SBS Polish requested entry to the club but such was denied. 

Watch below:

Footage shot by Andrzej Lubieniecki. 

The Polish Club in Ashfield stands in one of the Sydney's western suburbs. Established in 1967, it is one of the oldest Polish Clubs in Australia. It was built from the money raised from private donations of the post-war Polish migrants. 

Over time, throughout its 50 year history, it hosted many important events. Among the world famous people who visited the club were Cardinal Karol Wojtyla - who later became Pope John Paul II and the ‘Solidarity’ (Polish trade union) leader and Noble Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa.

The current club’s property includes two buildings: the original built in 1967; and the newer one built in 1985, then later destroyed by fire which currently has not yet been restored. 

Both interconnected buildings stand adjacent on two lots at 73 and 75 Norton Street, Ashfield. This area is also adjacent to a separate property owned by the Polish community with another building the heritage listed Polish House ‘Dom Polski’.

According to the club’s President Ryszard Borysiewicz, the value of the Ashfield Polish Club alone is estimated to be $25 to $30 million.

Mick Wykrota is a senior community member, who presented to the security guards a membership card and a driver’s licence to prove his identification. Yet he was not allowed in to vote at the AGM.

“I am a member but I was not let in because I’m on the list,” Wykrota said on the day.

“I’m an 'unfriendly member.”

“No members with a valid membership card were denied access.”

Among the protesters’ complaints, allegations of blacklisting members were raised. 

In response to this, spokesperson Eleonora Paton wrote on behalf of the board,  “As to the list of people who were barred entry, this was those few who were previously expelled from the Club or those non-members who via social media had indicated they were coming last Sunday for an 'uprising' (Powstanie).”

“This was potentially a serious security matter for us and we took appropriate steps to safeguard our club, members and guests. 

“No members with a valid membership card were denied access.”

The protesters who gathered in front of the club also spoke of many memberships suspended over the last three years and of the board’s practice of exclusions.   

Michał Macioch, a former Vice-President of the club, who was recently suspended as a member, deplored the actions of the board. “It is unacceptable to divide the Polish community like this,” says Macioch

“It’s unacceptable that Poles were denied entry to the Polish Club today.” 

“Why isn’t the board capable of having a dialogue with the community so that everybody can feel that they belong to the club?”

“It brings me sadness to see this in the Polish community.”

Janusz Nawrocki, representing Australian-Polish Festivities, the organiser of the protest who recently had his club’s membership suspended told SBS, “For the last three years I am in opposition to the current board.

“I organised a press conference to inform the community about what’s going on at the club and that's why my membership got suspended and I was expelled."

"Today in this protest we demand democracy from the club’s board."

The majority of members of the Polish Theatre Fantasia, a local Polish-language community theatre group have been also denied membership renewal.  

Joanna Borkowska-Surucic, the theatre’s  director explains, “It all started two years ago when the board of the Polish club in Ashfield decided not to renew our membership.”

“They did not want us,” she says. “We were removed.” 

“The club was built with the money of Poles who came here after World War II.”

Community member Jurek Maciejak, who was awarded with the Golden Cross of Merit - one of the highest civilian awards in Poland, had his membership refused after 22 years of being a club member. 

He says that the purpose behind establishing the club was to serve all Poles living in Australia not only the selected ones.  

“The club was built with the money of Poles who came here after World War II,” explains Maciejak.

“They intended it to be a club for all Poles living so far away from Poland.”

“And now to have a membership refused - I asked why.”

“I was told that the club does not need to have a reason to refuse a membership.” 

When the club’s board spokesperson Dr. Robert Czernkowski was asked in a radio interview with SBS Polish about the club’s approach to granting and renewing memberships, and why someone might be expelled from the club, he said that club’s membership is not automatic.

“If every Pole in Sydney automatically was entitled to a membership why then have such a thing as membership at all,” said Czernkowski.

Listen to Dr. Robert Czernkowski’s full interview (in Polish) with SBS Polish below:

On the day of the protest, the resolution to change the status of “lot 75 Norton St. Ashfield” to a non-core property was voted in with only a 4 vote majority. 

The resolution pursuant to Section 41J Clubs Act, allows a club’s board to dispose of a non- core property without the consent of club members obtained at an Annual General Meeting.

However, club board spokesperson Dr Robert Czernkowski explains this is not so in the case of the Polish Club in “In order to proceed with any development, the club’s board, in accordance with the club’s constitution, needs to additionally obtain members approval with a 75% majority.”

The proposal to redevelop the 75 Norton St. lot was put forward by the club’s board towards the end of 2016.

It followed a three-year-long ongoing court dispute between the club and the former operator of the club’s restaurant. The club ended up with a huge legal bill after losing the case in High Court of Australia. 

Over that time, the club’s debt has been dramatically increased. It stood at $1.3 million in September 2016, a figure confirmed at that time by the club’s president. However, the latest club's financial directors report presented on the 19th March 2017 at the club's last AGM shows a figure close to $2.2 million dollars for the financial period ending June 2016. 

At the 19th March protest, people spoke of the board’s decisions contributing to the current financial situation of the club. Ewa Bednarczyk, a club member, said that in her opinion, “the board’s decisions resulted in the current poor financial state of the club.”

Earlier in December 2016, a group of 42 club members, constituting the minimum 5% requirement, submitted a petition to convene an extraordinary general meeting in which they intended to submit a vote of no-confidence against the club's board of directors. 

In an interview with SBS Polish in February this year, following an earlier suspension from the board, three members of the club’s board Dr Ryszard Dzierzba, Maciej Jarysz and Stanisław Żak, expressed their concerns over the proposed development of the club. 

“We believe the proposal to redevelop 75 Norton St, is only a quick fix for the current financial problems of the club," said fellow former board member Maciej Jarysz.

“We were suspended because we did not support the current president and the board," said former board member Dr Ryszard Dziezba.

Club president Ryszard Borysiewicz, was previously asked about why these members were expelled at a press conference in December at the Polish Club in Ashfield. He replied that “it is an internal matter and we have no comment.”

Listen to the full interview with the former board members (in Polish) with SBS Polish below:

Dr. Kaja Lukaszewicz - a GP, sponsor of many community events, and a life member of the Polish Club in Ashfield says, "this is a tragedy.”

"They’ve destroyed the club and now they want to make some profits. Selling one part and getting rid of the car park."

In response, on behalf of the club’s board, spokesperson Eleonora Paton wrote, “We categorically deny that the current board has destroyed the Club - we have done the opposite.”

“The Club's revenue has been increasing over the past four years from $295,000 in FY2012 to $569,000 in FY2016.”

“We categorically deny that the Directors themselves are trying to make a profit out of the club. The Board is made up of 100% unpaid volunteers who are independent and are themselves Club Members. 

“The current board is working for the best of the Club and our members will have the final say on the redevelopment at the appropriate time in the future.  

“We as a board are trying to find solutions to making the Club profitable for the benefit for generations to come.”

“We categorically deny that the Directors themselves are trying to make a profit out of the club"

This week on 30 March 2017, before the duty Judge at NSW Supreme Court, club members sought orders against the Polish Club in Ashfield. The plaintiffs were instructed by counsel Michael Evans,  who set out the plaintiffs arguments: “We are challenging the resolution of the change to non-core property on several grounds."

He tells SBS Polish, “that there was no quorum of directors to hold a meeting or pass the resolution, or to put that on the agenda.”

“Any alleged changes to the constitutions were never validly passed.”

“Also at the meeting itself, a lot of current members were turned away from the door by security who seemed to be working off some list or lists of people to exclude many if not all of them would have voted against the resolution.”

In addition, Evans put the plaintiff’s case in relation to the practice of suspensions. He said “a practice over the last three years of, expelling or suspending members of the club supposedly for disloyalty, when all that they have done was to speak out against Mr Borysiewicz, will also need to change.”

SBS also reached out to Daniel Fleming of Pigott Stinson Lawyers, acting on behalf of the defendant Ashfield Polish Club but he had no comments to offer at this stage.

The stakes are high for both parties. The Board remains at odds with members of the Polish community. It will be up to the courts to listen to both sides, and determine where things go from here.

Related:
Protests in front of Ashfield Polish Club

Australian Poles demonstrate in from of the Polish Club in Ashfield against the resolution to change club's land to a non-core property.

The Future of the Polish Club in Ashfield

Concerned about the plans to redevelop the club - 3 suspended members from the board of directors, Dr Ryszard Dzierzba, Maciej Jarysz i Stanisław Żak.

What will Happen to the Polish Club in Ashfield?

Sale? Redevelopment? About the latest proposed plans of the Board of Directors talks the club's President Ryszard Borysiewicz