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Seen as a victory for Aboriginal people in the early 1970s, then a flashpoint for vice in the ’90s, the Block is once again in the spotlight, this time dividing the Indigenous community it was built to serve. By Samantha Trenoweth.

The AHC and the battle for Redfern's Block

Young girls play behind the gym on the Block, Christmas Day 1999.
Credit: DEAN SEWELL/OCULI

It’s a little after sunrise, midwinter and the eve of NAIDOC week. Thin, blue shafts of light creep across the grassy slope that’s bordered by Eveleigh, Vine, Louis and Caroline streets in Redfern: the Block. Sun glints on dewy grass and filters through canvas to light up a dozen tents pitched on the hill.  

Jenny Munro emerges from one of them, breathing steam and rubbing her hands against the cold, tugging salt-and-pepper curls into a ponytail. Behind her, an immense Aboriginal flag decorates the side of Tony Mundine’s boxing gym. Before her, a vast poster promotes the Pemulwuy development project, brainchild of the Aboriginal Housing Company’s chief executive, Michael Mundine, Tony’s brother. The poster reads: “Pemulwuy, bringing people together.”

Jenny’s husband, Lyall Munro, resets last night’s fire, fanning embers and filling a kettle with water. The smell of wood smoke and warmth brings other campers from their tents: Joan Bell and Kay Hookey, both former residents of the Block and part of a team of Aboriginal aunties who pitched this tent embassy six weeks ago to protest the land’s proposed redevelopment. The aunties and their kids and grandkids and friends have come from as near as the housing commission flats across the railway line in Waterloo and as far as Tabulam in northern NSW.

 “For us, this piece of land is iconic,” Jenny Munro says. “It’s sacred, it’s sovereign, and every inch of it is black. It’s the first piece of land that was acknowledged as Aboriginal land in the country.”

Munro is no stranger to tent embassies. She and her parents and siblings pitched tents back in ’72 at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Her family was involved again with a tent embassy that sprang up in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. But this camp is different. These aunties are not protesting against the actions of governments, state or federal. They’re here to halt work by an Aboriginal-owned and operated charity – the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) – that was founded four decades ago to provide affordable housing for Indigenous people on the Block.

“The tragedy for our people,” says Munro, wrapping icy fingers around a mug of coffee, “is that 240 years ago we were illegally dispossessed of our country. Now, Micky Mundine is dispossessing us again.” 

A utopian experiment

Jenny Munro arrived in Redfern in 1973. She was 17, had just finished high school, and came straight from Erambie Mission, 13 hectares of rolling bush and agricultural land on the outskirts of the mid-NSW town of Cowra. She’d grown up in a proud Wiradjuri family, among people who took education and politics seriously. Her parents, Les and Agnes, were pillars of the community and early land rights advocates. Her brother, Paul, was studying law with an eye to challenging the notion of terra nullius in the High Court. Her sister, Isobel, divided her time between Sydney and the Canberra tent embassy. 

AHC had its impetus in November 1972, while Jenny was sitting the final exams of her HSC. Redfern police arrested 15 Aboriginal men who had been squatting in vacant houses on Louis Street. The men were released into the care of local parish priests, who made an impromptu refuge for them in the church hall. It was not a refuge for long, however. The men’s numbers quickly swelled to almost 50 as word passed around that the church had warm and comfortable lodgings on offer, and South Sydney Council demanded their eviction. 

Unwilling to abandon the men, the priests joined forces with local activists to initiate a more organised form of squatting back on the Block. Negotiations were undertaken with the absentee landlords, the homeless men formed a “mop-and-bucket brigade” and the Builders’ Labourers Federation and plumbers’ union stepped in to patch walls, fix doors and unblock toilets and drains. The Brown Nurses ministry provided food, blankets and toiletries for the residents. Power and gas were connected and, to everyone’s surprise, the local council approved the houses as habitable. 

The landlords tried, on a number of occasions, to force evictions but the unions slapped a ban on development of the site and the squatters remained resolute. The situation required a more permanent solution, however. So the Aboriginal judge Bob Bellear formed a committee to lobby the minister for Aboriginal affairs, Gordon Bryant, and in April 1973, soon after Jenny Munro hit town, the Whitlam government granted the fledgling AHC $500,000 to buy real estate for Aboriginal housing on the Block. Jenny and her husband, Lyall Munro, became founding members.

The early days of the AHC were a wildly optimistic, utopian experiment. For a time, it worked. Houses were repaired and renovated by Aboriginal apprentices, training with local builders and tradespeople. The first house that was ready for habitation was 1 Vine Street. By 1976, the AHC had bought and renovated 12 houses and everyone who rented a house became a member of the company and eligible to vote at meetings.

Joan Bell and her family had been living on the Block “since before it was the Block”. Her mother was the first tenant at 1 Vine Street. They’d grown up there. The AHC bought the house Joan was renting, 11 Vine Street, and she became a member, too. Then her sister moved into number 9.

“There was a great atmosphere here then, a great sense of community,” she recalls. “There was no fear. Every year, we’d go for a couple of weeks’ holiday up the country, and we’d leave our balcony door open. That was in the ’70s and ’80s. We went to bed every night with our back door open, too. Everybody knew everybody. Kooris are all family anyway when you go way back and, even if you’re not a blood relation, you’re still aunt or uncle or nan. I had twins – they were toddlers at that stage – and they’d get out the front door and one would run left, the other right. I’d be standing on the corner shouting, ‘Grab that kid!’ And there’d always be someone there to do it.”

The AHC bought property elsewhere, too, and still rents out about 40 houses in suburban Sydney and country NSW. Jenny and Lyall Munro moved into an AHC house in Marrickville, where they raised a family and were instrumental in the early days of community organisations, including the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Children’s Service. Later, Jenny enrolled at the University of New South Wales and completed an arts/law degree. The Munros were part of a tight-knit community of active, young, educated Aboriginal people taking on the world.

Mundine’s rise

Michael Mundine was also working in Redfern in the 1970s – first as a truck driver, later as a painter for the AHC. He’d arrived in Sydney in the mid-1960s from Baryulgil, north-west of Grafton, where James Hardie had employed much of his family in its notorious asbestos mine.

“My dad, uncles, cousins, my brother, Tony – they all worked at the mine,” he recalls. “When we were kids, we’d take lunch out there for the men and we’d play in the asbestos tailings. Family and friends have died as a result of the asbestos. Their deaths were slow and painful, and a lot of them never got compensation for it.” 

Mick Mundine is a charmer. He could charm birds out of the trees, as the saying goes. One of his earliest memories is of an old Aboriginal man who would sit beneath a tree at sunset and sing, and as he sang, birds would gather on the grass at his feet and dance around him. “There were nine of us: six brothers and three sisters,” he remembers of his childhood. “We lived in a house with a dirt floor, no electricity, no sewerage. We lived the hard life but there were good times as well. In summertime, at lunch break, we’d run to the creek and have a swim. I remember playing rounders with our granny, and dancing while she played the piano accordion. We might have been poor but there was a lot of love and caring and sharing in those days.”

Mundine is sitting in the AHC boardroom, keeping a weather eye on the tent embassy below. He came to Sydney, he says, because he wanted to better himself. He didn’t finish school, he explains. At 16, he took off on a grand adventure, “cruising from one mission to the next, visiting relations, getting part-time work, like corn-pulling and grubbing and cotton-chipping, cruising around the way young people do.” He had no interest in politics but he found himself surrounded by it. “When I first came here, I didn’t understand the civil rights movement. Then I learnt about the trials and tribulations of our people.” 

At the AHC, Mundine rose through the ranks from painter to foreman. He was as surprised as anyone by the promotion. “I had no skills – trust me, no skills – as a foreman. I’m not a very educated man but I have a fair bit of commonsense. So I used that.” 

In the early ’80s, he was promoted to office manager, then company secretary, and finally CEO. There were times when he floundered beyond his depth but he got by on instinct, street smarts, mentors and faith. “I’m a strong believer in the Lord,” he explains.

By the early 1990s, however, the Block was in trouble. Tenants complained of vermin and damage that went for months – even years – unrepaired. Many stopped paying rent in protest. Mundine insisted that the reason for the tardy repairs was the lack of rent. 

“An organisation of that nature should have been able to manage the rents and maintain the houses,” says Munro, “but they couldn’t and they had to be bailed out on numerous occasions.”

AHC meetings became tense and uncomfortable. Allegations of intimidation were made against Mundine and his extended family. “He stacked the board and the membership when we tried to fight back,” Munro claims. “He’d just walk into meetings with a lawyer and a handful of proxies. We became an oppressed minority within the company.”

Finally, Munro says, she and other members who weren’t toeing the Mundine line “were purged. They removed us from the membership without our consent. That’s how he rolls.” Mundine denies this.

The badlands

By the mid-’90s chronic crime and drug use had made parts of The Block a no-go zone, compounding the AHC’s problems collecting rent. “The dysfunction, the notoriety, the drugs,” says Munro. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and it was all under Micky’s watch. Dealers saw this community as an opportunity. Young people were introduced to drugs here, and a lot of them died. The government didn’t care. The police didn’t care. There was one instance when members of a particular family were bringing in drugs and some of the residents tried to stop them. Those dealers were actually protected by the police. I believe drugs were used, on a number of occasions, to try to destroy this community.” 

Jenny Munro suggests that the housing company turned a blind eye to the drugs for too long. Mundine, she says, was aware of the identity of at least some of the dealers, who lived and plied their trade within metres of the AHC office and his brother’s gym. Mundine insists that gathering evidence and evicting tenants was no easy task, for the AHC or the police.

“In August, I’ll have been here for 39 years,” he says, “and I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Our own people began selling drugs. They were selling them to one another, they were selling them to kids. It got to the stage where our young girls were selling themselves for drugs. This land was becoming a blackfella graveyard. They came here to drink, to shoot up, to die, to be murdered. 

“As an Aboriginal man, I couldn’t stand by and let that happen. The government doesn’t care if blackfellas kill themselves and the police could only do so much. They had the same problems we had identifying the dealers. It was taking six or 12 months of surveillance to get the evidence for one raid. A lot of so-called elders were part of the drug scene. The Block was like a stronghold for our people. It took a blackfella to break it. I know we got condemned for it but it had to be done. It was time for us to stand up, as Aboriginal leaders, and say, ‘No more.’ ”

Mundine’s solution was to demolish, to deafening outcry, every one of its tenanted houses on the Block. The utopian experiment was over.

Rebuilding the dream

It’s been more than 10 years now since the last AHC house was torn down. In that time, Mundine has gone into battle with successive governments, state and federal, in order to rekindle the dream. Ministerial responses have ranged from mildly encouraging to downright obstructionist. There were accusations of entrenched government racism and there were ministers who would have liked nothing better than to break the AHC and lay claim to its increasingly valuable slice of inner Sydney real estate. 

Mundine was, however, persistent. Finally, in 2012, the NSW government granted development approval for the Pemulwuy Project, named in honour of the near-invincible Bidjigal resistance leader. The project is a multifaceted, two-stage development that includes student accommodation, commercial and retail space and a childcare centre in the first stage. Affordable accommodation for Aboriginal people and a new Tony Mundine gym are planned for stage two. 

The aunties don’t like it. A lot of people don’t like it. A couple of hundred of them joined the aunties at the tent embassy last week, when rumour spread that the AHC and local developers, DeiCorp, had secured funding for stage one and were about to send in the bulldozers.

“The housing has to come first,” says Jenny Munro. “It’s what the AHC is mandated to do: to provide low-cost housing for Aboriginal people. Housing has been a critical issue for our people for the last hundred years. Aboriginal housing has been part of the national shame. Now Micky is putting our housing last again.”

There’s nowhere like the Block for rumours, and no one on the Block attracts them like Mick Mundine. There have been rumours circulating for months now that the AHC has secured funding for the commercial development, but Mundine insists that isn’t so. It’s not far away, he says, but he’s not ready to start digging foundations, and when it does eventuate, it will be in the form of a bank loan rather than any type of encumbrance to the developer. 

Another of the aunties’ concerns is that the AHC will mismanage the project and what was once Aboriginal land will be forfeited to developers.

“Not a chance,” says Mundine. “We’re the developers. DeiCorp are working for us. They have a contract with us to design and construct – that’s all. They don’t get a piece of the cake. When this is built, the Aboriginal Housing Company will own everything 100 per cent. We will pay the builders with money from a bank loan for the commercial development.”

Mundine doesn’t deny that the commercial development will go up first, but he insists that’s necessary because the income stream will give confidence to prospective lenders for the housing, be they private or government. He’s still pinning his hopes on some government funding, though to date neither state nor federal governments have shown any inclination to contribute.

“There’s no guarantee that there will ever be funds for the 62 houses for Aboriginal people that are in the plans,” says Munro. “There’s no guarantee there will ever again be Aboriginal housing on the Block. I’m sure he’ll get the money for the commercial enclave and student accommodation. But where will he find the money to house our people?”

The reluctance, from both government and private lenders, to fund the housing has been attributed to a handful of things: to racism; to the still-lingering badlands reputation of the Block; to rumours of past misdeeds and mismanagement by the AHC; and to the possibility, likely or not, that the project could one day go belly-up and require the lender to turf Aboriginal people off this iconic piece of land. No bank wants to be seen dispossessing Aboriginal people all over again.

Mundine says that none of these concerns is being alleviated by “a bunch of people camping outside our doors” criticising and condemning the project. “Why don’t they go and lobby the government for funds for the housing? The government loves it when blackfellas are fighting against blackfellas.”

Even if the affordable housing is built, the original 100 or more households will be reduced to 62, which Munro describes as “a Band-Aid”. Moreover, this will not be “welfare housing” or housing of last resort. The plan is for mixed-income affordable housing, much of it for families, and applicants will be vetted to ensure the Block doesn’t return to its crime ghetto days.

Jenny Munro sees problems here, too. “Who will be vetting prospective tenants? Mick Mundine? He thinks it’s Mick Mundine’s Housing Company, not the Aboriginal Housing Company. His ego is bigger than his brain.”

The aunties say they won’t allow DeiCorp to turn a sod until there’s a guarantee of equitable, affordable Aboriginal housing. “I’m hoping an injunction will stop the process,” says Munro. “But if we have to, we’ll stand in front of bulldozers.” 

Mundine says he has a clean slate. He won’t be intimidated. “I’m not scared of anyone. I don’t care if they’re grannies or who they are … If they can find something that we’re doing wrong, I’ll be amazed. They’re not going to stop us.

“This is for the next generation. This is for the future. It’s time for us to empower ourselves. How long have we been fighting? How long has that tent embassy been in Canberra? It’s been there for 40 years and what’s happened? Nothing’s happened. We’re still in the same predicament. So I say, instead of waiting for the government to do it, let’s do it ourselves. That’s my opinion.

“We want our kids and our grandkids to look at this place and be proud that we did everything we could to keep this land in Aboriginal hands. That’s what we want to leave them: we want to leave them with pride.”

When Mundine speaks of leaving this land in Aboriginal hands, he does not, however, mean all Aboriginal hands. He means the hands of the Aboriginal Housing Company. That’s the fundamental difference between his way and the aunties’ – between the worldviews of Jenny Munro and Mick Mundine – and it’s a gulf that might prove unbridgeable.

“He’s telling us we don’t have any say in what happens to this land,” Munro explains, “but if you understand anything at all about our culture and our people, it’s that title is communal. It’s not individual. He’s breaking a lot of laws, both black and white.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Redfern now". Subscribe here.

Samantha Trenoweth
is a writer and editor. Her most recent book was Bewitched and Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years.

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