Redfern Block Tent Embassy established31 May 2014| Kay Dook
More than a dozen Aboriginal protesters set up a Tent Embassy on the Block in Redfern in late May. The government is pushing through a commercial redevelopment of the area, which, if successful, would result in more Indigenous dispossession.
Jenny Munro, the founder of the Tent Embassy and a founding member of the Aboriginal Housing Company, says, "The Block is Aboriginal land … we are reclaiming the Block for our people."
At the heart of the dispute is the issue of affordable housing for Aboriginal people, as well as control over land that was won in the 1970s. In fact, the Block was the first major urban land rights victory: Whitlam handed over the deeds to the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) after Aborigines and activists from the Communist and Labor parties, as well as the Builders Labourers Federation, occupied derelict houses in the area.
However, Aboriginal control over the Block has been eroded. Over the last 20 years, residents have gradually been pushed out and the terraces bulldozed to make way for commercial redevelopment. Mick Mundine, the chief executive of the AHC for the past 28 years, has overseen the clearing of residents. Ray Jackson, the founder of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, says that since Mundine took over, "there is no community feed-in". Providing affordable housing for urban Aboriginal families is "not profitable... the developers want a good return."
The AHC's grand plan for the Block is dubbed the Pemulwuy Project, which is supposed to encompass both commercial development and affordable housing. However, only the commercial half, which includes seven storeys of student accommodation, has been given attention. It is expected to gain financial backing within weeks. According to Ray, Mundine has "tinkered" with the Pemulwuy Project. Most of the redeveloped units can be sold to anybody, "even though it's on Aboriginal land". The other half of the Pemulwuy Project, set aside for affordable housing, is yet to receive any funding.
What is happening on the Block is indicative of the broader problems Aboriginal people face: due to chronic under-funding of government services, there is a constant housing crisis. Aboriginal people are four times more likely to be homeless than non-Aboriginal people. Overcrowded accommodation is also an issue being raised by the Tent Embassy. In some instances, families are crammed into spaces no bigger than the average living room.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has provided a port-a-loo and a marquee – a sign of practical solidarity. Those at the Block aren’t taking things lying down. As Jenny says, "The Australian government doesn't care about us... [but] they won't be moving us from here without good reason."