on april 26/27, 2014 the sydney morning herald produced a full page report from hall greenland titled ‘block politics in redfern’ that highlighted the abject failure and disaster of the aboriginal housing company under the iron fist rule of the ahc by mick mundine and his unknown star-chamber board. critics of mick mundine state that the secret board is made up of a very restricted number of family and friends. this, if proved to be true, raises serious issues of governance on how the ahc is currently being managed.
however, hall produced a much more informative article that was cut by the smh for size considerations. this was a problem because the full article gives so much more insight and information into the history of the block and the severe machinations of the politics of the block. hall has given me permission to reproduce it below.
the most irritating approach to the block is the absolutely erroneous statements made by hall and other news reporters, saffron howden among them, that the block is somehow the full responsibility of mick mundine. it is not. mick, as i and others have argued for years, does not, repeat not, have any ownership of the block. absolutely none! the block under no circumstances belongs to mick and his board. that is just so wrong. mick and the board have the community and governance responsibility to manage the block to promote aboriginal housing, not to own it.
when jenny munro and others took the decision to set up a tent embassy, with the sacred fire, on monday 26/5, sorry day, in an altercation between him and jenny, he made the same ridiculous statement in front of the nitv and skynews cameras. “the block is not aboriginal land, it is private land.” this lie reinforces that his statement is based solely on theft. his erroneous belief is based on a criminal act. what began as a aboriginal housing co-operative has been taken from the community and is now, seemingly, there only to enrich the few. mainly, mick and his board.
mick, i was surprised to learn, has been the ceo of the ahs for the last 30 years and i believe that that length of time has indoctrinated him to believe that he not only owns the block but he is going to be the commercial saviour of the future of the block. in my opinion mick has been in the ceo position for far too long and with the complete lack of community input into the board, through the closed shop practices barring community attendance, this practice has disastrously allowed for only one mindset to hold sway over the future of the block.
even when we consider the block plans of some 10 years ago there was an unhealthy, to me at least, emphasis on creating funds or ‘profits’ through sales rather than the much greater need for affordable and long-term aboriginal community housing. the pemulwuy project that i first saw, when frank sartor was attempting to get his hands on the block due to its absolute value, was for a project of 62 accommodation units, a car park, a cultural centre and a hostel,accommodation unit for aboriginal visitors to the block community and sydney in general.
whilst looking good on paper, when a closer analysis was made it showed that not all was heaven in paradise. of the 62 units only 20 were to be considered to be low-cost housing for aboriginal elders. whether these 20 units were to be bed-sitters or one bedroom flats is unknown to me. the next 20 accommodation units were to be 1 and 2 bedroom town house style accommodation for families on a rent/buy deal. the other 20, to be built on top of his brother’s fully refurbished gym, were to be 2/3 or even 4 bedroom units to be sold to the highest bidder! and why? well mick believed that you had to sell off 40 of the 60 units so proper upkeep and maintenance of the first 20 could be realised. absolute rubbish! and the other 2 units were for aboriginal exponents of culture in aboriginal areas of excellence.
since then, however, even that warped project has been severely watered down to the point where we have now been taken by the mismanagement of mick and his board.
there have been rumblings from some community members who also like mick have a long association on the block. as hall shows, mick was a painter to the refurbishments of the housing units on the block for the co-operative so he is then very well aware of the full community circumstances of the co-operative since its inception. so to was jenny munro as were others who are now camping at the block in absolute defiance to mick’s stupid assertions that the block somehow belongs to him and his company. mick has no agreement to the tent embassy being set up on what he considers to be private land belonging to his company.
he has, however, publically stated that he will not call on his good friends, the redfern police, to evict those camping and staying on the block until such time as the aboriginal housing company reverts to community control once again and affordable aboriginal housing becomes the major emphasis and not the current board’s grasp for dollars at the expense of that housing.
on the 15/16th of this month we posted the allegations and governance problems of the redfern aboriginal medical service and we asked the chairperson to call a public meeting to inform both members and the community of what was happening at our medical service and to date there has been no meeting called to my knowledge but there is still a couple of weeks to go for calling it. what the rams constitution states on the notice of such meetings being called i am unsure but we await the chairman’s decision.
similarly, we need for mick mundine to also call a public meeting for members and the community to fully explain the processes by which we find ourselves today in conflict with the original aims of the original procedures and understandings of the housing co-operative as it was intended to be. we request that the current chairperson of the ahc call that public meeting within 4 weeks of this date and to table for public viewing and consideration the current ahc constitution and the latest audit report of the ahc. we suggest that that meeting could be called for on the block.
so many questions, mick. so much to clarify and understand. call the meeting, mr. chair.
what the boards and their ceo’s must now take into consideration is that both rams and the ahc are there for the aboriginal community and not for themselves, family members and friends. they are funded to work with the aboriginal community and not to be used as a vehicle to enrich themselves.at the expense of that community.
in our new political world we now find ourselves in surely if both ceo’s and their respective boards were professional in their management of these aboriginal entities they would be putting the organisation and community ahead of any governance issues. especially where federal funding is concerned. pm tony abbott is a howard pm on steroids! any chance to shut our organisations down and mainstream their services will be taken. we must not allow these problems of governance and management manipulations put our organisations and dedicated services in jeopardy.
we as a community must reclaim the rams and the rahc as soon as possible.
indigenous social justice association
Prix de l’Homme de Francais
(French Human Rights Medal 2013)
(m) 0450 651 063
(p) 02 9318 0947
1303/200 pitt street waterloo 2017
we live and work on the stolen lands of the gadigal people.
sovereignty treaty social justice
Posted by hallgreenland
It is now ten years since the legendary last tenant departed The Block, the famous heart of Aboriginal Redfern. Her house at 78 Eveleigh Street stood alone buttressed by the half-demolished shells of adjacent terraces. All Aunty Joyce Ingram’s neighbours had gone, their houses levelled to the ground. Her role as the unacknowledged Mayor of Eveleigh Street was now redundant. It was her turn to go.
The manner of her going was testament to the trouble she caused the authorities, black and white, during her 30 years living on Louis and Eveleigh Streets. The wiry, old black lady in big headlight spectacles did not lack for helpers to load her meagre belongings into the removalist van standing outside her missing front gate. But as they loaded, a bulldozer sat revving up outside her backdoor. No sooner had she closed her front door for the final time – “even before the van had left the kerb,” said one witness – than the ’dozer began to plough her house into rubble and dust.
One can imagine Mick Mundine, the chief executive of the Aboriginal Housing Company, the owner of The Block, looking down on the scene from his office overlooking Eveleigh Street with some quiet satisfaction. Only seven years previously Aunty Joyce had tried to organise a coup inside the AHC to stop the clearances on The Block.
Flagging: Renewed unity and action is needed to bring back affordable housing to The Block in Redfern. [Photo Jack Carnegie]
“Aunty Joyce Ingram was the final holdout,” says Ray Jackson, secretary of the Indigenous Social Justice Association. “She lived with her grandchildren in the last house standing. But in the end, with the toilet blocked and no repairs being done, she agreed to move.”
Now The Block is the most valuable vacant lot in Sydney. Ten thousand square metres of prime real estate located right in the heart of gentrifying Redfern and less than two kilometres from the CBD. It was once home to as many as 100 Aboriginal households, the Mecca for Aborigines from all over NSW. It was the place, in Elizabeth Farrelly’s memorable phrase, “where the songlines met”.
Everyone still calls it The Block despite the fact that all the dilapidated terrace houses that once stood there have now been razed to the ground – and their Aboriginal tenants resettled elsewhere. Only two buildings still stand on The Block – Tony Mundine’s gym and the offices of the Aboriginal Housing Company, run by Mick Mundine, Tony’s brother.
The land belongs to the Aboriginal Housing Company, an Aboriginal-owned company which also possesses 41 houses elsewhere. For the past 30 years the company has devised grand plans – five at least at last count – to rebuild The Block as a modern affordable housing precinct for Aborigines. It was this dream that justified the clearances between 1996 and 2011.
The dream is now known as the Pemulwuy Project, an ambitious $70 million commercial and residential development badged with name of the Aboriginal warrior who led the futile resistance to the first white settlers in Sydney.
The project is dividing the local indigenous community. It is now ten years since then NSW planning minister Frank Sartor announced his intention to clear The Block of its affordable housing. Then the Aboriginal community united behind the AHC to stymie Sartor. However, the latest version of the AHC’s plan has shattered that unity with opponents claiming if it goes ahead it will have the same result as Sartor’s plans.
What concerns them is the commercial half of the Pemulwuy project, which is to take precedence in the planned redevelopment. Its centrepiece is seven storeys (and possibly 14) of student housing – Sydney University is nearby. As the AHC’s latest financial report says, its strategy is “to prioritise the requirements of the student accommodation development”.
AHC expects to have bank finance for this part of the development within weeks but the funding for the other half of the project – affordable housing – is as far away as ever.
“In ten years The Block will belong to developers, that’s my sad prediction,” says Jenny Munro, one of the founders of the AHC and a sceptic of the current management’s ability to deliver affordable housing for Aboriginal people on the Block.
Her view is shared by others in the Aboriginal community. For Sol Bellear, another founder of the AHC and currently chair of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, the current Pemulwuy project smacks of “over-reach” and a departure from the AHC’s primary mission to look after the housing needs of less well-off Aborigines. “There are homeless Aborigines who urgently need housing and too many other Aborigines living in overcrowded conditions,” he says. “Providing housing for them should be the priority.”
There are already signs that the AHC is acting more like a commercial enterprise and less like a housing company. In the past two financial years the company has sold assets to the value of $2.4 million, which has boosted its reserves to nearly $3 million. Included in this sell-off were five terrace houses across the road from The Block. “They were dead assets,” says Mick Mundine, chief executive of the AHC for the past 30 years. Yet the houses have since been renovated and are part of a row where landlords are asking as much as $1100 per week in rent. Mundine says that one of the houses is still rented by an Aboriginal woman.
Three years ago the Aboriginal Housing Company signed a contract for design and construction with Deicorp which is currently the biggest developer in Redfern. It has completed one 19-storey residential tower and is currently building another, both approximately 100 metres from The Block. “The partnership with Deicorp is a good thing,” says Geoff Turnbull a local planning activist, “because having a developer on board brings some commercial realism to the table.” Deicorp is responsible for the current emphasis on building student accommodation which Turnbull sees as a sure-fire bet commercially.
The arrival of Deicorp on the scene saved the AHC. “We owed $786,000 in rates and had just $125 in the bank,” AHC chief executive Mick Mundine says of the company’s financial position four years ago. This was when Greg Colbran, Deicorp’s development and planning manager, crossed the railway tracks to introduce himself to Mundine and ask how he could help. A loan of $500,000 from Deicorp’s owner Fouad Deiri followed and the AHC engaged the developer as the new project designer and construction manager. Mundine hastens to add that after then Premier Kristina Keneally advanced a grant of $2 million to the AHC in the dying months of her Labor government, the loan was paid back “the next day”.
It is Deicorp who have shaped the new – and fifth – plan for The Block. In December 2012 their plan received development approval from the state government. “We have absolutely no commercial gain in the project whatsoever,” says Colbran of Deicorp’s involvement. “We work under a fee, that’s all.”
There is a touch of the messianic about Colbran when he talks of Pemulwuy. “This project is changing history. It’s setting an example of how Aboriginal companies set themselves up in business. The AHC will become a catalyst for other Aboriginal companies.”
The future: The vacant Block today – and the crane and tower block on the horizon are Deicorp’s [Photo Jack Carnegie]
The Pemulwuy plan is not just shovel-ready but business ready, according to Colbran. “Two years ago we called in the major lenders to ask them what was required. We’ve got that together now and we’re off to the banks in two weeks.” He expects to start building as early as June.
The banks will be asked for finance for the commercial stage only. But Colbran expects to start the housing before the commercial section is finished. “The commercial will be an 18-month build but within 12 months of starting we will get going on the affordable housing.”
He expects the state and federal governments to pony up the $30 million for the affordable housing. It is a complete gamble – governments have given no indication of agreeing – but one he’s confident will come off. “We know that governments have funding available for Aboriginal projects but people are concerned about where the money goes. Here we have a project that is feasible, where all the business planning has been done, where the banks will have lent the money, where everything is transparent, where the first stage is self-funding and will work commercially. Everything stacks up. Everything the government is asking for from Aboriginal organisations is done.”
The housing is not the only as yet unfinanced part of the project. A central element of the design is the widening of the Redfern station railway bridge to provide a grander entry into the precinct. That is costed at $10 million and Colbran is vague about who will finance it.
Even supporters of the project worry about the arrangement with Deicorp. “Everyone’s worried, what do they [Deicorp] want out of it?” says Shane Phillips, who grew up on The Block and whose parents Richard and Yvonne were third generation Redfern residents. “I’m as paranoid as anyone but I’m trusting – and hopeful.
“I know I’m going back. Definitely.”
His boyhood friend, lawyer Joe Corrie is neither so trusting nor so hopeful. “Government funding [for the housing] is an unreal expectation. The current logic of governments is that land this valuable cannot be for affordable housing. If houses had been left on The Block there would at least have been some moral leverage.”
If this analysis is right and affordable housing just an illusion, it would represent a second – and probably permanent – dispossession for indigenous people. It would also represent a final defeat for what was a shining example of the Aboriginal renaissance of the 1970s.
Aborigines began to return in numbers to Redfern in the 1930s. They came for a bundle of reasons, attracted to the jobs and bright lights of Sydney. Many obtained employment in the railway yards in Redfern or in the factories dotted through the suburb. Others were escaping from the prejudice of redneck country towns or the stifling unfreedom of the upcountry missions or threats of child removal. “Redfern was partly a refugee camp,” says Sol Bellear.
The Block did not become the heart of this Return until the early 1970s. The properties then belonged to a (white) developer and were vacant and falling into disrepair prior to demolition and redevelopment. Being empty and mostly dry, they were spontaneously squatted by “goomies”, as Aboriginal metho drinkers were called. But as quickly as the goomies occupied the houses, the police would evict them.
Into this skirmishing stepped the late Bob Bellear, Sol’s brother, who eventually became a district court judge. He organised support for the squatters from local Catholic radicals like the Redfern parish priest Father Ted Kennedy and Bob’s wife Kaye, and from assorted lefties from the Communist and Labor parties, among whom Bob Pringle, the president of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation, was conspicuous. The goomies now had allies determined to make their squatting permanent.
The occupations rapidly spread through The Block and teams of volunteers began making the derelict houses liveable once more. This all coincided with the arrival in Canberra of the Whitlam government. On the advice of his Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gordon Bryant, Gough Whitlam stepped in to buy the first 40 houses on The Block and came to Sydney to hand over the deeds to the nascent Aboriginal Housing Company.
It was the first, the largest and the most successful urban land rights claim of modern times.
The story of the descent from those heady, utopian early days is well known. In the 1980s the rail yards and the factories closed and the drug trade driven by cheap heroin arrived. Tumbledown houses were turned into shooting galleries. The streets and laneways host to cash-and-carry drug bazaars. Death by overdose became a familiar visitor. Petty crime flourished to fund the new industry. Motorists detoured around The Block out of fear they would be bailed up and robbed in their cars. The Block became a no-go area for whites from outside Redfern – except for those selling pharmaceuticals.
Naturally the relations between Aborigines and police, never good to begin with, deteriorated further as police raided, invaded and arrested Aboriginal drug users and dealers. Street fighting erupted from time to time. The Block was more like a location for an episode of The Wire than a set for Redfern Now.
Meanwhile the condition of the housing went from bad to worse as the Aboriginal Housing Company and its tenants began a long-running standoff of no rent on one side and no repairs on the other. (Aborigines, do not like paying rent to other Aborigines, Mick Mundine tells me on more than one occasion. It goes against the grain of their sharing culture. It is why the AHC now employs white real estate agents to manage their remaining properties. On the other hand, Mundine’s critics claim he stopped repairs in order to encourage people to move out. )
“We had to hit rock bottom in order to bounce back up,” says Mundine. His bounce has been a series of bounces. In the past 15 years there have been four plans for the regeneration of The Block. In 2001 a plan devised by lecturers and students of architecture from Sydney University was rejected by the AHC because it feared the layout would not reduce crime. In 2004 a scheme designed by the Government Architect was sunk because of disputes between the state Labor government and the AHC over funding and control.
Then in the wake of the street fighting over the death of a young Aboriginal TJ Hickey during a police chase, and the intervention of then planning minister Frank Sartor, a master plan for the redevelopment was devised by architects Peter Lonergan and Julie Cracknell and social planner Angela Pitts. In 2009 the Keneally government approved their concept plan. At this stage as many as 20 houses were still standing on The Block.
It was this master plan or concept plan that Deicorp inherited – and drastically changed. The current plan increases the maximum height from five to seven storeys, doubles the residential floor space (mostly devoted to additional student housing), adds a 60-place childcare centre and redesigns the affordable housing as modern terraces and a six-storey apartment block.
There have been “cultural” changes too. The elders’ centre and the four apartments meant for them have been eliminated as “doubling up” on the indigenous aged care already available in Redfern. So much for “living the dream of an Aboriginal life in a white man’s world”.
The dream of Aboriginal enterprise – central to the 2009 scheme – was also abandoned with projected retail space reduced from 7250m2 to 2655. The income stream is now to come from the student housing and the childcare centre. In the 2009 scheme the intention was to sell over half the 62 dwellings to socially mobile Aboriginal families. “We’re not going to do this now because people with drug money might find a way to buy properties on The Block and we’d be back where we started,” says Mundine.
Just how realistic is the gamble that Coalition governments in Sydney and Canberra will finance the affordable housing component of Pemulwuy?
A spokesman for the NSW Housing Department, which is investing $49 million in Aboriginal housing projects this year, says it has no current interest in the Pemulwuy project. The federal Minister for indigenous Affairs, according to Mundine himself, turned down a request for funding earlier this year. “He said there was no money. I said where is all the money that’s supposed to be for Aboriginal people? Where is it?”
In 2011 the Gillard Labor government did announce – with some fanfare – that it was investing in the Pemulwuy project via its National Rental Affordability Scheme. When Mundine and his office manager Lani Tuitavake went to the briefing on the funding they found they weren’t being offered the capital investment they sought but rental subsidies. This amounted to $8.4 million but it was to be paid over ten years and only after the project was built.
Nevertheless, that wasn’t the deal-breaker. “At the briefing we found out that under the conditions of NRAS grants, the government could put in an administrator to take over our company if the government wasn’t satisfied,” says Tuitavake. “When we heard that we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
“Mickey is caught in a Catch 22,” says planning lawyer John Mant who was involved in the 2009 plan. “He’ll get no government money until he jumps though all the bureaucratic hoops that have been set up to register community housing associations, and if he does, then he stands to lose the whole lot.”
Tanya Plibersek, the minister for housing at the time and within whose electorate the Block falls, regrets the “misunderstandings”. “NRAS moneys from the federal government were always in the form of continuing subsidies, not lump sum payments,” she explains. “Unfortunately I could not vary the rules that don’t allow the federal subsidy to be cashed out upfront and I certainly couldn’t make an exception for a body in my own electorate.”
This is the second time Mick Mundine and the company have rejected government funding over the issue of control. Ten years ago the Carr Labor government offered to finance rebuilding the Block on condition that the Housing Department would manage the completed project for 20 years. After that it would revert to the AHC. “Mick was worried that it would not come back or that the Aboriginal community would certainly see it like that,” says Turnbull.
The future of the Block is entangled in Aboriginal politics. Mundine belongs one of the most powerful clans in NSW Aboriginal politics – his brother is Tony Mundine, an ex-world boxing champion; Anthony Mundine is his nephew. Warren Mundine, former national president of the ALP and now Tony Abbott’s key adviser on indigenous issues, is a cousin and close friend – Mick was best man at Warren’s wedding. Demonstrating that the clan has all bases covered, the radical Gary Foley is also a Mundine.
Mundine has his critics. “The Aboriginal Housing Company is a byword for incompetence,” say Jenny Munro. Like Kaye Bellear, Munro complains of the closed membership of the AHC, claiming she and her husband Lyall Munro Jnr, both founding members, are now denied membership.
Ray Jackson objects to Mundine’s dictatorial ways, instancing Mundine’s declaration that he will choose who moves back into the Block. “It all depends on the tenant’s history,” says Mundine. “If you’ve been selling drugs on the premises, then there’s no chance of you coming back.”
“Mickey doesn’t seen to understand that he doesn’t own The Block,” says Jackson. “People were moved out on the promise that they could move back in when The Block was rebuilt. Now there is no guarantee this will happen.”
The politics is important because while the AHC hasn’t got the kind of money needed for the Pemulwuy project, other indigenous bodies like the NSW Aboriginal Land Council do. The NSWALC has over $600 million in its investment account but when Mundine approached it for $2 million in seed money to advance the Pemulwuy project the Council refused. “They did it by email,” says Mundine indignantly. “By email!”
The NSW Aboriginal Lands Council is reluctant to comment. “We had concerns that AHC’s intention to repay the loan – via the sale of assets – had the possibility to not eventuate,” says acting CEO Lesley Turner. “The result could see NSWALC being a mortgagee in possession of assets it simply couldn’t dispose of.” While Turner says it was purely a commercial decision “we wished Mr Mundine every success with the Pemulwuy Project”.
Despite this rejection, Sol Bellear believes that black finance is the only way to save the Block for Aboriginal housing. Bellear and Mick Mundine go back a long way – in the 70s Sol was the foreman on the repair teams on The Block and Mick was a painter on his crew. Bellear now believes the realisation of the Block’s redevelopment is beyond the AHC acting by itself.
“I’ve suggested to Mick that we convene a meeting of all the chairs and CEOs of the major Aboriginal organisations to get Pemulwuy off the ground. Look, if 60 of the richest 120 Land Councils in NSW each put up the money for one of the dwellings, it could be done. But Mick has rejected the idea. He thinks it’s all a plan to undermine him.”
Shane Phillips, who is the director of Tribal Warrior, a maritime training company for young Aborigines, agrees with Bellear. “It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “I don’t see why the state land council doesn’t do it. It’s a duty of theirs to maintain this history of ours.”
When I put it to Mundine that 30 years is a long time for a project to be in gestation, he replies, “I believe in the Lord and I believe He meant us” – he makes a wide sweeping gesture encompassing himself, the office of the AHC where we’re sitting and the Block beyond – “to be here. Have faith, brother.” While Mundine’s supporters may keep the faith, others would prefer the earthly pleasures of decent bricks and mortar for their people.
See video of Mick Mundine interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alxwepele1w
Geoff Ash, who is the unofficial archivist of the Greens in NSW, recently came upon the draft manifesto for the Greens in the Sydney electorate. It’s dated October 1984.
Apparently it is in the files of the Australian Electoral Commission, who may lose votes but thankfully they haven’t lost this precious document.
You can read it yourself [see below] but I cannot resist pointing to a couple of points of interest, starting with this description of the Greens parentage:
The Greens in Sydney come from many backgrounds. Environmental and resident activists. Nuclear disarmers. Dissidents from the Labor party who have witnessed betrayals by both wings of that party. Feminists. Anarchists. Those inspired by the German Greens. Socialists of various kinds.”
Not bad parentage. I also liked this indictment of the old established parties:
Locked into support for one power bloc against the other, these parties are unable to take the steps out of the vicious and ultimately exterminating cycle of the nuclear arms race. Committed to the current economic system, they find it difficult to check and reverse its continuing destruction of the natural basis of life on this planet. Working hand-in-hand with the Establishment, they are inhibited from moving towards a more equal and socially just society. Interested in power for themselves, their party and faction, they cannot work for a system where all power is in the hands of the people. “
When it came to specific proposals the idea of a ministry of peace sounded as valid now as then [and suspect this was a Tony Harris idea]. After laying out a series of specific actions [like withdrawal from ANZUS and no export of uranium] it continued:
“These steps should be coordinated by a ministry of peace which would work towards an expanding nuclear-free zone, and switch ‘defence’ and military funds to Third World aid projects and to research into non-nuclear renewable sources of energy.”
Later it sought the redirection of funds earmarked for freeways, second airports and third runways to public transport, public housing and ‘the proper treatment and recycling of Sydney’s sewage and industrial waste’ (which was something both Daphne Gollan and Ian Cohen were strong on!).
There is lots about grassroots democracy, rights for unions and workers, a shorter working week, protection of wilderness areas, ecological agriculture, feminism, and sovereignty for indigenous people.
All still valid.
By Hall Greenland
In the days that followed the election perfect strangers were constantly bailing me up to express their congratulations and commiserations. They were aware our vote in the seat of Grayndler had dropped compared to our 2010 result – three percentage points as it turned out – and were disappointed (and wary of the Abbott victory) but they were not despondent.
They were right. The drop in Grayndler was nowhere near as large as the overall fall in the Greens vote across the country (see the accompanying table at the end). And if we take a longer view, the Greens vote in Grayndler is up 20% on our 2007 vote (from 19 to 23 per cent). Undoubtedly also injecting some optimism into the reaction was the magnificent victory in the seat of Melbourne, the re-election of Senators Scott Ludlum and Sarah Hanson-Young and the extra senator (Janet Rice) in Victoria.
The local reaction reflects the certainty that we won the political debate during the campaign. There was, after all, no convincing Labor answer to the criticisms of their punitive refugee policy, or the cuts to single parent pensions, or the slashing of university funding, or the promotion of coal exports, or the approval of fracking, or the failure to protect iconic wilderness areas and farmland.
The positive vibe also had much to do with our campaign. We definitely won a few rounds during the run-up, including the Meet-the-Candidates debate in Marrickville Town Hall. It is little wonder that the sitting member Anthony Albanese refused our challenge for debates during the campaign.
The wins during the campaign were important because at the beginning of this year the Greens in Grayndler were in the doldrums after the setbacks in the local elections last year. In all the municipalities within Grayndler, the Green vote went backwards – in some cases by as much as 25%.
Early in the campaign we were buoyed by exaggerated hopes (based on 2010 figures) of actually winning the seat. However that close-run thing in 2010 was the result of receiving Coalition preferences and five weeks out from this election Tony Abbott announced that Labor not the Greens would be getting Coalition preferences this time. It was testament to the strength of our campaign team – and our campaign coordinator Lesa de Leau – that we did not falter.
Our media people, to cite one example, were terrific. We received a number of front pages in the local press and our social media and internet presence could not have been better. The campaign videos were also consistently interesting and garnered positive feedback.
This local and social media presence was important because Anthony Albanese received a charmed ride from the liberal mainstream media. The ABC and SBS rallied to Albanese’s defence with soft treatment on everything from Radio National to the Hamster Wheel to the Observer Effect.
The Grayndler Greens campaign was well-funded compared to other Greens lower house campaigns in NSW. But to put it into perspective, we only had about one-tenth of the resources of the Greens in Melbourne and less than half the resources committed to the key seats in the last state election.
Why then didn’t these strengths translate into more votes? The short answer is we should not underestimate either the strength of our Labor opponents or the mood of our electorate. We were pitted against the deputy prime minister and long-term incumbent, who had comparatively huge party, union and media networks to draw on as well as solid vote banks in the local ethnic and sporting communities.
As for the mood, the most common reaction I encountered from sympathetic voters when I was doorknocking was, “Yes, I like the Greens but the important thing is to stop Tony Abbott, so I’m voting Labor”. This defensive, fear-of-Abbott mood largely explains the continued strength of the Labor vote in Grayndler which was relatively impervious to reminders of how right-wing Labor had become, or to explanations of how preferences worked, or to assurances that the Greens would never support an Abbott government. It completely overwhelmed any cut-through the “care” and “standing up for what matters” messages that were the foundation for the Greens campaign may have had.
Yet it is important not to miss the first part of that doorstep declaration – “Yes, I like the Greens…” It is that which is also a source of our measured but upbeat reaction. There is much goodwill towards us in the ranks of Labor voters, which is no surprise as most of us are former Labor voters.
This raises the strategic question of how the Greens relate to Labor now. The experience of the past three years is instructive. There was no real alternative to guaranteeing confidence and supply to the minority Labor government after the August 2010 elections. It was the best government that was available in the prevailing circumstances. It was also right to secure concessions from the minority government. What went wrong – and the work of Tad Tietze & Elizabeth Humphrys and Tony Harris is pretty valid on this subject – was to get cosy and close to that government and to oversell the concessions. Any unpopularity of that government was also sure to rub off on us.
We needed to keep in the front of our minds that the minority Labor government was committed to an unsustainable model of capitalism, its policies were neoliberal to the core and it was a toady of Washington in foreign affairs. Fortunately the party room in Canberra has now reclaimed its freedom of manoeuvre.
While a dynamic, critical, alternative approach to the Canberra consensus is always in order, there is no guarantee that it would have produced better results in the political circumstances of a general shift to the right among voters. The magnitude of this shift is being overlooked in too many quarters: the combined Greens-Labor vote in 2007 was 52%, 50% in 2010 and 43% in 2013.
This problem of relations with Labor remains a real political dilemma for us as we will need to attempt some kind of cooperation with Labor in resisting the Abbott government’s bid to reverse climate change action, undo environmental safeguards, turn the screw on refugees and accelerate redistribution upwards.
The dilemma is thrown into sharper relief by the current Labor leadership ballot. We in Grayndler know how fake or limited Albanese “progressivism” is – given his support for the imprisonment of refugees, promotion of coal exports, privatisations of public enterprises, local Council alliances with the Liberals etc – but his victory can make resistance to Abbott stronger in that it could revivify the long-suffering Labor base who will almost certainly vote overwhelmingly for Albanese as the most “progressive” candidate.
We are now entering a new period. It is to our advantage that Senator Lee Rhiannon has kicked off the discussion amongst us about how we proceed after the election setbacks. Left Flank and Antony Loewenstein are weighing in as well. The virtue of the Greens party room’s present position is that the Greens can regain their freedom of political independence and initiative. What the issue or issues will be that arouse important parts of the citizenry to action is yet to be determined but already climate change has joined refugees as causes around which people – and certainly the Grayndler Greens – are willing to act.
14 September 2013
My initial response to election result https://www.facebook.com/greensforgrayndler
The Greens’ percentage of the vote: House of Representative/Senate
2007 election 2010 election 2013 election National 7.79 / 9.04 11.76 / 13.11 8.33 / 8.58 NSW 7.88 / 8.43 10.24 / 10.69 7.76 / 7.57 Victoria 8.17 / 10.08 12.66/ 14.64 10.32 / 10.70 Tasmania 13.5 / 18.13 16.82 / 20.27 8.08 / 11.37 South Australia 6.95 / 6.49 11.98 / 13.30 7.99 / 7.03 Western Australia 8.93 / 9.30 13.13 / 13.96 9.54 / 9.78 Queensland 5.63 / 7.32 10.92 /12.76 6.03 / 6.09
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