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AUSTRALIA: Aborigines Suspect Relocation Plan Linked to Olympics

Michelle Avery

SYDNEY, Feb 6 1996 (IPS) - Redfern, an Aboriginal enclave on the southern fringe of the Sydney central business district, may be an eyesore to some people, but it is a historic and important gathering place for Australia’s indigenous community.

It was in Redfern where Prime Minister Paul Keating apologised in late 1992 for the injustices done to the Aboriginal people in the last 200 years, the first Australian leader to do so.

With the Sydney Olympics just four years away, government authorities and some Aboriginal leaders and bureaucrats are planning to beautify the place, to make it a showcase for Australian Aboriginal culture for international visitors.

But Redfern residents are suspicious of the plan to relocate them. Many of the older Aborigines who were themselves moved out of their homes by force in the past are wondering whether history is repeating itself.

In the late 1940s Redfern was an industrial slum with a large number of Aboriginal squatters in search of work. By the early 1960s it had become a kind of refuge for indigenous families who came to the city in search of accommodation and work.

The following decade Redfern became a centre for the struggle for Aboriginal rights. It was there that indigenous Australians fought for organisations to help their community, such as the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Housing Company.

In 1973 the government helped the Aboriginal Housing Company purchase three blocks of houses in the area opposite the Redfern railway station. The area became an important gathering place for Aborigines, where they could socialise within their own culture.

But crime soon found its way into the district. Drugs, stealing and gambling became a part of everyday life there. The police swooped down on the area in the late 1980s and have since kept a watchful eye on the community.

Anthony Carter, director of the Aboriginal Housing Company, believes it is now time to find a new direction for Redfern. “Redfern was established out of conflict, out of bitterness, (so) it has not been able to move forward positively,” he says.

Carter is hopeful that his company’s relocation and development scheme for Redfern will bring the change the Aboriginal community needs.

“The Housing Company is to provide better housing for our tenants and members, but we cannot do that within Redfern because of the social problems there,” he says. “Families have told us they would like an environment where they can instil their morals and values onto their children.”

He says the company could find alternative sites within the Sydney metropolitan area, and there are also people who want to return to their own communities in the outback.

The Housing Company estimates it will cost up to 15 million dollars to carry out the relocation plan, which will be shouldered by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and other government agencies.

As part of the development scheme, the company plans to rebuild and offer leases to restaurants, retail outlets and sports and music stores.

“We wish to utilise the land… and provide an economic base for indigenous Australia,” says Carter, adding they want to create an indigenous economy because every other ethnic group in Australia has its own economy.

“The Aboriginal community of Sydney will come and spend their dollars here knowing that their dollars will go back to the community,” he added.

ATSIC has shown interest in the venture and is currently assessing the Housing Company’s request for support, such as providing alternative accommodation for the Redfern residents.

It is negotiating joint funding of the scheme with the New South Wales state government and the South Sydney Council. Private funding is also being sought for Redfern’s development.

The Housing Company and ATSIC are optimistic about the plan, but many Redfern residents do not share their enthusiasm.

One of the long-time residents in the area, Bronwyn Penrith, who lives in the block of houses across the Redfern station, dreads the thought of leaving.

“I suppose when people come down here they see different things, but when I go to work, I see the kids going to school, people standing around having a yarn. These are the things that I like about Redfern, plus it’s close to my work,” she says.

Penrith’s house is not among those owned by the Aboriginal Housing Company, but she concedes she will eventually have to move out if Redfern is to be developed into a business centre.

She suspects the relocation and development plan has a lot to do with the Olympics. The authorities do not want a huge Aboriginal community right in the city, which would be an eyesore to tourists, so they are forcing them to move out, says Penrith.

She says the government’s reasons for relocating them are the same as those given in the past to move Aboriginal reserves further out of urban areas.

“The reasons are exactly the same but with the addition of drugs,” says Penrith. “But these problems will only go with the people. (Relocation) won’t resolve anything. It will just clean up the area and make it look nice.”

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