An entire inner-city community of 590 public housing tenants face being thrown out of their homes at Millers Point beside Sydney Harbour. At least 214 eviction notices have been issued as big business developers hover hoping to make millions from the government sell off.
The heritage-listed enclave has a proud working class history associated with the nearby former wharves. It is the oldest continuously-inhabited residential area in Australia, following European colonisation.
Then-State Liberal Community Services Minister, Pru Goward, has misleadingly said that some rents are ‘subsidised’ by up to $40,000 per year, and that she could not ‘preside over such an unfair distribution of subsidies’.
The truth is that decades of deliberate neglect and sub-standard maintenance have been consciously used by both the major parties to foster a situation in which they could then portray the full-scale sales of the properties as ‘the only viable solution’. This is despite the fact that several other agencies have produced a series of alternate measures for proper restoration and maintenance.
The most obvious factor driving this privatisation of public housing stock is the ever-swelling land prices of inner-city areas, where massive profits are to be made through commercial, retail and apartment building. Although the ALP has put up a façade of opposition, the truth is that it was Labor that began the sell-off in 2008 with a ‘one-off’ sale supposedly to fund the upgrade of other public housing. This was followed up with more sales two years later.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption has recently revealed the kinds of interests powerful figures around both the Liberal and Labor parties have in such deals. It is no coincidence that billionaire James Packer’s luxury Barangaroo casino is mere metres away from this area, standing to benefit from further gentrification. Even would-be ALP leader Anthony Albanese said in March that this is simply a stepping stone for more public sell-offs. Neither party can be trusted.
A meeting of the Millers Point Defence Committee in late March drew a crowd of 500. It received the formal support of the Sydney City Council and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), many of whose members lived and worked in the area. It is clear that there is mass support to defend these working class communities. What is needed now is a strategy to win.
The famous union Green Bans – that saved parts of the adjacent Rocks area – can be drawn upon, as can the ‘Hands Off Melbourne’s Estates’ (H.O.M.E.) campaign that directly halted the privatisation of half a billion dollars worth of public housing parkland last year.
Paul McAleer, secretary of the Sydney branch of the MUA said that the ‘MUA will bring the shock troops; we will bring other unions along with us to defend your home. We will be arrested if we have to. Now the decision has been made, we will escalate things’. If this is followed through, and the community is able to mobilise together with the union movement Millers Point could be saved.
A victory led by the community and the unions at Millers point could inspire people to go on the front foot and demand more public housing in order to create jobs and wipe out the public housing waiting lists.
Proposals such as this, however, run counter to the profit interests that lie behind the major parties. That is why alongside defending our homes, jobs and living conditions, unions and community groups need to strive to build a new political force. If successful, campaigns like those around Millers Point can be an important step in this direction.
By W. van Leeuwen