NSW Government resorts to Gestapo-like Tactics, Smashing Windows to Evict a Public Housing Tenant but the Powerful Union-led Struggle Against Social “Cleansing” in Sydney City is Far from Over
Continue the Fight to Prevent the Sell-Off of Public Housing in Millers Point & Sirius
Stop the Privatisation of Public Housing throughout Australia
On 10 May 2017 around ten to fifteen sheriffs, police and high-level bureaucrats raided a terrace house at 32 High Street, Millers Point. They invaded the inner Sydney home through the back entrance and then crashed their way into the dwelling after smashing through a window. So, what was the target that required such huge “enforcement” resources? Was it a raid on one of the many filthy, rich business owners who illegally dodge tax, bribe government officials or otherwise break their own system’s rules? Not a chance! This raid was perpetrated in order to evict a hard-working, working-class, public housing tenant from his residence so that the dwelling could be sold off to some, clearly, very rich person.
At the time of the 6:20am raid, the tenant, electrician Peter Muller, had already left for his 5am shift at work. However, the Gestapo-style raid saw authorities threaten with arrest several of his supporters who had courageously stayed in the dwelling to protect him. The invading authorities threw out Peter’s supporters, ransacked the place and impounded Peter’s property. They changed the locks and bolted up windows so zealously that, to this date, they have been able to enforce this eviction.
For over three years, the NSW Liberal state government has been putting massive pressure on public housing tenants in the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point area to leave their community so that their homes could be sold off to wealthy buyers – often developers or property speculators. Among those recently forced to move is an Aboriginal sovereign woman who had waited decades to get public housing in the area and is now being booted off the land that her people belong to. Meanwhile, a large number of those people forced to leave are now distraught – and even suicidal – at having to split up from a close knit, working class community. As Peter Muller aptly put it to his supporters when speaking of the NSW government: “I feel that there’s something going wrong that you can actually socially cleanse an entire class of working people just to sell it for cash to their developer mates.” And so that no one gets diverted by the false bogey about foreign investors being to blame, it is important to stress that all the buyers of sold-off public housing are rich local Australians as foreigners are banned from purchasing existing homes in Australia.
Public housing in the area originally housed maritime workers who worked in the nearby docks. Many of the tenants who are being forced out are descendants of these workers. Over 110 years ago, public housing in the area was fought for and won in a determined struggle by unions for decent, affordable housing close to their work opportunities. Although, since the 1960s, state authorities have tried to drive out working class tenants from the area, action by the Builders Labourers Federation trade union and other unions in the 1970s thwarted their plans. However, the big end of town have continued to be relentless in their drive to socially “cleanse” the city of working class people.
Nevertheless, when Peter Muller was given a notice to be evicted, the hard core of remaining tenants in the area said: enough is enough. They said they will tolerate no more evictions. These remaining public housing tenants in the area – as well as ex-tenants who have already been forced out – and their many supporters drew a line in the sand by resisting the eviction at 32 High Street. With their enthusiastic backing, Peter Muller, a proud Electrical Trades Union (ETU) member and activist in support of public housing, refused to leave his Millers Point residence after being ordered to leave his home. On May 9, on the day the sheriff was to evict him, a powerful action by up to 100 trade unionists, current and former Millers Point tenants and other supporters of public housing blocked the sheriff from evicting Peter. Trade union contingents from the Maritime Union of Australia, CFMEU construction workers union and ETU provided crucial social power and collectivist working class organisation to the action. Participants in the mobilisation openly performed arms-linked, picket line drills to practice resisting the expected incursion by the sheriff. In the face of this mass action, the sheriff first postponed his eviction “appointment” and then cancelled it.
By resisting his own eviction, Peter Muller with the remaining public housing tenants in the area and their many supporters were landing a blow for the struggle to reverse the social “cleansing” of working class people from the city. Together, we were also advancing the wider fight to stop the privatisation of public housing that is taking place throughout Australia. That is why among those participating in that day’s mobilisation were public housing tenants from several other areas including a contingent from Waterloo and individuals from Surry Hills to as far away as Villawood. In response to the May 9 mobilisation, the ruling class authorities and their media attempted to discredit and isolate the struggle by, disgustingly, attacking Peter Muller personally. Both a statement released by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) and a government spokesman claimed that Peter was not eligible for public housing because he was working and had some land in country NSW. The sole purpose of this deliberately misleading government spin is to mask the issue at stake: that public housing meant for working class people was being sold off to wealthy developers, speculators and landlords. Furthermore, as Barney Gardner, the leader of the area’s public housing group pointed out, the part share in a property that Peter has is “just a block of dirt in the bush” with no electricity or running water. Peter could not live there because it is hundreds of kilometres from his work in Sydney. The only dwelling there is a tin shed. They want Peter to live in a rough shed hundreds and hundreds of kilometres from his workplace! As for the fact that Peter is now working, when public housing tenants find work that pushes them above the threshold for initial entry into the waiting list, they are normally allowed to remain in their dwelling but then pay a higher rent. Indeed, a significant proportion of public housing tenants relocated into other public housing dwellings are people in this category. After all, a major part of the stated aim of public housing is precisely to give low-income people the stability and security of affordable housing that would make it easier for them to obtain a job that could lift their incomes – not to punish those low-wealth people lucky enough to find work. In this case, however, because the state authorities are so determined to drive out public housing tenants from Millers Point, they have used Peter’s employment as a pretext to kick him out of public housing … and into homelessness! What makes this all the more despicable is that Peter’s job working as an electrician through a labour hire firm does not give him a steady or regular flow of work at all. He is, thus, a low- income worker whose livelihood is precarious and uncertain. And now he has been made homeless as well!
For the state government and top bureaucrats to question Peter Muller’s eligibility for public housing is the very height of cynicism. After all, they are not booting him out of his home to give it to another public housing tenant. They are doing it so they can sell the house to a rich developer or speculator or landlord! Yet, by masking their true agenda and by portraying the struggle against the 32 High St eviction as one counterposed to the interests of those on public housing waiting lists, the NSW authorities felt they could get away with the following morning’s Gestapo-style raid.
The deceit and aggression that the NSW government and state authorities unleashed against Peter Muller and his supporters is what they have also used, in different forms, to drive out many other public housing tenants in the area. However, with the remaining ten to fifteen dwellings where public housing tenants remain, NSW authorities will not be able to muddy the waters by deviously claiming a technicality to justify evicting tenants as they did with Peter. The remaining tenants are pensioners – mostly single women in their 60s, 70s, 80s and in one case 90s. The authorities have accepted that they are all fully eligible public housing tenants and have “offered” them “alternate” public housing accommodation outside the area. However, these tenants are reluctant to move because they don’t want to see the end of the friendly, working class community that they have been part of building and don’t want to be forced out of the area – which many of them have lived in for decades – just for the sake of the rich. Furthermore, several of the people have serious illnesses and used to rely on support networks in the area to provide them with care and companionship. Most of all, they are reluctant to move into public housing dwellings that could have been given to people on the waiting list when they could, instead, remain in their own public housing residences rather than seeing these houses sold off to rich developers and speculators.
Yet the remaining public housing tenants have been put under intense pressure. In some cases, bullying bureaucrats have been deliberately rude and overbearing towards elderly tenants. In the Sirius Building, where two brave elderly single women remain, the authorities have placed security guards in the building to ramp up the pressure on them. Although the stated rationale for this measure is to protect the tenants, the guards are really there to restrict solidarity visits and actions in support of the tenants and to further isolate them. Thus, the guards have stopped and questioned friends of the tenants when they walked into the building with the tenant. In at least one case, they even demanded to inspect what one tenant brought home from a shopping trip! As one of the tenants put it, she feels like she is being imprisoned. Meanwhile, the housing bureaucrats continue to use their favourite trick: refusing or delaying repairs in order to make life so miserable for the tenants that they acquiesce to leaving. Recently after a fault caused hot water to be cut off in the Sirius Building, the authorities waited 13 days to fix the simple problem. In fact, the authorities here have shown the same contempt for public housing tenants and the same reluctance to listen to their concerns as the governments, councils and Grenfell Tower management did leading up to the unspeakable tragedy of London’s horrific Grenfell Tower fire.
Under immense pressure, some of the remaining elderly tenants in the area, aware of their own age and physical illnesses – and facing severe loneliness with most of their neighbours having already been pushed out – have very reluctantly accepted being relocated. The bureaucrats are putting pressure upon many of these tenants to wear being “relocated” to places quite far from their current locations. The government has never honoured the promise that they made, when they first announced that they were considering the complete sell-off of public housing in the area in late 2012, that “residents would be moved within the city.” (http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/residents-stick-to-their-point-of-community- 20121025-288bh.html) Many of these tenants are also battling to ensure that the new places that they are relocated to are suitable. But even here the cruelty of the authorities does not stop. They have in several cases dismissed the health needs of often physically fragile tenants – like the need for dwellings without many stairs in their entrances – when pushing them to accept particular relocations. Meanwhile, the tribunals hearing disputes between the tenants and the authorities have, like the rest of the courts in Australia, proven themselves to be rich people’s courts that are hostile to the needs of working class tenants.
Even as the number of remaining public housing tenants in the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point area dwindles, the struggle to stop the sell off of public housing there is far, far from over. For many of the vacated dwellings have still not been sold off and still less been occupied. This means there is still time – albeit not very much – to intensify the struggle and, thereby, stop and, indeed, reverse the sell-offs. Crucially, more and more trade unionists, leftists and other supporters of public housing are becoming energised around the campaign. They have seen, too, how powerful the blockade was that kept the sheriff at bay on the first day of the struggle at 32 High St. The core group of people that were involved in that struggle are now more determined than ever. If key lessons from the defeat of that battle are drawn, the coming struggles can be much more effective.
Sell-off of Millers Point and Sirius Is Part of the Ruling Class Agenda to Privatise Public Housing
The NSW state government is lying through their teeth when they say that they are selling off public housing in the inner city to fund public housing elsewhere. We know this because they are actually selling off public housing across the state – left, right and centre! Even if the government’s claims were actually true, which they are definitely not, the whole rationale behind their sell-off agenda is anti-working class. Why should public housing have to be self-financed? Why should any new provision of public housing have to come from the sell- off of public housing elsewhere? Like public hospitals, public schools, childcare, TAFE and universities, public housing is a necessity for working class people and for all of society that ought to be provided as a right. Consider how bogus a government would sound if it claimed that in order to build badly needed new public hospitals in Western Sydney it said it had to sell off to private operators the crucial public hospitals in inner city Sydney – like RPA and St Vincents!
The moves towards “self-financing” of public housing are, indeed, part of the ruling class drive to make basic services – including healthcare and education – increasingly “user pays.” Jacking up TAFE and university fees is part of this agenda. According to the “values” of the capitalist rulers, all the services that working class people need ought to be “user pays” but all the budget items that they, the capitalists, need to keep themselves in power should come out of general revenue from taxes. Thus, none of the pro-capitalist political parties call for the massive government outlays for the organs of anti-working class repression – the police, courts, prisons and military – to be self-financed. Meanwhile, the huge and ever- increasing budget which the ruling class gives to ASIO to spy on us is certainly not “self-financed” by the spies themselves. And neither is their ABCC body which was created to attack our unions in the construction industry.
The spin that the Liberal state government is weaving for Millers Point and Sirius Building tenants – that the government needs to forcibly relocate them from their homes to finance public housing elsewhere – they are also spinning to public housing tenants elsewhere when they sell-off their homes too! For example, this is what they have been telling public housing residents in the Bulli-Woonona-Bellambi area north of Wollongong. Yet no one has seen the additional public housing dwellings because they simply don’t exist! The fact is that from Minto to Claymore to Bonyrigg to Glebe to the Illawara, Millers Point and Waterloo, state and federal governments of all stripes have overseen the slashing of public housing stock. Even a Senate inquiry admitted that from 2006 to 2013, even as the population grew, governments cut the number of public housing dwellings in Australia by 13,000. It is notable that this erosion in public housing has occurred during a period that spans the Howard Liberal government, two Rudd ALP governments, a Gillard-led ALP/Greens de-facto coalition government and the present conservative government. All the current parliamentary parties have been guilty of undermining public housing.
NSW governments have been among the worst in terms of selling off public housing. Official government figures show that in the twelve years up until June 2015 (the latest period that figures have been published for), state governments in NSW have slashed the amount of public housing by 12% (Shelter NSW, NSW housing: a factsheet, updated November 2016, https://shelternsw.org.au/sites/shelternsw.org.au/files/public/documents/fly1610factsheet- nsw_shelternsw5a.pdf). This is even as the state’s population has grown by 15% in the same period. In other words, in a 12 year period, NSW governments – both the previous ALP government up to March 2011 and the Liberal-National coalition since then – have slashed the number of public housing dwellings per resident by almost a quarter. No wonder homelessness is on the rise!
It is important to note that this government slashing of the amount of public housing in NSW has continued even after the conservative regime first mooted the complete privatisation of public housing in Millers Point in 2012 and even after they began the forced relocations and sell-offs in 2014. In other words, their claim that this is all about financing additional public housing construction elsewhere is just one big fat lie. Indeed, if anything, the reduction in public housing across Sydney seems to be accelerating. A report in the The Sydney Morning Herald (24 April 2016), titled, “The great public housing fire sale continues despite worsening affordability crisis” reveals that in the first three and a half months of last year alone, over $54 million in public housing was sold off to private buyers – even if one excludes the sell-offs in Millers Point and Glebe! And this sell-off is not just in the inner city. The main areas that they are selling off public housing in – in addition, of course, to the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point area – include Parramatta, Hurstville, Greenacre, Panania, Campsie, Fairfield, Wentworthville, Lalor Park and Canley Vale.
Recently, especially with study after study showing that not only is housing too expensive for the masses but that rents in Australia are thoroughly unaffordable, governments have been under pressure to show that they are addressing this housing crisis. Thus, they have started to claim that they are committed to “social housing.” However, here they play a neat trick with words. Social housing refers not only to public housing but also to privately-run, “community housing.” In the latter, both nominally not-for-profit as well as profit-seeking groups administer low-rent housing. However, because these private outfits running “community housing” are meant to either break even or make a profit, they discriminate against the most hard-up tents (since such tenants would pay the lowest rents or would be most in danger of defaulting on payments). For the same reason “community housing” operators are even stingier on repairing premises than public housing bureaucrats and even more ruthlessly evict tenants. Thus, while “community housing” may offer a better deal for tenants than renting in the rest of the private market, it is still a big step backwards for tenants compared to public housing. What governments have been doing, while claiming that they are committed to maintaining a level of “social housing”, is to convert public housing into “community housing.” This is a large stride towards the full privatisation of public housing and is a big step backwards for tenants and all working class people. It is worth noting that the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation that managed London’s destroyed Grenfell Tower and which so callously ignored tenants’ pleas to fix manifest fire and other safety hazards is also a private organisation managing social housing – complete with highly paid managers and consultants. Although, in that case, the housing remained publicly owned, the use of this private “non-profit”, “arms-length management organisation” was designed to both shield the government from criticism for under-funding maintenance and to be a step towards turning the housing into so-called “community housing.” There is little doubt that the move towards turning public housing into “community housing” in London contributed to the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed over 80 tenants.
In January 2016, the NSW Liberal government announced that it would transfer 35% of public housing stock to privately-run “community housing” operators over 10 years. The previous year, in their reply to the NSW government’s budget, the ALP state opposition went even further and called for all public housing to be transferred into privately-run, “community housing”! Running the same agenda, the small amount of extra money that the Turnbull federal government has provided for “affordable housing” in its recent budget will not go into increasing public housing supply. Instead, it will be a handout to “community housing” operators in the form of lower interest loans. What is more, the housing thus provided will largely be out of reach of people on the public housing waiting list. For these “community housing” operators will be able to charge up to 80% of the average rent in the area that a house is in. That means that the workers – including rail, tram and bus drivers, ambulance workers, nurses, cleaners, maintenance workers, electricians, water and sewerage workers, taxi drivers, delivery drivers, office assistants and IT support staff – workers who all keep the Sydney CBD going will be largely priced out of living anywhere near their place of work if they want to access such so-called, “community housing”. Even a family living in working class Auburn and relying on a single full-time worker on the minimum wage would have
to pay over half of their after tax income on rent to live in a two bedroom unit if they were able to access one of these new, supposedly “affordable”, “community housing” dwellings.
The sell-off of public housing is part of the broader privatisation of basic services that has been pursued by Liberal, ALP and Greens federal and state governments alike. The result of these privatisations is that resources that could be used to maintain and expand public services are being transferred into the pockets of rich, private businessmen. Take the case of Sydney’s Desalination Plant. Just two years after it first went into service in 2010, the state government sold off the plant through a 50 year lease to a consortium half-owned by Hastings Funds Management. Hastings is 100% owned by Westpac Bank and manages funds for wealthy big-time local investors. It has been involved in many privatisations throughout this country from airports to electricity to the Port of Newcastle. The government’s privatisation deal is so generous to Hastings and their consortium partner that the government pays them well over half a million dollars per day even when the plant is, actually, shutdown! And it so happens that from a few weeks after the rich private investors took over the plant, the desalination plant has, indeed, been shut (because Sydney’s dam levels were high enough to make the plant unnecessary to operate). By the time the 50 year lease is over, the Westpac-owned Fund and their partner will be handed over $10 billion from out of public coffers even if the plant does not see another single day of operation! (see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-27/ nsw-desalination-plant-deal-costing-customers-$10-billion/4985168). That’s well over four times what the private buyers paid for the lease! After giving away such “charity” to filthy rich private businessmen, the government then has the hide to say that it has no money left for new public housing – unless, of course, they sell off existing public housing stock.
Now, in the latest chapter in its privatisation binge, the NSW Liberal government is seeking to privatise bus services in Sydney’s Inner West and inner South-West. This will result in the cutting of bus drivers’ jobs and conditions, the axing of unprofitable bus routes and the bypassing of maintenance and safety checks. However, bus drivers are fighting back. On May 18, bus drivers unleashed a powerful, 24 hour snap strike in defiance of a ruling by the Industrial Relations Commission. The drivers, members of the Rail, Tram and Bus union, have followed this up with fare free days. No to privatisation of Sydney buses – No to privatisation of public housing!
As the Huge Banner That Hung Over the 32 High St Action Stated: “Massively Increase Public Housing Now”
The struggle to stop the privatisation of public housing in the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point area is an important part of the fight against the privatisation of public assets and against the sell-off of public housing throughout this country. We actually need a massive increase in public housing. We need it to end homelessness and to house the hundreds of thousands of people on Australian public housing waiting lists. We also need it to house the many more low-paid workers who need low-rent housing but either cannot meet the ridiculously strict waiting list entry criteria or don’t bother to get on the list because waiting times are so outlandishly long. Furthermore, we also need public housing to help the many working class people who rent privately and face unaffordable rents because the shortage of affordable accommodation caused by the dearth of public housing means that private landlords are able to get away with jacking up rents. A substantial increase in public housing will finally pressure landlords in the private market to reduce rents since they will then know that their tenants will have somewhere else to go.
However, the propagandists for the capitalist ruling class say that public housing is outdated. They claim that it is not relevant in today’s world. Yet that argument has a fatal flaw. For in the world’s most populous country, China, the government is actually massively increasing the amount of public housing. This is not only through constructing new public housing. They have also been nationalising existing private housing – the very opposite of what has been happening here. Indeed, so committed has the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) been to public housing that they have provided over 45 million additional public housing dwellings in just the last eight years! As a result, an urban Chinese resident is now some six times more likely to have access to public housing than an urban Australian resident!
One obvious reason why the PRC has been able to so spectacularly increase the provision of public housing for its people is that there is a government commitment there to provide affordable housing to working class people. However, that is not the only reason. The other major factor is that although the ruling bureaucrats in China have since the 1980s allowed a harmful level of private sector capitalists to intrude into their economy, it is still socialistic state-owned enterprises that dominate the economy in the PRC. Thus, a large part of the PRC’s public housing is built by state-owned developers – like the giant China State Construction Engineering Corporation – and is financed by the state-owned banks that thoroughly dominate the PRC’s finance sector. In contrast, here in Australia, many of the resources for public housing ends up in the pockets of private contractors who are hired to perform various stages of the construction and most of the maintenance of public housing. Public funds designated for public housing in Australia produce relatively modest outcomes since so much of every dollar nominally assigned for its construction and maintenance ends up going down the drain into the profitable pockets of wealthy private businessmen.
Just as the expansion of public housing in the PRC is part of the continued dominance of public ownership in China’s economy and part of a concerted state-led drive to lift everyone there out of poverty by 2020, the sell-off of public housing in Australia is part of the ruling class’ ongoing privatisation push and part of their drive to reduce access to services for low- income people. Thus, when we stand up for public housing here, we will also be contributing to a broader struggle to defend the public services that working class people need the most.
Lessons of the Struggle to Keep 32 High St Open for Public Housing
In order to strengthen the upcoming struggles we must learn the hard earned lessons of the fight to stop the forced eviction at 32 High St, Millers Point. Chief among these is to understand the role of the state enforcement organs. After the first day’s success in deterring the sheriff ’s planned eviction of the tenant, the Millers Point community received legal advice that the original eviction notice had been cancelled and that it would take some time before a new eviction order could be processed. Thus, many tenants and supporters felt confident that there would not be a new attempt at eviction for at least a couple of days. This confidence was, in part, generated by our strong victory on the first day but also by an expectation that the state authorities would follow their own bureaucratic procedures and rules. Of course, no one totally ruled out a surprise raid overnight which is why some people stayed in the dwelling and were given the necessary phone tree contacts. However, the belief that a raid was unlikely meant that considerably less forces were mobilised to defend the house overnight than was possible.
Next time, the movement must ensure that there are enough forces to protect the public housing dwelling being targeted for eviction 24/7 regardless of any legal procedures which the authorities may formally be required to follow. The state enforcement institutions often do not follow their own laws and procedures because they are not here to defend the law. They are here to protect the interests of the rich ruling class. This has been the case since the colonial conquest of Australia when the armed personnel of the invading power brutally suppressed Aboriginal peoples’ resistance to the conquest of their lands occupied by the wealthy amongst the colonialists. Since then, these enforcement organs have attacked the picket lines of striking workers, broken strikes, attacked pro-worker and leftist demonstrations, evicted tenants, harassed the homeless, enforced the racist oppression of Aboriginal people and unleashed attacks on scapegoated “ethnic” communities. It is true that police do sometimes catch a rapist or murderer. However, their political function is to enforce the rule of the capitalist, big business owners over the masses. Every time there is a clash between the propertied, exploiting class and the working class masses, the state machine becomes perfected and more entrenched in this purpose and the armed personnel themselves become more conscious of their role. That is why the police and sheriffs are not at all workers in the way that electricians, nurses, construction workers, wharfies and IT workers, for example, are. They are, instead, the hired enforcers of the big end of town. Enforcers who, every time they do a job on the masses, become more and more hardened in their commitment to serve those at the top of this unequal society. With every dirty deed done they become more apt at “justifying” this role to themselves with patronising notions that those doing it the hardest are lazy or otherwise “deserve” their plight and that those resisting the dominance of the ruling class are people causing trouble just for the sake of it. Thus the likes of police, sheriffs, prison guards and prosecutors should have no place in our union movement. Even when they are polite to us that is only so long as we do not resist the unfair status quo in society. It is also, often, just to give us a false sense of security. Many a striking worker has experienced police coming to a picket and joining workers at the BBQ or even kicking a footy around with picketers but the very next day coming back in force with batons unleashed to try and smash the picket and get scabs through.
The laws and regulations that the authorities impose are there to suppress us. Even when there are certain regulations which we have fought for and won to somewhat constrain their powers, they will violate these rules – to the extent we let them get away with it – if that helps them carry out their role of enforcing the interests of the big end of town. We must plan our strategies based on this core understanding.
Another lesson from the 32 High St struggle concerns the role of the media. Over the last several years, the mainstream Australian media has vilified and mocked public housing tenants. However, given the widespread support for public housing in inner-city Sydney, the media occasionally had to give more sympathetic coverage to the plight of Millers Point tenants. Yet, when the struggle against the sell-off of public housing in Millers Point, the Rocks and Dawes Point was taken to a higher, more powerful level through the blockade at 32 High St, the mainstream media again turned more hostile. Channel 7, owned by high- living billionaire Kerry Stokes as well as the government-owned ABC were, in particular, the most shameless in promoting the NSW government and state bureaucrat slanders against the evicted tenant. The mainstream media are happy to occasionally run a sympathetic piece when working class people are simply victims but once we fight back we see the media’s true colours. Their coverage will reflect the class interests of those that own or control them – that is, ultra-wealthy businessmen in the case of Channel 7 or, in the case of the ABC, the rich people’s state that serves the capitalists. We should not expect any support from the mainstream media and, most importantly, we must not tailor our struggles just to try and win support from this media. If, as an exception, the media do happen to give non-hostile coverage to one of our struggles then well and good. But we should do what is best to make our struggles as powerful as possible rather than what will be most acceptable to these hired mouthpieces of billionaire tycoons and capitalist governments.
Even more importantly, what the struggle to stop the eviction at 32 High Street confirmed yet again is that no reliance should be placed on pro-capitalist politicians – even when they claim to be on working class people’s side on a particular issue. Over the last few years, several of these politicians have stated support for the Millers Point and Sirius public housing communities. A few of these politicians have spoken out loudly and passionately against the NSW Coalition government’s sell-off plan for the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point area. Some have even spoken at rallies protesting against the sell-off of public housing in the area including Labor federal deputy opposition leader, Tanya Plibersek, Labor NSW shadow minister for social housing, Tania Mihailuk, state MP for Sydney, Alex Greenwich (an independent), several Greens politicians, “independent” Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and even arch-right wing reactionary Christian Democrat, Fred Nile. However, when Peter Muller was facing eviction and protesters blockaded 32 High Street to try and stop it, most of these politicians refused to take any public stand in support of the action – either verbally or in action. A partial exception was Greens state upper house member, David Shoebridge, who, to his credit, showed up to support the blockade on the first morning. Although some Greens leaders had privately promised that they would bring big numbers to support the blockade, Shoebridge was the lone Greens representative that participated. However, after saying at the blockade “we’re not going anywhere,” Shoebridge then failed to follow through: after the media slandered the tenant and then after the sheriffs and cops were able to enforce the eviction, he did not make any public stand or statement in support of the tenant or the struggle to stop the eviction.
The problem is that the various ALP, Greens and “progressive independent” politicians are as committed to upholding the existing economic-political system as the Liberals. Granted that, unlike the openly anti-working class conservatives, these “progressive” politicians would prefer it if there were some reforms to make life easier for the masses. However, because they acquiesce to the current social “order” and, hence, are committed to accepting its power structures, they are so fixated on not scaring away, or even annoying, the big capitalists that every time working class people engage in an intransigent struggle that can actually make a difference – like a blockade to prevent the eviction of a public housing tenant – their first instinct is to run a mile. Furthermore, with the partial exception of the Greens, these “progressive” politicians do not have any broader commitment to public housing themselves. To be sure, they are against the complete sell-off of public housing in the inner- city because they accept that working class people should be allowed to make up a proportion of city residents. Furthermore, they know that the campaign to save public housing in the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point area is popular and, thus, there are votes in it for them! However, overall they have no commitment to decisively increasing the amount of public housing. Far from it! As we have noted above, the ALP while in government federally by itself – and when in government in a de-facto coalition with the Greens – oversaw the slashing of the amount of public housing. Today, they join the Liberals in hiding behind rhetoric about a commitment to “social housing,” while calling for public housing to be converted into “community” housing which, as we have described above, is a big and sorry step towards full privatisation.
It is worth noting that the large banner that hung over the 32 High St blockade, stating “Massively Increase Public Housing Now,” was actually first used in a protest against Tanya Plibersek when she was the federal housing minister in the first Rudd government. One of our comrades made that banner for that November 2009 protest that Trotskyist Platform called outside Tanya Plibersek’s office because of the then ALP federal government’s woefully inadequate outlay of resources for public housing. That rally turned out to be the first on the streets action for public housing in NSW in the resurgence of activism around defence of public housing that has taken place over the last seven and a half years and which must be, now, desperately intensified. As a representative of the CFMEU construction workers union, delivering a message of solidarity to that 2009 rally from the union’s then NSW president, stated: “since the mid-1970s, successive Governments have failed to adequately deliver sufficient public housing for those in our society who need such shelter.” Indeed,
then housing minister Tanya Plibersek later joined with the then ALP NSW government to orchestrate the sell-off of large amounts of public housing in Claymore near Campbelltown and in Glebe. This added to similar schemes already being implemented by the then ALP state government to reduce the proportion of public housing in Minto and Bonyrigg. In Claymore, the Plibersek-NSW ALP government joint plan involved the privatisation of a quarter of the public housing in what had been the biggest public housing estate in NSW (see Plibersek’s own press release here: http://www.formerministers.dss.gov.au/2181/tp_m_ nswhousingprojects_7june2010/) – a disastrous outcome for working class people that was deepened even further by subsequent conservative NSW governments.
The fact is that when it was in government in NSW, the ALP actually sold off more public housing than the arrogant Liberals later have. Thus, in the last eight years of the former ALP government up to 2011, they slashed the public housing stock in NSW by 11%. When population growth is taken into account, this represents a cut in the amount of public housing coverage by close to one in five. Indeed, it was that previous ALP state government that actually began the sale of public housing in Millers Point. In two lots, they sold off 36 vacant homes (http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/residents-stick-to-their-point-of- community-20121025-288bh.html) in the late noughties while holding back on the repair and maintenance of the existing homes. This paved the way for the conservatives to come in with their sledge hammer approach and sell off the houses from under the very feet of public housing tenants.
In the case of Tanya Plibersek there is also a particular conflict of interest that, additionally, holds her back from following through on her claimed support for public housing in the area. Her husband, Michael Coutts-Trotter is one of the chief bureaucrats overseeing the sell-off of public housing in the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point area. He is the head of the Department of Family and Community Services. When the government announced its decision to sell off the public housing in the area, Coutts-Trotter stood right alongside Community Services minister, Pru Goward, in pushing the lies and spin justifying the sale, stating that:
“There is massive demand for residential housing in this area; it [the sell- off] is going to free up a very large amount of money for reinvestment in social housing.”
– The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 2014, http://www. smh.com.au/nsw/sydney-waterfront-public-housing-proper- ties-to-be-sold-off-20140319-351fs.html
Even more significant here than any personal conflict of interest for Plibersek is the more fundamental conflict between the ALP’s stated purpose to improve the lives of working class people and the reality that its strategy to achieve this, through administering the capitalist state, necessarily – whether the particular individual involved is taking part in administering this state as a high-level bureaucrat or as a government minister – means enforcing the interests of the capitalist exploiters against the interests of working class people.
That is why the struggle for public housing – just like all campaigns for the rights of working class people – must not rely at all on pro-capitalist politicians but, instead, rely entirely on the power and unity of working class people, our trade unions and other downtrodden sections of the community. Most crucially, we must ensure that the direction of the movement is not in the least modified to ensure acceptance by any mainstream politicians that state support for the campaign. Given that those pro-establishment politicians claiming to support the Millers Point struggle are not more broadly for public housing, they have been pulling the campaign towards narrowly focusing on the particularities of the Millers Point/Rocks/ Dawes Point area rather than emphasising that the campaign is part of the overall fight to defend public housing everywhere. Any step in this direction weakens the ability of the campaign to inspire broader support from public housing tenants elsewhere, from those on the public housing waiting list and from other opponents of privatisation. Furthermore, any narrowing of the focus to just the Millers Point/Rocks/Dawes Point area can end up being manipulated by the NSW Liberal government to spin its devious narrative about the issue. As we saw all too clearly with the struggle to stop the eviction at 32 High St, the state government is trying to sell people the utterly despicable and cynical lie that they are selling off public housing in Millers Point for the good of public housing elsewhere and that those tenants resisting are selfish people protecting their own interests at the expense of tenants elsewhere. This underscores why it is vital that the movement disregards the sensibilities of any pro-capitalist politicians pledging support and ever more forthrightly make front and centre of the campaign the idea that its struggle to stop the sell-off of public housing in the CBD area is part of a broader fight to oppose the slashing of public housing everywhere and is, in fact, part and parcel of the struggle to win a massive increase in public housing in Australia. It is a struggle on the side of all public housing tenants, a struggle on the side of all those on the public housing waiting lists, a struggle for the many more working class people who need public housing but aren’t on the waiting list and a fight that stands by the interests of the many working class people who rent privately and face unaffordable rents. More broadly, we must ever more directly locate this campaign as part of the struggle against the ruling class’ attacks on all public services and a struggle against their attacks on our trade unions. Any undermining of public housing is an attack on our unions because like other measures which target the poor and unemployed they make the prospect of life after losing one’s job so unbearably miserable that it can intimidate some workers – fearful of being sacked by the boss or being identified as one of the staunch unionists who are invariably at the top of the bosses’ list to be axed in the event of retrenchments – from participating in the union fight for rights at work.
There’s Still Time Left to Stop and Reverse the Public Housing Sell-Off
It is true that the government has managed to drive out most of the public housing tenants from the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point area. However, a few tenants remain. Most significantly, many of the public housing dwellings have still not been sold off and still less have been occupied. While vacated houses remain unoccupied there remains the chance to build mass action – buttressed by the power of our trade unions – to reclaim these dwellings for public use. These unoccupied houses should be used to shelter the homeless and those on the public housing waiting list and not sold off to greedy developers and wealthy speculators!
Furthermore, there has been an event internationally that should give this struggle new hope. This is connected to the fact that part of what is driving the NSW government’s obsessive campaign against Millers Point public housing is not only its overall push to slash public housing but, additionally, its subservience to the interests of billionaire James Packer whose Crown Group is building a high rollers casino and six-star hotel in the very nearby Barangaroo. For Packer and his government servants, having working class people in the area is an “eyesore” for the wealthy clientele who they hope will frequent the luxury resort that Packer expects to make billions from. Meanwhile, the NSW government is determined to clear out working class tenants in order to help its rich developer mates make a fortune from turning Millers Point into luxury accommodation for resort executives and patrons. However, although Packer can get whatever he wants in capitalist Australia he found that things are not the same in China. On June 26, the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) jailed 16 of his wealthy executives after they all pleaded guilty to charges of illegally luring Chinese high rollers to use Packer’s casinos in Australia and elsewhere. One of Crown corporation’s highest flying executives, Melbourne-based boss of VIP operations Jason O’Connor received a 10 month sentence. The PRC, understandably, wants to stop money flows to casino accounts being used to subvert its strict control on money movements by the rich. Under the PRC’s socialistic system it is public ownership that dominates, not the interests of rich private sector bigwigs. The effect of the PRC’s crackdown is that it has shown Packer and his henchmen that they will not be able to get away with illegally luring casino clients from China. Without customers from the world’s most populous country, Packer’s Barangaroo casino may now be unviable and media are reporting that Crown is reconsidering the entire project. If the resort project is indeed killed off then that would not only potentially allow the scenic Barangaroo area to be used for what it should be – for public recreational space or badly needed public housing – but would also remove part of the fuel powering the government’s turbo-charged drive to kick out public housing tenants from Millers Point. Furthermore, even if the China arrests do not in themselves kill Crown’s casino project, we should use the blow that the Peoples Republic of China has landed against Packer and his henchmen to encourage our own struggle here. For these blows have shown that Packer and his fellow billionaires are not invincible. What we must do is unite working class people to fight back against the tyranny of the tycoons and stand up to the governments and state institutions that serve the marauding tycoons’ interests.
The struggle for public housing is a key battleground in the overall struggle of working class people against the all-sided offensive that the capitalist rulers are waging against their rights. For three and a half decades, Australia’s filthy rich corporate bosses and the governments that serve them have waged a war on working class people’s rights: they have sold off public housing, cut off payments to low-income single mothers, made TAFE and university more expensive, underfunded public schools and public hospitals, attacked our unions, casualised the workforce, sacked workers whenever that helps them make even more profits and made life for those not fortunate enough to have a job even more miserable. It is time for us and our unions to fight back! The Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point tenants resisting the sell-off of public housing have opened up a new front in our fightback. Let’s mobilise behind this struggle with ever greater vigour. The way we trade unionists, public housing tenants and other supporters of working class interests were able to repulse the sheriff who was set to evict the 32 High St tenant on the first day of that battle shows the power that we have. By learning the lessons of the subsequent defeat of that 32 High St battle – most importantly that the state institutions were created to serve the exclusive interests of the big end of town which means we cannot trust them to abide by their own rules and procedures – by learning important lessons like this we can win future victories. The way that the public housing tenants and ex-tenants of Millers Point, the Rocks and Dawes Point have so resiliently resisted in the face of incessant pressure should inspire us to give it our best shot. The future rests in our strong, working class hands.