Still a Chance to Prevent the Destruction of Public Housing in Millers Point and The Rocks

Above, Sydney, 17 September 2016: Over 1,500 people including members of the CFMEU and MUA trade unions marched through Sydney’s Rocks area against the NSW government’s plans to demolish the inner city Sirius public housing block.

Expand the Union Action in Defence of Public Housing in Sirius:
Fight for a Massive Increase in Public Housing throughout the Country!

18 November 2016: Over the last two and a half years, officials of the conservative NSW state government have bullied and cajoled public housing tenants in the Sydney CBD’s Millers Point, Dawes Point and Rocks areas to vacate their homes and move to other locations. The Liberal-National government has already sold off many of these sites in auctions to private buyers. Many of the sites are being snapped up by capitalist developers planning to knock down the homes and build luxury dwellings in their place or to wealthy individuals seeking investment properties. The government’s argument is that selling off this public housing on prime land will provide the funds to enable them to build more public housing elsewhere. This is rubbish! The truth is that governments of all stripes – whether the Liberal-Nationals, the ALP or defacto ALP-Greens coalitions – at both federal and state level have been slashing public housing throughout the country over the last 15 years. Meanwhile, when residents are re-located from these city areas to other public housing dwellings, they are moved into homes that could have been allocated to some of the 60,000 families on NSW social housing waiting lists – not to mention the hundreds of thousands of others who actually need public housing. The truth is that the sell-off of public housing in the CBD is part of the government’s agenda to cut back public housing throughout the state and drive lower-income people from the city.

The NSW Liberal government’s agenda became even clearer at the start of this year when they announced their “social housing” scheme. This plan does not involve the building of additional public housing. Instead, over 1.1 billion dollars will be given to the private sector as subsidies to encourage them to deliver “social housing.” But this will not be the same as public housing. The private firms, since they are profit-driven, will prejudice against the most disadvantaged potential tenants since they are the least likely to be able to keep up with rents. The private operators will also be even more ruthless than the public housing authorities in refusing repairs and evicting tenants. Even when “social housing” is placed into the hands of “not for profit” private groups and operated as “community housing,” it will still be, in good part, operated in the way that profit-obsessed corporations would operate them since these operators are meant to “break even.” But social housing is not meant to be about “breaking even” – it should be about securing the right to housing for lower income people. Furthermore, some of these “not-for-profit” operators are churches which means they will have an inherent bias against prospective tenants who are either non-Christian or who do not lead what they deem to be “a Christian lifestyle” – for example, people from the LGBTI community, single mothers and unwed older women. These groups are already some of the most discriminated against groups in society. What’s more, in the NSW government’s plans, a large part of the public funds will now end up going as profit into the pockets of wealthy capitalist developers – funds that could have been used to build or acquire additional social housing dwellings.

The most harmful part of the NSW government’s plan announced in January 2016 is that 35% of public housing stock will be transferred to privately-run “community housing” operators over 10 years. The transfer of public housing into “community housing” is a big step towards the outright privatisation of public housing.  Make no mistake about it: the government’s agenda is to privatise public housing. Their sell-off of public housing in the Waterloo, Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point areas is not about financing new public housing at all – it is part of an agenda to privatise public housing!

Although most tenants in Millers Points and the Rocks’ Sirius Building have already been pressured into re-locating, a hardcore of tenants are courageously staying put. Their stand is crucial because some developers are intent on putting up large scale, high-end commercial projects and that requires them to clear most of the space currently occupied by public housing dwellings. Thus, even a few tenants being able to hold out can stifle the plans of some of the greedy developers and their henchmen in government.

Through determined action there is still time to reverse the removal of public housing tenants from the Millers Point and Rocks public housing areas. We need to mobilise to literally stand by the side of those tenants resisting relocation as they face down further attempts to bully them into submission. When Department of Family and Community Services or Housing NSW officials arrange a visit to a dwelling to arm twist a tenant into relocating, trade unionists and other public housing activists should happen to be there visiting the tenant in large numbers at the time of the appointment. We can then throw the state’s intimidation back in their faces.

There is especially plenty of support for the struggle to keep the Sirius Building in the Rocks area for public housing. The Liberal government wants to evict all the tenants from Sirius to sell off the building to developers who will demolish the building in order to turn the space into luxury private apartments for the wealthy. Two months ago, over 1,500 people marched through the Rocks against the NSW government’s plans to sell off Sirius. Some of the speakers at the demonstration, including representatives of the MUA and CFMEU unions, rightly skewered the government’s plans as a “social cleansing” attempt to drive low income people out of the city and make it an exclusive preserve for the wealthy. Most importantly, coinciding with the protest rally, the CFMEU construction workers union and Unions NSW imposed a ban on any union members being involved in the state government’s plan to knock down the Sirius public housing building. Should any demolition work be attempted, unions could establish a picket line to block it. This struggle has the force of history behind it. The Sirius building was constructed in the 1970s to allow working class people in the city displaced by major construction to be able to continue to live in the area. It came as an indirect result of “Green Bans” imposed by the militant Builders Labourers Federation trade union, in part, to stop those demolitions and development that hurt working class people.

The ban imposed by the CFMEU and Unions NSW is a powerful boost to the campaign to stop the sell-off of public housing in the CBD. However, a weakness of the “Green Ban” put on the Sirius Building was the way it was motivated. In part, it was motivated absolutely correctly by unions. As CFMEU president, Rita Malia, explained:

The removal of residents from Millers Point to make way for the city’s elite shows us what will happen if Sirius falls.

The top end of town will move in and working people will be moved out, putting multibillion-dollar projects ahead of green spaces and affordable housing. We can’t let that happen.

However, the laudable union action was not explicitly motivated as part of a campaign to increase the amount of public housing more generally – i.e. statewide and nationwide. If our unions did take a militant pro-working class line and proudly declared that their Sirius ban not only aims to save public housing in the CBD but is part of a struggle to win a massive increase in public housing everywhere and to defend all the services that working class people need the most, their action would win excited support from other public housing tenants facing eviction, from the hundreds of thousands of people on the social housing waiting list, from the millions more in dire need of low-rent housing and from other working class people who are concerned about the lack of resources for public health care, public education and publicly provided childcare. This would also build additional, reliable support for the CFMEU amongst working class people which is so crucial at a time when the ruling class and its government are set to unleash a head-on assault on the union. However, pro-ALP union officials hope, instead, to make the Sirius campaign more powerful by uniting with Labor and Greens politicians and Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore. Labor and Greens politicians do want some proportion of working class people to be able to live in the city but do not necessarily in the least support a massive increase in public housing – indeed, the ALP and Greens oversaw a slashing of public housing when they were last in office together federally as well as when the ALP last administered NSW. Their outlook is largely shared by Clover Moore – notorious from a working class standpoint for her opposition to the 1991 NSW General Strike when she was in the state legislature and for her support for police repression against the 2011 anti-corporate Occupy Sydney protests. The base of support for Moore, who participated in the September protest against the sell-off of Sirius, are small-l liberal, upper middle class elements who find that having some amount of working class people (but really not too much or else their property prices may fall) residing in the city makes the Sydney CBD “quaint” and “vibrant.” To appeal to such elements and to architects and town planners, union leaders in part motivated the ban on work on the Sirius site as a “Green Ban” aimed at protecting the building’s historic “Brutalist” architecture style and its heritage value.

Now it is all well and good for architects and other upper middle-class elements to support the campaign but the problem is that by our side not explicitly locating the ban as part of a struggle to increase the amount of public housing more generally and by diluting the pro-working class content of the campaign with issues about architectural styles and the like, it allowed the Liberal government to posture, albeit shamelessly, as the defenders of social housing. Thus, the Liberal government is claiming that while it is interested in providing affordable housing for low-income people – and selling Sirius is, they say, part of a plan to build much more public housing places elsewhere – the opponents of the sell-off are more interested in architecture and heritage. This is, of course, the height of cynicism. This Liberal government has been, from Wollongong to Waterloo, selling off public housing left, right and centre. That is part of their anti-working class, privatisation agenda. Furthermore, the resources for public housing should not have to come from selling off other public housing. After all, when the government wants to put resources into things it is committed to, like the police – who the ruling class needs to enforce its dominance over the working class – they don’t get it by selling off other assets in that sector. No, they take it from consolidated revenue! Public housing, as an essential need for the working class, should be funded out of consolidated government revenue which, in its turn, ought to be boosted by grabbing bundles of the exorbitant wealth that business tycoons rake in from exploiting workers. Nevertheless, despite the despicable dishonesty of the NSW government, the fact remains that because the campaign to save Sirius has (in deference to ALP and Greens politicians) avoided branding the movement as part of a struggle to increase public housing statewide and nationwide and because it has played up the architecture, heritage and city “vibrancy” aspects of the issue (in deference to the Greens and Clover Moore and her liberal, upper middle class base), the Liberal government has been able to thus far isolate the campaign from the many people seeking public housing statewide and from public housing tenants elsewhere facing forced relocation. We need to turn this around! It is working class people who will be the decisive and reliable support in the struggle for public housing not upper-middle class liberals and flaky, “progressive,” pro-capitalist politicians – who time and again have proved that when they have to choose between defending social services that working class people need and maintaining support from the capitalist big end of town they end up choosing the latter. Let’s unashamedly announce to all that the brave struggle to stop the sell-off of Sirius and of Millers Point public housing is a pro-working class campaign that is part of the fight to win a massive increase in public housing everywhere.

A home in the Millers Point public housing area with a protest sign. Although the NSW government has been able to intimidate most public housing tenants in Millers Point to leave, a determined hard core are refusing to leave, giving hope that the “social cleansing” of the area can be reversed.

This Struggle Can Still Be Won – Now is Not the Time for Despair!

With the government relentless in its drive to clear out public housing from Millers Point, Dawes Point and the Rocks and with many tenants having already been arm twisted to move, some involved in the struggle are feeling resigned to defeat. Yesterday, the Save Our Sirius (SOS) coalition issued a press release proposing a compromise deal with the state government. Under the proposed arrangement, the building will be kept but the government will still be able to raise the money it said it needed for social housing elsewhere by selling 50 of the apartments to wealthy buyers and keeping just 29 for public housing. The Save Our Sirius group includes some of the tenants from Millers Point and Sirius who have been at the forefront of the proud struggle to stop the sell-offs as well as union leaders but is led by architects and dominated by ALP, Greens and mainstream independent politicians. One big problem with the proposal that SOS has put forward is that it accepts the government’s very false notions that it is selling the public housing in the area in order to fund social housing elsewhere and that the resources for social housing should come from such sell-offs rather than the overall budget. Now it is true that sometimes when our side is not strong enough we have to accept a compromise deal in a clash with the other side. However, we should not be the ones ceding positions before the struggle is over and we should definitely not be accepting the false arguments of the capitalist government as good coin. It appears that the compromise deal has been shaped by the proclivities of architects – some of whom are genuinely sympathetic to public housing but many of whom nevertheless place a higher priority on preserving Sirius’ architectural style than on defending public housing – and by mainstream politicians who, while opposed to a total sell-off of public housing in the CBD, have far from a firm commitment to increasing public housing. Indeed, in their reply to the NSW government’s budget last year, the ALP Opposition announced a plan to transfer all of NSW’s public housing to private, “community housing” operators. That’s three times more extreme than the privatisation that Liberals are undertaking!

It is especially wrong to make a concession to the government on Sirius – that would see nearly two-thirds of all public housing spots in the building gone – when the union bans on any work in the building are still in place. These union bans, if enforced and backed up by mass picket lines to stop any work by non-union labour at the site, are a game changer. If the CFMEU and Unions NSW leadership stick to their commitments and enforce the ban and mooted picket line – and pro-working class supporters of public housing and rank and file union members should be organised to agitate to ensure that this happens – then the state government is on the back foot. Now is definitely not the time to be ceding positions to them.

Sydney, 2016: From 60 to 100 people are forced to sleep rough at Belmore Park opposite Sydney’s Central Station. The slashing of public housing by federal and state Liberal-National, ALP and ALP-Greens governments alike has driven more and more people into homelessness.

Furthermore, the struggle to defend public housing in the Sydney CBD area unexpectedly received a major boost from an international factor last month. This is connected with the six-star hotel and high-roller casino that billionaire James Packer’s Crown Group is establishing in the area. The complex will be located not more than, literally, two stone-throws away from the public housing being knocked down in Millers Point. Several of the Millers Point tenants who have spearheaded the struggle to defend public housing believe that Packer’s casino/luxury hotel is part of what is driving the government’s relentless campaign to boot out public housing residents from Millers Point. This sounds more than plausible. Packer would, no doubt, like the current Miller’s Point public housing area to be turned into luxury dwellings that can be used by his casino patrons looking for longer-stay, nearby accommodation outside the hotel and for his executives overseeing the casino/hotel complex. Furthermore, even if a re-developed Millers Point site ends up not being directly used, in its majority, by patrons and executives of Crown’s Barangaroo complex, its planned presence is nevertheless driving wealthy speculators yearning to grab hold of this land. However, last month all of this was put in doubt when the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) detained 18 executives of Packer’s Crown empire for breaking PRC law. The rich executives are suspected of illegally organizing tours and money transfers for high rollers from China to gamble in Crown’s overseas casinos – including, naturally, Australian ones. Gambling is banned in mainland China and PRC authorities are especially keen to stop local rich individuals from being enticed to gamble abroad. They understand that depositing money in overseas casino accounts becomes a means for the wealthy to circumvent the socialistic PRC’s strict capital controls and allows corrupt officials and businessmen to launder money abroad. Among the high-flying Crown executives that the PRC has arrested are at least three Australian ones including Crown’s boss of VIP operations, Jason O’Connor. James Packer has expressed “deep concern” for his arrested executives. However, what Packer is most worried about is that the PRC crackdown threatens to hit his Barangaroo business model for six. You see, although the proportion of high rollers in China is not especially high – indeed their proportion is tiny – China has such a huge population (60 times that of Australia) that these high rollers are numerically still a big number. Furthermore, since gambling is banned in mainland China and PRC authorities have been cracking down on wealthy mainlanders travelling to Macao to gamble, Packer was counting on luring Chinese high rollers to Barangaroo as a significant component of the revenue source for his casino. The PRC government’s repression of his illegal attempts to do this is widely believed to threaten the economic viability of his whole Barangaroo plan. Indeed following the PRC’s arrests, a whole one billion dollars was magnificently belted off the value of Crown shares. As the headline of an article in The Sydney Morning Herald (18 October 2016) put it: “James Packer’s Barangaroo could be the world’s tallest white elephant.” And if that did occur that would only be good news for the struggle to save public housing in Millers Point and the Sydney CBD more generally. For if part of the economic forces that are driving the government’s sell-off of Millers Point public housing are stopped, then the government will be less unwilling to back down if faced with significant opposition from our side.

Buoyed by Red China’s crackdown on Crown’s greed and knowing that we have the power of a union ban backing us, working class supporters of public housing must energetically support the struggle to defend public housing in the Millers Point, Dawes Point and Rocks area. We also need to reorient the campaign onto a path that places all our trust in the united power of working class people and our allies and does not, at all, rely on Labor and Greens politicians or subordinate ourselves to the agenda of upper-middle class elements and the small-l liberal politicians that serve them. That means we must do the following:

  • Push for the CFMEU and Unions NSW to repeatedly restate in public their union ban on any work to demolish the Sirius site. This will make sure that the government, developers and wealthy property investors get the message. It will also give our side confidence that our union leaders will not back down from the ban. Our union leaders must also announce unambiguously that should any contractor try to do work on the site with non-union labour they will be stopped by a mass union picket line.
  • Call for the union ban and promised picket on the Sirius site to be extended to include the stopping of any demolition of public housing at Millers Point and any re-development of sold-off public housing sites.
  • Support the PRC’s crackdown on Packer’s high flying executives. We should say: China is cracking down on corporate greed – it’s about time that it starts to happen here too!
  • Stand by those brave tenants still refusing to relocate! Organise delegations of trade unionists and other public housing activists to happen to be present when government officials make a scheduled visit to a dwelling. Don’t let these bureaucrats arm twist isolated tenants into relocating!
  • Again organise protest pickets at auctions selling-off public housing dwellings as well as broader actions in defence of public housing.
    Insist that funding for public housing should come not from selling off other public housing assets but from the government’s general budget. The latter should in turn be boosted by grabbing chunks off the fat profits of capitalist exploiters and property speculators.
  • Clearly locate the inspirational struggle to defend public housing in the Millers, Dawes Point and Rocks area as part of the fight to stop the sell-off of public housing everywhere (from the coast around Wollongong to Waterloo to Glebe) and to demand a massive increase in public housing. Furthermore, clearly outline that the struggle for public housing is part of the fight to win all the services that working class people need the most – from properly funded public health care and public schools to free childcare to free TAFE and university education – and part of the broader struggle of the working class against the exploiting class. In this way we can win broader support for protest actions. And if a picket line is erected to stop the demolition of the Sirius site, public housing tenants from throughout Sydney and Wollongong, people on the social housing waiting list, nurses and other hospital workers, teachers and other supporters of working class interests will flock to join CFMEU members on the picket line.
Sydney, 26 August 2014: Millers Point tenants and their supporters rally against a sell-off of a Millers Point public housing dwelling at the private auction of the property. The photograph shows one of the Trotskyist Platform signs at the demonstration. There again needs to be organised protest pickets at auctions selling-off public housing dwellings and we need to fight for our trade unions to mobilise their power to support these actions.