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Mehreen Faruqi - The Life of Juanita Nielsen, 2011

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Lee Rhiannon 28 Jun 2011

Mehreen Faruqi, Associate Professor of Sustainability at the University of New South Wales, gave the speech about the life of Juanita Nielsen at the 2011 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture.

The story of Juanita Nielsen has been described in many ways... one of the country's most baffling mysteries, a cold case, an unsolved whodunit, a tale of police cover ups and organised crime, the story of a wealthy heiress, the tale of newspaper publisher who campaigned against inappropriate development.

As I delved deeper into the life of this incredible woman who disappeared on the 4th of July, some 36 years ago, never to be found and declared murdered some years later, I feel the inscription on her memorial in South Head cemetery in Sydney does in fact quite succinctly capture what her life was about. It reads:

"A courageous journalist who vigorously fought for the rights of others and the preservation of heritage homes through her newspaper NOW"

Juanita Nielsen's fight for social justice began in the 1960s.

She was the grand daughter of multi-millionaire Mark Foy, the founder and owner of the Department store Mark Foy's which was on Liverpool Street from 1909 till 1980. You may know this building as the Downing Centre Court. Mark Foy also built the Hydromajestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains.  This 'old money' entitled her to a 50c share in the big business and the avenue to become a shareholder activist.

She opposed a takeover bid for Mark Foy's by a competing retailer and started a resistance movement of shareholders. She was, indeed, fighting for her career and trying to get a fair value for the business, but she was also fighting to protect the careers of long-standing staff who would be sacked if the takeover went ahead. She did not back down in this bid to save 350 workers even when her father threatened to disinherit her for opposing the takeover.

Peter Rees, in his book titled 'Killing Juanita - A true story of murder and corruption' credits her with re-awakening political action at the grass-roots level in Sydney and providing the impetus for the growth of the Green Bans movement across Australia. A movement which was started by the Builder's Labourers Federation in the 70s and is responsible for preserving many central elements of Sydney's environment such as Hunters Hill, Centennial Park, Glebe, the Rocks, Woolloomooloo, often in the face of strong opposition from developers and the NSW State Government.

At this same time, Juanita Nielson was battling to preserve her local environment in beautiful tree-lined Victoria Street next to the infamous Kings Cross. This was also a site where Green bans were later imposed.

The 1970s was a time of economic growth in Sydney with big money being invested into building and construction. Developers were setting their sights on demolishing heritage homes and bushland to replace with high-rise buildings. This was also the time of corruption and crime in the underbelly of Sydney, where "police and criminals intermingled daily, the line between them often indistinguishable' (Rees 2004).

It was during these difficult and 'seedy' times that Juanita Nielsen demonstrated immense courage, passion and community leadership by starting a grass roots movement to stop excessive and inappropriate redevelopment in and around her neighbourhood, especially three 45-storey towers proposed by wealthy businessman turned property developer, Frank Theeman. She was opposed to these high-rises redevelopments not only for the preservation of the historic value of houses in her suburb, but also because it would mean the eviction of workers, the old and the underprivileged as prices would rise and there were no plans to offer low-cost, affordable housing. Juanita's passionate activism took many forms:

  • Firstly, refused to sell her house, even when offered $200,000. In 1973, this was big money.
  • She also formed the Victoria Street ratepayers association and joined the Woolloomooloo residents action group to oppose the redevelopment
  • But it was mainly her advocacy through NOW, a local paper she had bought from Reverend Ted Noffs of the Wayside Chapel, that really worried the developers. In her paper she wrote about the need to preserve Victoria Street, she supported resident action groups in her editorials and also provided information to the community only she, as a journalist, could access from Sydney City Council papers. Through her paper she urged the public to enrol and vote in the local government election - so they could influence decisions that affected them.
  • This helped amalgamate community action and place a green ban on such projects in Victoria Street.

Frank Theeman was loosing big money, up to $3000 a day, due to project delays as a result of the protest actions initiated and fuelled by Nielsen.

The financial pressure was building and something had to be done.

In the end, Juanita Nielsen paid the ultimate price - her life, for standing strong on what she believed in- the right of citizens to have a say on how their neighbourhood is developed, the rights of low-income earners, especially singles, (widows, widowers, unmarried, young people, migrants), to not be squeezed out of their chosen environment and for the preservation of heritage. She was only 38 years old when she disappeared. Her body has never been found. No one has yet been prosecuted for her murder.

The issues that she was campaigning on more than three decades ago are similar to ones that many of us are trying to grapple with at the moment - opposing privatisation of public assets, supporting rights of workers, ensuring that development is sustainable. Many community actions against inappropriate developments are unfolding in my own neighbourhood including coal seam gas drilling in St Peters, high density, high rises in Erskineville, Green Square and Redfern.

For far too long, decisions have been unfairly influenced by greedy vested interests and big business pushing for financial gains at the cost of local communities, natural environments and in the case of Juanita Nielsen, even a young life.

We need to shift this power base and reset our socio-political compass in a direction which acknowledges the legitimacy of a wider group of voices including individuals, workers, activists and to be able to do this without fear or favour. Our systems of governance need to be re-shaped to ensure that policies are developed with a shared purpose and trust, using collective decision-making, not the dominance of powerful interest group pluralism. This is what differentiates collaborative, democratic, consensus-based decision-making from the polarised, adversarial political landscape we find ourselves in the midst of at the moment.

If Juanita Nielsen was alive today, she'd be 74 years old, the same age as my mother, another woman I greatly admire and respect and who has influenced and inspired me have the strength and passion to stand up for what I believe in. I have no doubt that Juanita would have continued to be a strong voice for democratic decision-making and social justice. She did not shy away from saying what she believed to be true and just.   Dissatisfied with greedy developers wanting to destroy Kings Cross for large profits, she once wrote:

"It's not hard to understand Mr Theeman's keenness to maximise development on his huge amalgamation - to Hell with aesthetics and the urban and human environment."

Some things haven't changed! We still need many more courageous women and men like Juanita Nielsen to make sure that social justice and environmental protection are at the forefront of our thinking and politics. I am extremely proud that one such voice from NSW, Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon, will now be in the Australian Parliament and continue the work of activists such as Juanita Nielsen.

At some point in her life, Juanita Nielsen made a choice, a choice between leading the safe and comfortable life of a rich heiress or choosing a dangerous yet gutsy and fearless path to stand up for what she believed in. She chose the latter and left us a legacy I feel privileged to relate tonight and uphold into the future.

References and bibliography

Rees, P (2004), Killing Juanita: a true story of murder and corruption, Allen & Unwin

ABC TV, 2004, The Juanita Nielsen Mystery, The 7.30 Report.

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