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Abigail Boyd - The Life and Times of Juanita Nielsen, 2017

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Lee Rhiannon 23 Oct 2017

Speech by Abigail Boyd for the 2017 Juanita Nielson Memorial Lecture.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands on which we meet tonight, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I would like to pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging and pay tribute to their history, their culture and their ongoing struggle for justice in the face of white oppression and discrimination. This land is, was and always will be Aboriginal land.

Green Bans in the 1970s

In 1973, a Green Ban was placed on construction in Victoria Street, in Kings Cross, where Juanita Nielsen was living.

Green Bans achieve an extraordinary amplification of people power. They bring together resident associations, unions and activists, to hit developers where it hurts: in their hip pockets. The first Green Ban - which was called a green ban rather than a black ban to highlight its environmental purpose - was used to stop a proposed development of bushland at Hunters Hill called Kellys Bush. At the request of community members, the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (the BLF, then spearheaded by Jack Mundey) imposed a construction ban on Kellys Bush, and threatened to stop work on other projects that were being run by the same developer. Kellys Bush was saved.

By slowing down demolition and construction through the withholding of union labour, the Green Bans have been credited with saving a number of sites from developers - including the Rocks area, which was saved in the early 70s from a development plan that would have seen it covered in high-rise commercial buildings, hotels and apartment blocks. The Green Bans saw union members and community activists standing side-by-side, costing developers millions along the way.

The Green Bans contributed to a rise of opposition to the destruction of heritage buildings and the environment, a movement which influenced the progressive planning legislation that was introduced by both the NSW and federal governments in the mid to late 70s.

In fact, the Green Bans in the 70s were so effective that they inspired Petra Kelly, a German political activist who was visiting Australia at the time. She took the name “Green” and the philosophy of the Green Bans movement back with her to Germany where she later founded the German Greens, a political party based on the four core principles of ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice and non-violence. In turn, Greens parties worldwide have taken their name and principles from the German Greens. So we have an awful lot to credit the Green Bans with.

The battle for Victoria Street

Back to 1973 and the Green Ban on Victoria Street. Developer Frank Theeman and others had plans to destroy the old terrace houses lining Victoria Street, which were providing low-cost affordable accommodation, and to replace them with new high-rise apartment buildings - some up to 42 storeys high. All existing buildings were to be demolished. Eviction notices were issued to tenants, with cash payments for those who agreed to leave quietly. Around two-thirds of the residents of Victoria Street refused to leave. Things turned nasty when thugs began to terrorise the residents to force them out of their homes, including vandalising their property and attempting to make the homes uninhabitable.

In early April 1973, the Victoria Street Residents Action Group was formed and decided that Arthur King (one of the residents) would contact the BLF to request a Green Ban. Just a few days later, Arthur King was kidnapped and terrorised for three days. The experience would have been traumatic, and Arthur King left Victoria Street, and the campaign to save it, immediately on being released.

The thugs went on, threatening people with crowbars and setting fire to property. By this time, only around 14 tenants remained. The unions helped the tenants to reoccupy their houses and a crowd of around 80 supporters organised a squat. The squatters were finally forcibly evicted, with 53 of them arrested, after several months of occupation.

When Norm Gallagher managed to oust Jack Mundey from the NSW BLF in October 1974, the Green Ban on Victoria Street was lifted.

Juanita’s story

And it was against this background of the squatters, the residents action group and Mundey all having been defeated, with the accompanying predictable unfavourable media coverage, that Juanita Nielsen placed herself in the thick of it – to become the final obstacle in Frank Theeman’s way.

Juanita Nielsen lived and worked at 202 Victoria Street. She ran a small newspaper called NOW, which covered local issues and local politics and survived on advertising revenue from local businesses. Juanita was from a wealthy family. She was well-educated, and she had travelled and lived overseas. 

Juanita refused to be intimidated by Theeman. She ran a high-profile campaign against him and his development plans for Victoria Street, with articles in her newspaper keeping residents informed and giving encouragement to the Green Bans. What’s more, she was romantically connected to the head of the Water and Sewerage Employees Union, which was threatening a work ban on Theeman’s development. The Green Bans had already cost Theeman millions of dollars in delays, and he was under significant financial pressure.

After Theeman’s usual tricks had no impact, a failed attempt was made to kidnap Juanita in late June of 1975. Juanita was eventually lured to the Carousel Cabaret nightclub, on the corner of Darlinghurst Road and Roslyn Street in Kings Cross, where she was to meet with the manager of the club, Jim Anderson. Jim Anderson had told Juanita that he wanted to place a half-page ad in her newspaper and, with advertising revenue down, Juanita had agreed to meet Anderson at his club to talk business. We now know that Anderson was an associate of Theeman’s, having received a substantial sum of money from Theeman just a few weeks earlier as part of a supposed business deal that was never substantiated.

It was mid-morning on a cold Friday, the 4th of July, in 1975, when Juanita arrived at the club. Eddie Triggs, a bouncer at the club (and Anderson’s henchman), met her at reception and escorted her upstairs to the VIP Lounge, where he closed the door. Juanita was never seen again. Days later, her handbag was found on the M4 Motorway between here and the Blue Mountains, but her body has never been found.

She was just 38 when she disappeared.

Eddie Trigg fled and was arrested in San Francisco in August 1982. Trigg and an accomplice were convicted of conspiracy to abduct Juanita – that is, the failed kidnapping a few days prior to her disappearance – for which Trigg spent just 3 years in jail. But no-one has ever been charged with Juanita’s murder. Corruption allegations hampered the police investigation and there is evidence pointing to a cover-up going as high up as the police commissioner’s office.

Ultimately the battle for Victoria Street was successful in saving most of the houses and preventing the planned overdevelopment.

A lasting inspiration

Juanita’s intriguing story of a wealthy elegant heiress caught in a web of corruption involving developers, police, politicians and henchmen has inspired movies, books and even a song or two. But at its core, it is far from an isolated story. On the one hand, it’s a story about citizens needing to fight to have a say in what happens to their own neighbourhoods; it’s a story about low income-earners being squeezed out of areas that they’ve lived in all of their lives; it’s about historic buildings being sacrificed in the name of short-term profits. And on the other hand, it’s a story about those who would put profit ahead of people in doing everything they possibly can to overcome opposition to their plans, and who aren’t afraid to do whatever it takes, no matter how unethical, to bulldoze people out of their way.

We see this story play out again and again over the decades – these David and Goliath battles where activists are fighting against power and corruption at huge personal cost within a society that can seem increasingly unsupportive and even apathetic towards these struggles.

And today, the odds are stacked against activists even more. In 1975 there was a seedy underbelly to Sydney, where the dealings between those with the money and power took place largely behind closed doors. But today, in 2017, much of those sorts of dealings are done in broad daylight by, or with the encouragement of, the government of the day.

Are you thinking maybe of building a dirty big toll road? Perhaps one that starts with a W, and ends with an ‘est Connex?’. Well, if you donate just over a million dollars when key decisions are being made by the NSW and federal governments, your project may well inexplicably proceed, despite constant and vocal community opposition.

Of course, these kinds of dealings go beyond just donations to political parties. It also includes the revolving door of public servants, politicians and business executives. You only need to take a look at the proposed Carmichael coal mine project, and the blatant cross-pollination of Adani lobbyists and employees with government staffers, for an example of how that plays out. Adani has been granted special exemptions from water protection laws and has even had Native Title laws changed to pave the way for their project – all in plain sight and all in the face of sustained criticism and opposition.

To make a modern activist’s job even more difficult, there is a disturbing increase in recent years in laws designed to quash protest and political dissent. In NSW, extreme anti-protest laws were introduced under the Baird government last year. These new laws are part of a growing trend, with similar laws having been introduced in other states – all of which impose harsher penalties, grant excessive police powers and prioritise business interests over the rights of Australians to gather together and protest about the issues that they care most deeply about.

Perhaps there is less need to kidnap and murder people if you can just pass draconian legislation and use the police to keep dissent in check.

This attack on our civil liberties is incredibly dangerous. It fractures our democracy and it is designed to wear us down. Faced with such odds, many decide there’s nothing that they can do. But Juanita no doubt felt disheartened too – at a time when she and her fellow residents were being harassed and threatened, it must have been incredibly difficult to continue to be such a passionate and effective advocate for her cause, and to give hope and inspiration to the other activists around her. But as she encouraged them, she continues to encourage us.

Because against the odds we face today, it’s going to takes all of us to stand up and to fight – to fight WestConnex, to fight the Carmichael Coal Mine, to fight every other terrible decision of our government that they know is not in our interests but go ahead with anyway because it’s in their interests. It’s going to take all of us to be a Juanita Nielsen – and hopefully, in the process, to inspire and support each other to stand up for what’s right.

Thank you.

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