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Adjournment speech: Juanita Nielsen

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 8 Jul 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:44): Thirty-nine years ago on 4 July 1975, Juanita Nielsen went to Abe Saffron's Carousel Club in Kings Cross. She was never seen again. As another year passes and as we mark one more anniversary of Juanita's disappearance, I rise to pay tribute to Juanita and remember her life. Juanita's story reminds us there is much more to the world of politics and power than even the boldest journalist or newspaper editor would report. Juanita paid the ultimate price for challenging the powerful and daring to expose the greed and corruption in Sydney over 30 years ago. The story of Juanita's disappearance and murder has intrigued Sydney for decades. Her story is not only about greedy developers and corruption but also about speaking out and protest, about challenging power and the dangers in standing up to it.

Juanita was 38 when she disappeared in 1975. She was born in 1937 to a wealthy family. She worked at the family's retail company, Mark Foy's, in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, she used family money that she had inherited to buy her now famous terrace house on Victoria Street and publish a community newspaper called NOW. It was around this time that opposition to the demolition of Victorian terraces and people's homes by developers around The Rocks and Woolloomooloo areas was building. It was also building in Juanita's street in Kings Cross.

A proposed redevelopment of Victoria Street by developer Frank Theeman and his company, Victoria Point, saw Juanita join with her neighbours, including union activist Mick Fowler, a member of the then Seaman's Union of Australia, to campaign against Theeman's proposal. This campaign led to the Builders Labourers Federation to impose a green ban on the site in 1972. The Victoria Street residents continued to campaign with the strength of the BLF behind them, and Juanita's newspaper publicised the issue.

The residents' campaign cost Frank Theeman millions of dollars. For every day that Juanita and other locals held on, Theeman and his company, Victoria Point, lost about $3,000. Mr Theeman was known to use intimidation to bully his opponents, and Juanita and others had received death threats because of their anti-development campaign. One of Juanita's fellow activists was abducted for three days. He was eventually returned, and it was understood it was on the condition that he cease campaigning. And that is what happened.

Juanita never returned from her visit to the Carousel Club in Kings Cross at 10.30 am on 4 July 1975. She had apparently gone to the club in response to an inquiry about advertising in her newspaper. Juanita is believed to have died on, or shortly after, the day she disappeared. Two inquiries—a coronial inquiry in 1983 and a parliamentary inquiry in 1994—had found that Nielsen had been killed and that police corruption crippled the investigation into her death at the time.

Every year the Greens host a memorial lecture to pay tribute to Juanita Nielsen and the green ban era and to reflect on what her murder represents. Remembering Juanita is about ensuring she did not stand up to the big end of town for nothing. In honouring her determination we need to also stand up for our right to protest, which is under continuing attack in Australia. Ruby Hamad, who gave the 2014 Juanita Nielsen memorial lecture, noted:

We need to believe in the power of protest—that it's something bigger than ourselves. Regardless of whether protests are successful or not, it is the act of protesting itself, of making our voices heard and our bodies seen that is empowering and vital.

Unfortunately, some things have not changed since Juanita's disappearance. Murders and abductions are no longer the preferred way to intimidate opponents, but developers continue to exert excessive influence on the political process, as recent ICAC hearings have shown. The good news is there are hundreds of grassroots campaigns and thousands of activists who are standing up to developers and complicit governments. They are fighting appalling developments that would bring negative impacts to their community and local environments and, in many cases, they are having success.

Activists like Juanita would be appalled to see the situation in New South Wales today and just how close both Labor and Liberal governments have been to developers. She would expect those of us who have followed to take a stand as she did. Jenny Leong, who also spoke at this year's Juanita Nielsen memorial lecture, took this theme up. She said:

Juanita Nielsen paid the ultimate price for taking a stand—for being willing to stand up in the face of power, violence and vested interests, for her community, for what she believed in. Looking back at this community struggle, of the life and times of Juanita and the green bans, should not be a passive reflection. It should be a call for action for us to ensure we make sure to step up—to not sit by—to resist, to fight, to take a stand.

Juanita Nielsen's work for a livable Sydney went far beyond Victoria Street. She opposed overdevelopment in The Rocks and Millers Point and I am sure she would raise her voice against the latest plan for another Liberal government to get rid of public housing from this area. There are 293 public housing properties in Millers Point and The Rocks slated to go under the Liberal government's plan. The government has failed to undertake a complete assessment of the housing stock in question and it has not developed a staged strategy to ensure certainty for public housing tenants who are affected. In the face of the severe housing affordability crisis across Sydney, the government is selling off some of the most centrally located public housing in the city. At the same time, the government has failed to provide any affordable housing units in the state's largest construction site at Barangaroo. The Liberals clearly see no place for public housing anywhere in the CBD. Juanita Nielsen worked for a housing mix that served people, not developers. That is what has made Millers Point and The Rocks and, fortunately, Victoria Road still successful communities. This is what we need to retain at Millers Point and build across the city.


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