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Cate Faehrmann - The Life and Times of Juanita Nielsen, 2008

Lee Rhiannon 6 May 2008

Cate Faehrmann spoke on the life and times of Juanita Nielsen at the 2008 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture on 6 May 2008. Cate is the Executive Director of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW. Cate has previously managed media and election campaigns for the Greens in Australia and New Zealand. She is on the Board of the Environmental Defenders Office and the online campaigning organisation GetUp!

The story of Juanita Nielsen reminds us that there is much, much more to the world of politics and power than the most renegade journalist or newspaper editor will ever report. Juanita paid the ultimate price for daring to go where most people wouldn’t - for challenging the highest authorities and daring to expose probably only a little of the greed and corruption that was playing out in Sydney over 30 years ago. 

The story of Juanita’s disappearance and murder has intrigued Sydney for decades and centres around greedy developers and corruption. 

Juanita was 38 when she disappeared in 1975.

Born in 1937, she came from a wealthy family background. The writer of the book ‘Killing Juanita’, Peter Rees, says her family were the ‘Great Gatsbys’ of the city, wealthier than even the Fairfaxes. 

Juanita’s story is not only about greed and corruption, but also about speaking out and about protest. And it is about the dangers involved in protesting, in challenging power and threatening to expose corruption.

Even before leading the campaign which was to ultimately cost Juanita her life, she possessed a radical spirit. She was briefly estranged from her father for leading an unsuccessful shareholders' revolt against a takeover offer of the family’s retail company Mark Foy's in 1968. 

This feud didn’t last forever, as Juanita’s father gave her a substantial amount of money, which she used to buy a terrace house in Victoria Street, Kings Cross and to publish a community newspaper, Now.

This was in the early 1970s, when opposition to the razing of Victorian terraces and people’s homes by rapacious developers around the Rocks and Woolloomooloo areas was building. 

And it was also building in Juanita’s street in King’s Cross. A proposed redevelopment of Victoria Street by developer Frank Theeman and his company, Victoria Point, saw Juanita join with others in her street, including her neighbour and trade-union activist Jack ('Mick') Fowler, to mobilise local residents to campaign against Theeman’s proposal.

Residents of Victoria Street and the local community successfully lobbied the Builders Labourers' Federation (BLF) to impose a green ban on the site in 1972. With the added might of the BLF behind them, the residents of Victoria St sat tight, while Juanita’s newspaper, NOW, publicised the issue.

This disruption, which would have seen tenants evicted in the process, cost developer Frank Theeman millions. Eventually, more than two years later, as a result of changed leadership and political pressure, the green bans were lifted. But Juanita held on and continued to fight.

And each day Juanita continued to fight cost Theeman and his Victoria Point company $3,000. A lot of money in those days.

Frank Theeman was one of the developer thugs of the day and didn’t hesitate to use intimidatory tactics, including abductions and beatings, to dissuade those opposing his developments to pull their heads in. Of course he got others to do his dirty work for him. 

Juanita and others had been receiving death threats because of their involvement in the Victoria Point development. The head of Victoria Point’s resident action group was abducted for three days and returned to Sydney only on the condition he take no further part in anti-development activities. 

Residents of the street were regularly harassed by men employed by Theeman and led by Fred Krahe, a former detective with the New South Wales Police. Krahe had been sacked amidst allegations of organising bank robberies and other seedy activities.

Juanita died 'on or shortly after 4 July 1975' after failing to return from a visit to the Carousel club in Kings Cross at 10.30am, supposedly speaking to an inquiry from them about advertising in her newspaper. The place of death or the manner and cause of death was unable to be proven, but there was 'evidence to show that the police inquiries were inhibited by an atmosphere of corruption, real or imagined, that existed at the time'. 

There is contention among people who have been following and researching the case as to whether Juanita was murdered because of her anti-development activities at Victoria Point, or whether she was on to something much bigger. 

Two journalists in particular, Barry Ward and Tony Reeves, dispute that the widely accepted reason she was murdered was because of her anti-development campaign against Victoria Point. They instead believe she was murdered for what she was about to publish on organised crime and corruption that would have implicated some prominent Sydney figures. They investigated this for three years, with Ward even claiming he was forced to leave Sydney and return to the UK as a consequence of pressure against him to drop his investigations.

Ultimately, two inquiries, a coronial inquiry in 1983 and a Joint Committee of the Federal Parliament in 1994, determined that Nielsen had been killed, and that police corruption crippled the investigation into her death at the time. And investigations were even ongoing last year.

Though tonight’s not really about the detail of Juanita’s disappearance and murder. It’s about what her murder represents – like how the quest for millions by some is worth the taking of a human life, or even how the quest for millions by some is worth evicting people from their homes and trashing heritage and the environment. Remembering Juanita Nielsen is about ensuring she didn’t stand up to the big end of town for nothing. It’s about honouring her determination and courage and politics.

It is also about remembering what she stood for as a person, committed to preserving the community around her.

I wonder what type of activist Juanita would be if she were a 38 year old alive today. Developers, well most of them, have got much smarter in the way they influence the political process. Eliminating and beating up on your opponents is no longer the preferred method, though the homes and cars of local activists, particularly in the regions, are still targeted in the middle of the night under very suspicious circumstances. 

In 2008, there are more avenues to expose corruption than there were in the mid-1970s. But almost 33 years on from Juanita Nielsen’s death, developers seem to be running this state and there are hundreds of grassroots campaigns and thousands of activists who are fighting appalling developments bound to heavily impact their community and local environment.

As we’ve seen in recent years, and indeed months, the quest by developers to make more and more profit has seen a weakening of many of the environmental laws which came about as a result of Juanita’s and her activist colleagues’ efforts.  

I think Juanita would be appalled to see the situation NSW is in today and just how close this State Labor Government has become to its developer mates. However at least she wouldn’t have been killed for her efforts. She would have been a local hero, maybe even have been elected to Parliament – for the Greens of course who weren’t around when Juanita was fighting her very big fight, but who are now leading the charge in challenging the status quo.

Juanita Nielsen didn’t give up, even in the face of death threats, and it is her passion and principles and her determination to protect communities and the environment that we remember her for this evening.

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