Dr Rae Francis, is an Australian historian. She currently works as a senior lecturer at the University of NSW.
Juanita Nielsen is missing. She has been missing since the morning of the 4th of July, 1975 when she was last seen at a Kings Cross nightclub. Despite several police investigations, her body has never been found and her killers have never been identified or punished.
In its bald outlines, her story doesn’t sound so different to those of the many other women who every year in Australia disappear without trace. But Juanita was different. Her disappearance was not some random act of misogynistic violence. All the evidence suggests that her death was deliberate, premeditated and ultimately condoned by the police and the State. Juanita Nielsen is missing, but she is missing in action, the victim of a battle that was raging across Sydney in the early 1970s.
We should remember Juanita as she would have liked to have been remembered: as someone who died for a cause – a cause that I am sure everyone here tonight would also support. And to understand the significance of her life and her death, we must understand something about that battle that was being fought over the urban environment in the first half of the 1970s.
Many people would date the origins of this conflict to the year 1957 – the year in which the ordnance limiting the height of city buildings was abolished. The decade that followed saw a dramatic change in the city’s skyline, as developers moved in to demolish the older shops and offices and construct shiny new towering office blocks in the CBD. By the end of the 1960s, they were looking further afield to inner-city suburbs such as the Rocks, Woolloomooloo, Ultimo, Potts Point and Kings Cross. The problem with this was that this time the demolition required the destruction of people’s homes and entire communities.
Not that this initially troubled the developers – they were confident that the occupants of these predominantly low-income suburbs could be cheaply bought off or evicted. Nor was planning approval such a problem. The developers had close ties with the Askin Liberal Government, a government which came to power in NSW in 1965 and ruled virtually unchallenged for over a decade. (It was no coincidence that 11 developers received knighthoods from the Askin government.) In fact, it was this combination of developers, assisted by what is now generally recognised as the most corrupt government in the State’s history, that was to line up on one side of the battle over the future of Sydney’s environment. In time, they were joined by corrupt police and individuals from Sydney’s organised vice networks, newly invigorated by the burgeoning heroin traffic. Now that’s what I call a real Axis of Evil!
On the other side of the battle were, of course, the residents of the targetted suburbs. In many cases, they had lived in these areas for generations and felt very strongly about their communities. Each of these close-knit neighbourhoods shared common interests, common concerns and common histories, histories built around lives of work and struggle. Informed by a lifetime of activism, these communities formed themselves into resident action groups and campaigned to save their homes and neighbourhoods. It was a struggle to protect a precious part of the heritage of Sydney.
But given who was on the side of the developers, this would have been a very uneven contest indeed had it not been for the fact that the residents’ struggle was supported by the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation, under the leadership of the justly-famous Jack Mundey. Mundey was a communist, but not your old-style Stalinist. He was committed to grass-roots activism and influenced by New Left, humanist politics.
Under his leadership, the BLF broadened its activism from the narrowly economic to include a range of gender and racial issues – the union provided some of the earliest support for Aboriginal Land Rights while one of its organisers was arrested trying to saw down the goal posts during the Springbok rugby tour. They supported a women’s studies course at Sydney University and took a stand on gay rights. Activism on environmental issues therefore fitted in with a broad philosophy of social activism.
The BLF’s position on the environment arose out of a critique of capitalism, in which the environmental vandals were identified as the same people who exploited the workers: the developers and their class allies in government. And in a period of high employment and high inflation, the union became increasingly concerned about the quality of life more generally. In Mundey’s words: ‘Workers must be concerned about the end result of their work. ..It’s not much use getting great wages and conditions if the world we build chokes us to death.’
And of course, he meant it quite literally when he spoke about building the world – these were the men whose job it was to demolish the old buildings and erect the new constructions of steel and glass. They were also aware that while many of these buildings remained vacant because of a growing glut of office space, 40,000 low-income people were waiting for Housing Commission homes. In a city that placed profit above people, the Commission was unable to get the building materials or labour to build new houses. At the same time, almost a quarter of CBD office space was vacant. And yet it was existing workers’ housing that they were now being called upon to demolish. It’s not surprising that the environmental issues came to be seen as inextricably linked to class exploitation. ‘The lust for private profit’, the BLF declared, ‘was destroying the planet.’
The story of the Green Bans has been told at length elsewhere. Most of us here tonight know how this radical wing of the labour movement worked to preserve the Rocks, Kelly’s Bush and historic parts of Woolloomooloo from mindless development. Its frightening to imagine what our city would have been like without the Green Bans- developers would have buried Centennial Park beneath acres of concrete stadiums, the terraces of the Rocks would be shadowed by skyscrapers, and every corner of Sydney would be scarred by architectural obscenities like the Toaster. The Green Bans were the first instance of an effective alliance between residents, environmentalists and the wider labour movement. They were also a shining example of the power of cross-class alliances to have an impact on environmental issues. They set an example the whole world could follow. And so too did Juanita Nielsen.
Juanita was the heiress of the Mark Foys retail fortune, and she owned a Victorian terrace house in Victoria Street on the edge of Kings Cross. Once a prestigious address overlooking Woolloomooloo Bay, by the 1970s it was home to mostly low-income earners. Down and out, it still retained an air of shabby gentility: you could see it in the generous proportions of its street and its stately mature trees. But the developers had this area in their sights. They were confident they could buy up property cheaply because of the suburb’s unsavoury reputation as a centre for the city’s vice. The plan to redevelop Victoria Street involved demolishing the Victorian housing and replacing it with $60 million high-rise housing complex comprising three 45-storey towers. Juanita, was outraged. How could ugly towers be allowed to swallow up a city’s heritage and history, and destroy the essential character of the area? She refused to sell her property and encouraged others to do likewise. She provided leadership and publicity for the campaign through the pages of her own local newspaper, NOW. At the age of 37 she was a social activist, passionately committed to preserving the character of Kings Cross against the inroads of vice, organised crime and development. As with the campaign to save the Rocks, Juanita and the other residents were supported by the BLF, and they managed to hold out against the development throughout 1973 and 1974.
But with each successful Green Ban the stakes were getting higher and the developers and their political allies sought more and more desperate ways of dealing with the protestors. They formed an alliance with local criminals, who supplied the muscle to threaten and bully the residents and ‘persuade’ them to sell up. The police offered the residents no protection, but were quick to arrest anyone protesting against the development.
They also attacked the union movement. In June 1974, Jack Mundey’s BLF was deregistered, their assets seized and Mundey and his supporters expelled. From mid-1974, the residents stood alone against the combined pressure of the State government, the developer, and the thugs and police apparently in their pay. But, amazingly, led by Juanita, they fought on.
And that’s where things started to get really nasty. By early 1975 Juanita feared for her life, and with good reason. There was at least one proven attempt to kidnap her a few weeks prior to her final disappearance. The same men lured Juanita away from the safety of her home and her friends to the Carousel Cabaret nightclub, promising advertising support for her paper. She was never seen again.
We don’t know who murdered Juanita. The most likely suspect has to be the infamous Sydney gangster Jim Anderson, owner of the Carousel Club, a vicious criminal with a history of violence. But Anderson would not have been acting alone: it is clear that he had extensive financial and social dealings with the property developer who had the strongest motive for getting rid of Juanita, the Sydney businessman, Frank Theeman. Over the years he had received payments of over $260,000 from Theeman.
Police investigations into Juanita’s disappearance were predictably inconclusive. No one bothered to check Anderson’s alibi let alone pursue his connections with Theeman. Twenty-eight years on the cover up continues. Twenty-eight years on, this crusader against vice, corruption and development, is still missing and still mourned.
Juanita’s body was never recovered but her life remains an example to us all. Juanita Nielsen was a pioneer of the environment movement: she fearlessly upheld the right of residents to participate in the decisions that affect their neighbourhoods, supported human-centred rather than profit-driven development, and demanded the right to live in a society as free as possible of crime and official corruption. Juanita might still be missing, but her spirit and courage live on. We do well to remember and to honour her tonight.