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Rita Mallia: Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture

Lee Rhiannon 2 Sep 2015

Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture
2 September 2015

Rita Mallia

It is my pleasure today to join you and speak about Juanita Nielsen.

In doing so I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, particularly here in Redfern, the Gadigal People of the Eora nation and acknowledge their elders past and present.

In a time in Australian history where as a society we appear to be obsessed with the individual in a commercial and a monetary sense, where due to the actions and rhetoric of the conservative forces against the rights of the collective, true free speech and social activism and trade unionism, that these important pillars of democracy are under attack; in a time where the State, its seems to me in an almost unprecedented fashion, by use of its powers at all levels, be it with the conduct most recently of the so called ‘border farce", the subverting of parliamentary processes, or through the main stream media, seeks to crush opposition to conservative agenda and big business; it is timely to remember and reflect on Juanita Nielsen, and her legacy. It is also timely to note the attack on public housing and the residents of the Rocks, the other scene of the Green Bans era that goes on unabated.

Juanita, born to a successful business family, became after a short stint in Japan, the publisher of Now, a local newspaper in Kings Cross. It was against the redevelopment of her Victoria St neighbourhood that was to see the demolition of original terraces to make way for high-rise apartments in the early 1970s, that Juanita attracted the ire of the corrupt developers and those working with them to destroy beautiful Victoria St. Juanita, supported by the Builders Labourer Federation, along with other residents of the street, refused to be evicted from their homes. The BLF placed a green ban on the area in 1972. Needless to say the developer Frank Theeman was bleeding money.

Juanita also publicised the dispute, which saw many residents the subject of threats and intimidation, as well as kidnapping. Some like, Mick Fowler, a seaman and musician, died from the stress they were put under. The BLF Green Ban ended in 1974 with the change in leadership in the BLF, but Juanita convinced the Water Board Union to impose a ban of its own. Obviously unions are proud of their part in this important struggle.

On 4 July 1975, it is reported Juanita was lured to a meeting and is now universally believed to have been kidnapped and killed. She was the victim of murder, with many suspected, but no one ever convicted.

Despite the fear and intimidation and the loss of a wonderful community activist and a hero in her own right, the developers were ultimately defeated. To this day the beautiful Victoria St stands testament to a time gone by, but also as a symbol of the power of the collective and the ultimate personal sacrifice of Juanita and her family over corruption and vested interests.

Juanita was instrumental in fighting corruption. Juanita was a fighter for her community and the people stood shoulder to shoulder with her. Her cause was just and right.

Her death is a political murder, and it is a travesty that she is not more widely acknowledged and remembered and her bravery rewarded. We hope the re-opening of the Juanita Neilsen Community Centre next year might go some way to rectifying that wrong.

This is also why this lecture in her names is so important.

It is also timely as we face the many attacks on our democracy, the arrogance of conservative politicians who take our democracy, and the things which make that democracy so successful, for granted, who more than ever are consumed by a born to rule arrogance that needs to be resisted, that we remember and harness as inspiration and courage Juanita's story; and know that together we can regain respect, dignity and a real sense of community once again.

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