JUDGE BOB BELLEAR
Judge Bob Bellear, one of nine children, rose from a working class background to become Australia’s first Aboriginal judge. He was the founder of the Aboriginal Housing Company in 1972, a Director of the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service through most of the 1970s, and Chairman of Tranby College. He died in 2005.
Below is his first-hand account of how the Aboriginal Housing Company was established on the Block.
THE ABORIGINAL HOUSING COMPANY WAS BORN
by Bob Bellear
Source: Black Housing Book, edited by Robert W. Bellear, pp.4-5; printed by Amber Press, May 1976
The initial commencement of Aboriginal Housing Companies in New South Wales was set up in Redfern, a Sydney inner city suburb in November 1972.
The breakthrough arose after a series of conflicts had occurred between the local police and the blacks. The police, who have been bastards for years highlighted their oppressive attitudes when they arrested a number of Goomies [Blacks who are not necessarily alcoholics but who consume alcohol in excess of the norm set up by the dominant culture. Excessive alcohol consumption is often a trait of an oppressed minority group] for trespassing in empty houses owned by absentee landlords. Those empty houses were the only shelter available in the Sydney area where this group of people could have peace of mind and be able to do their own thing without interruptions from the so-called normalcy of the dominant culture to which so many other blacks have conformed.
The 15 blacks arrested were represented in court by the Aboriginal Legal Service and were discharged into the care of the three priests from the Redfern Presbytery, and Kaye Bellear who at the time was a nurse at Rachael Forster Hospital [Kaye, not long after the abovementioned incident, terminated employment with this hospital because of its racist and oppressive attitudes towards black patients. Kaye is also the wife of the author].
Kaye and the priests then set up House in the church hall for the fifteen people which almost immediately rose to about 50 people as news spread to the occupiers of other empties.
The blacks collected beer and wine bottles on garbage nights starting late in the evening and finishing in the early hours of the morning, and in the daylight hours the bottles were separated into the various colours and then broken into respective drums to be sold. The money collected was shared amongst the residents who gave most back to the priests to purchase food for the gang and to go towards gas and electricity.
The South Sydney Council, who showed complete ignorance and lack of understanding in respect of anything done towards the betterment of those people, regarded by society as derelicts, served an eviction notice on the Archdiocese of Sydney to rid the hall of other people it contained, due to health reasons. (I really felt it was because of the complaints the Council received from the so-called Christians who attended the various Masses and who could not miss seeing blacks at the back of the Church before they entered. There was also a significant drop in attendance whilst the residents remained on the premises.) It is significantly obvious that the Council was not concerned about the health of the people because they certainly had not tried to do anything healthwise to help the blacks before they moved into the premises.
Through a lot of correspondence and negotiations with the Council they were forced to hold off eviction for about a month, but being completely dissatisfied with this arrangement, the Council then served an eviction notice on the Cardinal who forwarded it on to Redfern Presbytery to dispose of in a way Redfern thought fit. This eviction contained a fine of $200 and a penalty of $10 a day for everyday the people remained on the premises, and was to take effect after the expiration of 21 days.
Prior to the eviction notice taking effect, the three priests, Kaye and myself selected a number of houses to purchase, including those from which the people had been originally arrested. (The proposed houses are now houses included in the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Project under construction.) These were in Louis Street, Chippendale and were leased to predominantly Aboriginal families for the past 60 years by absentee landlords until a major development company, IBK Constructions, moved in and purchased most of the houses in the area, removing all the residents, shoring up the doors and windows to maintain their emptiness with the help of the police and a very sad, but very racist security officer. A lot of the people had to move out into the western suburbs for cheaper rentals, whilst others had to live in empty houses in the area just to exist. (This was the situation when the fifteen were arrested, as stated earlier.)
The outcome of considerable negotiations with IBK was the use of the empty premises pending the commencement of their capitalist development which was due to begin in the very near future. The houses which they allowed us to use were dilapidated, burned out and absolutely unfit to live in, but we took the initiative and selected more suitable accommodation on the site. The development company had also placed some very stringent rules and conditions upon us which we were to abide by in order to obtain the premises but as soon as we moved in those conditions were waived by us.
In the early hours of a morning in December, 1972, a mop-and bucket brigade (see picture above) was formed by the inhabitants of the hall and armed with the various utensils a full-scale assault was made on the various houses to be used.
The now exiled State Builders’ Labourers, through Bob Pringle, were called in to erect doors, fix windows etc., while some members of the Plumbers Union fixed taps, toilets and other plumbing facilities required for a more liveable habitation. The electricians turned on the power and the Gas Company put on the gas rent free as soon as they were aware of our situation. On completion of the clean-up a Health Department officer from the controversial South Sydney Council just happened to be on the scene and to our surprise passed all houses concerned as liveable by their health standards.
Several unions showed interest but the mainstay was the State Builders’ Labourers who assisted in every possible aspect.
Soon after the move occurred from the church Hall to the newly acquired premises, IBK requested that we vacate as their development was due to commence but we had regarded ourselves as squatters now and were not prepared to move at any cost. We tried to keep out the police but on several occasions they got under our guard and forced their way in. We were able to stave off any arrests, as we successfully (but not legitimately) poked the contract in their faces pointing out our claim. As mentioned earlier this piece of paper showed that we could inhabit the premises. If we complied with the conditions – the police did not know that we had broken all the conditions put to us. From this point on we knew we would be under constant threat from all authoritative elements to get us out and everyone involved was aware that he or she could be arrested on any number of charges. This did not perturb any one of the inhabitants – in fact I brought greater unity into the group as all were well aware of the reasons for squatting. Less alcohol was being consumed by the heavier drinkers, in fact a lot of them had given up drinking completely and Kaye was called in on numerous occasions to aid those who had gone into the DTs from cutting out alcohol altogether.
Again our request to the State Builders’ Labourers to put a ban on any building development in the area had been carried out (with much dispute from several other unions) giving us extra time to retain the houses.
The Brown Nurses, a Catholic Order, were very helpful in supplying food, blankets and toiletries which were most welcome, and their assistance in medical needs was most appreciated.
Discussions were set up with representatives from Capital Funds and Special Funds Branch [Branches within the Department of Aboriginal Affairs] who suggested we form a committee and then make representation to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, who at that time, was Gordon Bryant. The Minister acted on our request and met a delegation consisting of members of our newly formed committee, along with Bob Pringle from the State Builders’ Labourers and two other union officials from other unions. Mr Bryant gave us a favourable hearing and suggested we get a submission to him as soon as possible, which we did immediately and were granted $500,000 to get underway with the project.
The money was deposited in the Commonwealth Bank in Redfern but the bank, not believing we could handle the money which was made available to us, required that we make out a submission each time we needed to withdraw money to purchase any items relevant to the project. It was not until after much hassling and proving to the bank that we could handle our own affairs, that we had the need for the submissions eliminated.
Progress on the Project was very slow for the first one and a half years but after an almost complete turnover of administrative staff and employees the output on houses expanded tremendously. We are now at a point of completing one house a week.
The hardships involved in the company have been tremendous, it is unlike any other company, being one of the first of its kind. The directors, whom we elected to represent the members of the company did not have any building experience at all and had to rely a lot on information gained through advisors. A number of the supposedly top employees were in the situation but the information given was not good and consequently rip-offs occurred. It was not until the directors became aware of what was happening that progress became obvious.
It was under the Australian Labor Party government that we were able to start on a project such as this and it certainly would not have been contemplated had it been under the Liberal/Country Party government.
However, a large number of decision makers in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs under the A.L.P. are not necessarily members of that particular party, and some of the decisions that are made do not have the assent of the Minister and do not comply with the A.L.P. policy on Aboriginal Affairs. It is these decisions along with the way the Department carries out requests that fetter progress and it appears to be done intentionally, examples being –
The convenient loss of submissions; withholding of cheques; not passing on information to Treasury to have cheques drawn up; opposing nearly everything put forward in the form of submissions; the passing of value judgments when in absolutely in no position to do so; and many more incidents which happen in the department to inhibit progress.
At the moment we are in the position of not being able to receive any money for the acquisition of further houses until March 1976 – some seven months away. By that time we will have added a number of people to the now enormous unemployment list. At the time of writing this article there are twelve houses completed and occupied, and forty applicants waiting for housing.
Bob Bellear acknowledged a number of people on behalf of the Redfern Housing Company: Colin James, the architect who has ‘worked relentlessly in producing plans for the seventy plus houses in the project.’; Eddie Neuman, the solicitor; the auditor; Kaye Bellear, his wife who was ‘an instigator of the original concept and an absolutely devoted part-time employee of the company’; Bob Pringle, President of the NSW State Builders’ Labourers (applied black-bans on capitalistic enterprises where considered necessary); Doug Hill, Company Administrator; and the Directors and all others who contributed to the Black Housing Book and to the work of the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Project, Sydney Inner City.
Of interest are comments he made in his Acknowledgments (reproduced below). They paint a picture of the political and social climate of the time.
…Firstly the original directors must take a lot of credit for the current smooth running of the company. The make-up of the directors in the initial stages were ninety percent alcoholics who, not only squatted in the houses against all forms of threat and authority but also attended and contributed greatly to, what I would regard as the most difficult aspect of running a company, all the initial meetings and planning of the groundwork. These people were subjected to intense criticism from a lot of white objectors in the immediate area, frowned on by other blacks who thought it was not a viable proposition and who, I might add, would not so much as lift a finger to assist in any way at all.
South Sydney Council absolutely detested and despised the Goomies and several aldermen were seen wading through premises on the weekends peering in doors and through keyholes to compile much adverse documentation to present at the corrupt Council meetings each fortnight. Enough cannot be said to just how bad and corrupt these men were and some still are. In fact one alderman in particular was caught in an empty building across the road from the premises in which we were squatting, with a pair of binoculars trying desperately to focus on some bad habits the blacks may have exhibited to add to the council meeting’s agenda.
I cannot stress enough the importance of the role the Goomies played in those earlier stages as to the mobility of the communal project now. This project is one of the first in Australia and has certainly opened inroads into a vast number of similar projects throughout the country. This avenue would never have been open if we were still under a Liberal Country Party regime and I have my doubts as to its continuation if we are subjected to their reign again.
Secondly a lot of time and effort has been exerted by the current directors of the company which is made up of employees and members of other existing black organisations. The Housing Company is fast emerging as the leading black organisation in Sydney and possibly New South Wales and credit must go to the conscientiousness and ability of the directors where there was absolutely no experience in this field at all. The slow and tedious process of gaining experience has been through advice (some of which has been adverse – hence rip-offs) but a lot has been learnt through mistakes.
A most important point I would like to add is that this type of company, along with similar companies in black organisations, is totally different to the ordinary run-of-the mill companies in that moneys to fund the project comes in the form of a grant handed down in the Federal Government’s budget yearly to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The money is then divided up by Departmental Bureaucrats, public servants who make up the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (ninety percent who are white – the other ten percent are black but with some of them one wonders) and it is then presented to the Minister for his assent. The Minister is not apt to know all aspects in the field of black affairs and therefore relies heavily on the bureaucrats who seem to think the money is coming from their own pockets – hence light on in payments, and when they arrive are anything up to four months overdue which creates havoc, causing unemployment, borrowing from other short-funded organisations, or even to the point of (in the case of housing) mortgaging. In this latter respect we are a little luckier than some other organisations in that we do have ownership of houses (an intense battle ensued between us and the Department to retain the title deeds of the houses purchased and even now we tread warily as new conditions are laid each time we are about to receive moneys. Some of which are not know to the Minister).
Another point I would like to make which differentiates us from many other companies is that the directors are honorary directors of the company .This position entails quite a lot of work and time (meetings last anything up to 4 hours at a time) each week. I make this point to clear a lot of criticism.