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‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ site: a battle of ideas

Mesnage, G. Contested Spaces Contested Times June 1998

excerpt one

Elizabeth Street is one of the busiest traffic thoroughfares, and one of the most sought after strips of developmental real estate, in the central business district (CBD) of Sydney. It is not surprising, then, in a city dominated by financial interests, that a demand to place a Permanent Conservation Order (PCO) on an old (c. 1910), three-storey building, located in the redevelopment epicentre of this main street, would meet fierce opposition. However, the adversarial forces in the case of the Cyprus-Hellene Club, were not aligned behind the customary barricades of the "heritage v progress" camps.

The first hint this battle would be fought under quite different ideological banners came when the initial phone call was made to the Heritage Council of NSW, to advise them of the probable Aboriginal heritage significance of the building, on the 13th of October, 1992:

"But, it can't be an Aboriginal heritage site, it's a European-built building".

Those were the exact words of the woman who took the call. They intimated the battle that lay ahead. Her reaction summed up the colonial-centric paradigm; the cultural ethos that guides the policies and practices of heritage authorities in Australia. This paradigm is based on the persuasion that Australian history began in 1788, and that the yield of that colonial history is Australian heritage. Aboriginal heritage is restricted to the sacred sites and relics from a preterite past – a bygone era – located "out there" in the wilderness.

The ensuing formal application, in May 1994, for a PCO to be made on the building, in recognition of the historical significance of the "Day of Mourning and Protest" Aboriginal civil rights gathering of the 26th of January, 1938, sent heritage authorities into a cultural mind-spin:

  • a building – a 'European space' – was being claimed as an Aboriginal heritage site; this building was located in the urban environment;
  • the building squat in the womb of the birthplace of Australian history – Sydney;
  • the building was a privately-owned space, located in the citadel of Western economic values – the CBD;
  • the event that imbued the building with significance had occurred in the post-1788 era, in 'European times';
  • this event had taken place on 'Australia Day' 1938, during – and against – the 'sesquicentenary' celebrations of the nation…

The reaction of the heritage agencies was not unusual in terms of established heritage practices. Ashton (1998), in a conference paper on the history of heritage in Australia, states:

Officially, then and now, problematic sites of cultural heritage or places that did not sit comfortably with conservative historical themes were either omitted from the heritage record or laden with meaning derived from dominant value systems and social agendas to facilitate social cohesion, and consensus.

The Aboriginal History Committee (AHC) vehemently objected to the Heritage Council's Statement of Significance, and took the opportunity to make a public stand at the Commission of Inquiry, held in May 1995 to assess the official objection to ICO 927, which had been lodged by the Cyprus-Hellene Club on the 11th of January, 1995.

The Cyprus-Hellene Club based their objection to ICO 927 on the four grounds available to them under the provisions of s.29A and s.41 of the NSW Heritage Act, 1977. These grounds can be summarised as follows:

  1. that the building was not an item of the environmental heritage;
  2. that the permanent conservation of the building was not necessary to retain its significance;
  3. that a Permanent Conservation Order would render the building incapable of reasonable or economic use;
  4. that a Permanent Conservation Order on the building would cause the owner undue financial hardship.

I focus here on the main ideological arguments that emerged during the Inquiry, There were three major issues of contention:

  1. ascription of unsubstantiated European values to the building by the Heritage Council;
  2. buildings as legitimate Aboriginal heritage; and,
  3. conservation of the entire building to commemorate the significance of the event.

excerpt two

There were a total of 22 submissions made to the Inquiry. Five (5) opposed any conservation order, and seventeen (17) advocated a PCO. Of these 17, five (5) were from heritage agencies (including the Heritage Council of NSW), one (1) from the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA), and the other eleven (11) were from community organisations and individuals. The DAA and the eleven community submissions only raised the Aboriginal significance of the building. In addition, the AHC submitted 250 letters and petitions endorsing the call for a PCO. None of the previous tenants of the building, all of whom still function and had been notified of the case, had solicited the Heritage Council or bothered to make submissions to the Inquiry to signal their interest.

At the first session of the Inquiry, the AHC asked the Heritage Council why, then, these new associational values had been added to the building. It was pointed out that the Greek-Cypriot owners, named as forming part of this significance, were the prime objector to the conservation order. The Heritage Council replied that their evaluation was in line with their pro-active policy in identifying heritage significance. The AHC responded in a subsequent submission, and made the following statement:

The Aboriginal History Committee had to wage an active campaign to raise public awareness of the historic significance of this building. We put a lot of effort in getting public support for our cause. We endeavoured to acquaint ourselves with the process of obtaining legal protection for the building. We responded to all the requirements of this Inquiry by making our submissions and presenting our case.

We ask why did we have to go through all these efforts to make ourselves heard when groups who have not spoken have their interest voiced by the Heritage Council

We do not dispute the merit of adopting a pro-active role in heritage assessment. However, in this particular case, it is questionable that the other values cited by the Council need to be acknowledged in the official Statement of Cultural Significance.

We submit the advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald of March 31, 1995 announcing the Inquiry, gave an opportunity to all concerned groups to make submissions.

The case for Aboriginal significance was represented by several submissions to the Inquiry. Leaving aside submissions made by the heritage agencies, not a single submission indicated other heritage interests.

We emphasise that this is the first case for a PCO to be imposed on an urban site in recognition of Aboriginal history. It is a test case – an historic case.

This case offers a perfect opportunity to change public attitudes towards Aboriginal heritage.

The inclusion by the Heritage Council of unsubstantiated European heritage values in this test case amounts to saying that a PCO cannot be applied on an urban building on the basis of an Aboriginal heritage claim in its own right

(Aboriginal History Committee, Supplementary Reply Submission, Commission of Inquiry, Cyprus- Hellene Club, ICO 927, 7th of June, 1995, p. 3).

This submission also made the point that "from an Aboriginal perspective, all non Aboriginal communities are migrants (p. 2), and that it was therefore wrong to classify the German and Cypriot association with the building as a migratory theme in Australian history.

excerpt three

The fact that it was being claimed that a building was a site of Aboriginal heritage caused much debate at the Inquiry. The attack came from the heritage consultants representing the Cyprus-Hellene Club (Perumal Murphy Wu Ltd), one of whom shouted at one stage:

"Why a PCO Why the Heritage Act Aboriginal people already have the National Parks and Wildlife Act to protect their heritage''.

This outburst from a heritage consultant demonstrates how deeply entrenched is the colonial centric paradigm, and how Aboriginal heritage is cast in the preterite past and in the wilderness. The representative exacerbated his attack by insinuating that the AHC was only seeking a PCO because there were none recognising Aboriginal heritage, accusing "you just want one for the sake of it". In reply, the AHC stated:

This assertion suggested that we were acting emotionally and capriciously and that we were not capable of understanding the purpose and nature of the different heritage acts.

Our decision to seek recognition of the building under the NSW Heritage Act was made after full consideration of the other avenues opened to us in terms of:

  1. ensuring the maximum legal protection of the building as the venue of the 1938 "Day of Mourning" protest.
  2. obtaining legal recognition that Aboriginal history did not end in 1788 and that Aboriginal heritage is not restricted to traditional sites and relics.
  3. achieving our broad objective for the legal elevation of Aboriginal history and heritage to the same level given to white history and heritage.

We decided the NSW Heritage Act was the best option in meeting all three of these objectives

(Aboriginal History Committee, Supplementary Submission in Reply, 7th of June, 1995, p. 4).

Perumal Murphy Wu Ltd (PMW) also asserted that the building could not be significant to Aboriginal people because of its "imported European architecture" (Perumal Murphy Wu Ltd, Primary Submission, Commission of Inquiry, Objection to Interim Conservation Order 927, May 1995, point 3. 1). The AHC responded:

The fact is that the building was deliberately chosen because it was a European structure....

We do recognise...that PMW's misconceptions that a European building would have no special significance to Aboriginal people is indicative of the widely held notion that Aboriginal history ended in 1788 and that Aboriginal heritage is limited to the remnants and relics of tribal life. The current campaign by the Aboriginal History Committee to have a PCO placed on the building is a direct challenge to this notion.

Our case also seeks to expose the limitations of heritage assessment in general. The Heritage Assessment Guidelines issued by the NSW Department of Planning limits examples of places of Aboriginal social and historical significance to "places such as missions, reserves, cemeteries and fringe and itinerant campsites".

While these examples extend sites of Aboriginal significance beyond 'the remnants and relics of tribal life' to include post-1788 Aboriginal identifiable places, the parameters set up by these examples limit these post-1788 places to those outside urban areas.

Clearly the heritage guidelines are problematic. In the first instance they divide post- 1788 Australia into white and black areas – with inner urban areas being white and other peripheral area being black. This positions Aboriginal places on the fringes. It also fails to recognise that Aboriginal people have interacted with the European built-environment since 1788, and that a range of places in the urban, suburban and rural areas, have, consequently, become significant to Aboriginal people.

In the second instance, the guidelines limit those European built places of significance to places of oppression. This fails to recognise that some sites – such as the Cyprus-Hellene Club building – are highly significant to Aboriginal people because they are sites of resistance.

In this context, the Cyprus-Hellene Club building represents a rare example of a site of Aboriginal resistance. The 1938 event was a conscious and deliberate use by Aboriginal people of a European-built place during a period when the freedom to do so was not guaranteed.

(Aboriginal History Committee, Commission of Inquiry, Cyprus-Hellene Club, ICO 927, Submission in Reply, 31st of May 1995, pp. 12-14).

PMW persisted in the questioning of the symbolism of the building as a venue (NB: in heritage evaluation criteria, a place used deliberately is more significant than a 'space' used at random). They asserted:

It seems that the Australian Hall was chosen at short notice for the 1938 meeting.

It was probably one of the few venues available on the day of the sesquicentenary celebrations.

If the building had been selected as the venue for some special quality it possessed, the building itself may have been symbolic in itself.

(Perumal Murphy Wu Ltd, Objection to ICO no. 927, Primary Submission to Commission of Inquiry into ICO 927, May 1995, Objection 3.19 and 3.20).

The AHC replied:

Although PMW recognise "Aboriginal interest" in the building their Primary Submission demonstrate an inept grasp of the concept of Aboriginal history and its application to heritage assessment.

Indeed, it is ironic that some of their objections lend support to our case...

The AHC then addressed each of PMW's points, one by one. First, in response to the allegation that the building was chosen at "short notice", AHC agreed:

This is true...The fact that the activists were able to find a venue and organise the meeting in just over two months, considering the limitations of resources and harsh prevailing conditions contributes to the historical significance of the event.

Turning to the allegation that it was one of "few venues" available, the AHC retorted:

True again. This highlights the difficulties the activists had to face in organising the meeting.

The AHC pointed out that this was "a factor which makes the 1938 event all the more remarkable". The sting in the AHC's defence was reserved for the allegation that there was no symbolism in the choice of venue for the 1938 gathering:

In terms of the 1938 event, the most discernible special quality of the building was in its very name [the Australian Hall]....The holding of an Aboriginal meeting protesting the invasion of Aboriginal land in a hall bearing the invader's chosen name for the invaded land was a brilliant symbolic act of tongue-in-cheek defiance.

This is enhanced by the special quality of the geographic location of the building. The building was (and is) located in the very heart of Sydney. Sydney itself was the landing site of the invaders in 1788, the site where the first systematic Anglo- European seizure of Aboriginal land occurred, and the main site of the 1938 sesquicentenary events, which celebrated 150 years of Anglo-European occupation of Aboriginal land.

(Aboriginal History Committee, Commission of Inquiry, Cyprus Hellene Club, ICO 927, Submission in Reply, 31st of May 1995, pp. 11-12)(NB: Dr Heather Goodall also emphasised the symbolism of the choice of venue in her submission to the Inquiry).

excerpt four

There were two key arguments submitted by the AHC as to why the entire building should be conserved.

  1. the spirituality of the place
  2. the recognition of Aboriginal history

A number of written and oral testimonies of the spiritual significance of the building were presented. I believe it would be inappropriate to quote excerpts from such submissions, here, as selected quotes would not do justice to the testimonies. Those who testified spoke of having sensed – in what is now the Mandolin Cinema - a presence of the Aboriginal leaders who had gathered in the Australian Hall in 1938, and having experienced a visual, aural, physical and emotional sense of the happenings of the 26th of January, 1938 gathering. The AHC explained that this sensual communion with the past would be dissipated and lost if the hall – or any other parts of the building – was demolished. This prompted mocking remarks and sniggers from the heritage consultants, PMW, one of whom asked:

"Can't the spirits go and live somewhere else for a while when we pull the building down They can come back when we finish".

The AHC avoided this line of fire, for fear the premise of its case would be shifted:

Our case was presented mainly in terms of the value of the building because of its social and historical significance to Aboriginal people.

This is not because we divide historical, social and spiritual significance from one another, but because - at this point in time - we need to argue our case under European heritage guidelines

(Aboriginal History Committee, Submission in Reply, 31st of May, 1995, p. 14).

One of the officials representing the DAA, Tony McAvoy, a Murri, made a passionate speech denouncing the disrespectful and racist attitudes displayed by the heritage consultants, but did not allow himself to be drawn into any arguments about spirituality.

The AHC replied only to one of PMW's taunts: their dismissal of a testimony affirming that spiritual evidence had led to a belief that some of the participants in the 1938 gathering may have entered the building from the Nithsdale Street fire escape access. It was felt that a response was necessary because the significance of the rear entrance (and fire escape steps) was crucial in the committee's case for the retention of the entire building, but the line of argument was shifted back on the historical focus.

We submit our assertion was not based purely on spiritual evidence. It was based on a social analysis of the historical period. In other words, we took into account the following factors:

  1. Participation in such political action by Aboriginal activists carried severe penalties. We know, for instance, that there were two white policemen stationed at the front of the building. Many activists would have chosen to enter by the back entrance to avoid being identified by the police.
  2. There was a prevailing hostile attitude towards Aboriginal people in that period. The action took place on Australia Day 1938. The nationalist sentiments which marked this whole period would have been especially manifest on that day. The activists seen to enter the building to attend the Aboriginal protest would have been the target of taunts and threats.

It is therefore our informed opinion that many of the activists would have decided to enter through the Nithsdale Street access to avoid both public hostility and official reprisal. (Aboriginal History Committee, Supplementary Submission in Reply, 7th of June, 1995, p. 5).

In her oral presentation to the Inquiry, Esme Beaupark put the AHC's case for the protection of the entire building on historical grounds, emphasising three points:

  1. that people and events of Aboriginal history be recognised;
  2. that Aboriginal history and heritage be respected in its own right as a legitimate part of this country's history;
  3. that Aboriginal historic sites be preserved.

Esme Beaupark spoke solemnly as she elaborated on each of these points, making the following statements throughout her address:

History as an interpretation of the past is a means whereby people identify who they are.

What is taught as history is believed and remembered

The fact that in the last century, the history of this country was written deliberately excluding Aborigines has harmed generations of both black and white Australians.

Through education institutions, Australian history has produced a false picture of Aboriginal people. It is this false IMAGE created by a colonial discourse, that persists in today's society.

In spite of this social outcome, this image can change through a process which promotes the legitimate place of Aboriginal history.

Esme Beaupark concluded:

Pride in a people's history is part of mental health.

Aboriginal support statements from our campaign say this about history, and this, I believe, is a very important statement for the Inquiry to consider. I will repeat it:

Pride in a people's history is part of mental health.

Our campaign to preserve this building is a way of recognising Aboriginal history. We believe this building warrants the same level of recognition as is given to other historic sites.

This has not happened before in NSW.

This inquiry is an historic occasion...this inquiry is an opportunity in which change can be realised.

Commissioner, I urge you to consider this status of Aboriginal people and their place in history when you make your decision in this inquiry.

(Aboriginal History Committee, oral address by Esme Beaupark, Reply session, Commission of Inquiry into ICO 927, 31 st of May, 1995).

As Esme Beaupark made her closing remarks, one of PMW's representatives stood up and said:

"Excuse me, Commissioner, but it's not possible to keep the hall. We need to excavate for the car park".

excerpt five

Commissioner Simpson affirmed that both "facades" of the building (Elizabeth Street and Nithsdale Street) were significant to the building's association with the 1938 gathering (Commissioner William Simpson's Report, cited above, July 1995, p. 26). He also made specific mention of the significance of "the attendant entry area" (p. 26), thus giving credence to another testimony of spiritual experience related to the cinema's lobby.

Commissioner Simpson determined that the building "as an entity" was a heritage item (p. 28). He rejected all four grounds on which the owners of the building had raised their objections (p. 37) and recommended the making of a Permanent Conservation Order (p. 38).

Commissioner Simpson's report was delivered to the Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning, Craig Knowles, in July 1995. It was withheld for 12 months, and only released on the 5th of July, 1996, under FOI legislation. The Minister's announced decision of 20th of September, 1996 (subsequently gazetted on the 1st of November and 8th of November, 1996), proposing to retain only the building's facade and allow demolition of the rest of the building, including the Australian Hall, was, in effect, a rejection of Commissioner Simpson's recommendation. Commission of Inquiry findings are not binding, but the records of the Office of the Commissioners of Inquiry (Environment and Planning) indicate this was only the second instance in the history of Inquiries conducted under the NSW Heritage Act, 1977, that a Minister had rejected a Commissioner's recommendation (the Regent Theatre, 487-503 George Street, Sydney – subject of an Inquiry also chaired by Commissioner William Simpson, in November 1986 – being the other case).

The fact that the Minister rejected the Commissioner's report – and ignored the appeals that had been made to him by public representations – demonstrates the difficulties faced by minority groups struggling to fight for social justice.

Footnotes not included in this excerpt.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Gisele Mesnage. 

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