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victory for the ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ museum

Law Society Journal February 1999

When the Aboriginal Day of Mourning and Protest Museum opens its doors for the first time on 26 January 2000 it's a safe bet that a few ghosts will be doing anything but resting.

The ghosts of those who assembled, sixty-two years earlier, to protest white occupation of their lands, and to demand civil rights for all their people will no doubt be visiting their original protest site and urging their people to continue their struggle for self-determination.

It was on 26 January 1938 that Aboriginal activists including Jack Patten and William Ferguson assembled in the former Australian Hall in the former Knights of the Southern Cross building to deliver their original manifesto.

Chairperson of the National Aboriginal History and Heritage Council (NAHHC) Jenny Munroe is hoping to get reaquainted with her activist elders. "Every time I go there I have that ghostly experience. I'm waiting to sit down and share a bottle of Scotch and have a yarn with them," she laughs.

The Australian Hall later became the Mandolin Cinema in the Cyprus-Hellene Club building. As of 9 December last year, the site belongs to the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council. It is a victory that took years of hard struggle over the fate of the site.

The building was first made the subject of a Permanent Conservation Order (PCO) in March 1990. In July of that year the then owners, the Cyprus Hellene Club, instigated proceedings in the Land and Environment Court to nullify the order.

Without the protection of a PCO the site was susceptible to development applications where the only requirement would be to retain the building's facade.

In May 1994 Jumbunna (the Aboriginal research centre at University of Technology, Sydney) applied for a new PCO for the site. An Interim Conservation Order (ICO) was granted in September. In October that year the Aboriginal History Committee (the forerunner of the NAHHC) formed to organise a public campaign to save the building.

The Cyprus-Hellene Club lodged an official objection to the ICO. The government responded with a Commission of Inquiry, held in May 1995.

At this point there was a turnaround in the opposition from the Greek Cypriot community. Vivi Koutsounadis, a prominent worker in the Greek community had grown up in Redfern. Her parents ran the only milkbar there that served Aboriginal people. She attended an NAHHC meeting and approached the organisers asking them if anyone had spoken to the Greek Cypriot Club.

"I volunteered to get in touch with the community and get them talking. So they came together," she remembers. "There were petitions, letters sent to Sydney Council when the developer lodged a development application for the building. We all sent letters of protest. I really got a lot of support from the Greek community who supported Aborigines."

The commissioner's report was delivered to the Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning, Craig Knowles, in July 1995. It was finally released a year later under Freedom of Information legislation. It recommended that the building be protected by a permanent conservation order.

At first the Minister attempted a compromise by retaining the facade and constructing a new hall incorporating the fabric and memorabilia from the original. The NAHHC immediately lodged a complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 but to no avail. The Minister set about implementing his decision.

Enter the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, acting for the NAHHC. PIAC uncovered an irregularity in the paperwork.

The Minister had failed to obtain a recommendation from the Heritage Council before granting the exemption order as required under the Heritage Act.

It was a fortuitous blunder, according to Andrea Durbach, Director of PIAC.

"The Minister's failure to comply with his own legislation was very helpful to our client," she said.

In July 1997 PIAC instigated proceedings in the Land and Environment Court, alleging the Minister had acted beyond his powers. The Minister revoked the exemption order on February 1998 and ten days later, the NSW government gazetted the Cyprus-Hellene Club as fully protected by a Permanent Conservation Order prohibiting its demolition or redevelopment.

The gazettal was the first time in the history of heritage conservation that an urban building had acquired statutory protection as a site of Aboriginal significance. Despite this, a submission by the NAHHC to the Federal government for funding of $1.2 million to set up the museum was rejected.

For Jenny Munroe, this is just a further example of culturally entrenched racism.

"We get shearers' museums showing how many different ways there are to make a saddle, but we can't get money for this," she says.

Andrea Durbach believes that, even if government has been reluctant to recognise the importance of the Aboriginal site, the NAHHC has attracted support where it matters.

"Jenny Munroe and the NAHHC deserve credit for galvanising so much support from the community. I believe their campaign would have succeeded eventually, even without the legal loophole. It might have taken a political rather than a legal solution to do it, and it might have taken a bit longer but the strength of public opinon was such that success was inevitable."

(This article was prepared with the assistance of research supplied by Gisele Mesnage, of the NAHHC.)

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