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Nigel Scullion’s mission to stop festering tension among the Block’s Aboriginal rivals

Minister for Indigenous Affairs Senator Nigel Scullion talks to Aboriginal Tent Embassy leader Jenny Munro at the Supreme Court on Friday. Photo: Daniel MunozFederal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has flown in to broker a peace deal between Aboriginal rivals fighting for control of the Block, the historic parcel of Redfern that has been besieged for 15 months by protests and sporadic violence.
Nanjing Night Net

“The great tragedy is this involves tension between Aboriginal people,” Senator Scullion told Fairfax Media as he emerged from the Supreme Court on Friday, where he had observed the feuding parties. “We can’t afford to let those tensions keep festering.”

In court were the leaders of the rival camps: Mick Mundine, chief executive the Aboriginal Housing Company, which has owned the Block since a Whitlam government grant in 1973 and now wants to start work on a $70 million development; and Jenny Munro, the leader of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which has occupied the bulldozed site since Sorry Day in May last year, fearing the AHC will never build the 62 affordable homes it has promised for Indigenous people.

Ms Munro admits that, under European law, she is a trespasser. But she is asking the court use its discretion, give special consideration to the historic significance of the Block and delay any eviction.

Justice Robert Hulme reserved his judgment until at least next week, but Senator Scullion then kept mediating on the sidelines – determined that it will never come to an eviction.

He is talking to the parties and bankers, attempting to ensure that building can start on the housing before, or at the same time, as the Pemulwuy Project’s commercial aspects.

Without government funding, Mr Mundine has argued, the housing will have to wait until after the commercial development, including shops, a new gym and rental accommodation for 154 university students.

It is understood the negotiations involve $5 million from the federal government, if not as a grant as an interest-free loan, but Mr Scullion said it may not involve direct funding.

“Jenny Munro has expressed concern about the high risk that the Aboriginal housing will not be built and I accept those concerns,” Senator Scullion said.

“I think all parties acknowledge that the worst possible outcome would be the forcible removal of those people currently occupying the tent embassy.”

But the AHC is still seeking that remedy from Justice Hulme. And on Friday the company was resisting a key demand of the tent embassy negotiators – to appoint a director nominated by Ms Munro to its board. In return, the protesters would immediately leave the Block.

Ms Munro’s barrister, David Ash, asked Justice Hulme to consider the history. The Block was part of a Crown land grant of 52 acres [21 hectares] to an ex-convict called William Hutchinson in 1819. No Aborigines had ever given the Crown consent to “grant the land to Mr Hutchinson in the first place”, Mr Ash said.

But Mr Hutchinson was soon granted another 1400 acres, the nearby Waterloo Estate, which in 1889 became the subject of a much-discussed legal case, a “high point in the articulation of the doctrine we now know as terra nullius”. That was the legal fiction – exposed in the 1992 Mabo case – that Australia was nobody’s land before white settlement.

“[Ms Munro] simply asks … [that] the court takes account of the fact that Aboriginal people were here with laws and customs before the law the court now applies, and that the Block has a particular role to play in that actual, and since 1992, forensic fact.”

Mr Ash wanted any trespass judgment delayed for as long as 28 days. This might allow the NSW Attorney-General time to complete an investigation – launched at Ms Munro’s request – into potential breaches of the AHC’s duties as a charitable trust with a mission to provide housing for Aboriginal people.

Geoffrey Watson, SC, for the AHC, argued the court could not be asked to enable the illegal act of trespass.

Mr Ash said he would agree “999 times out of a thousand”.

Mr Watson responded: “He’s one short of a correct answer.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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