Subject/s: Millers point; social housing; communities.
HOST: Yesterday we had an interesting discussion sparked by Graham Quint from the National Trust who argues that there’s more than just bricks and mortar at Millers Point. Indeed, not only are the buildings on the national register, but the community, the social fabric is listed as being extremely significant in that area. It’s an argument supported by our next guest. Anthony Albanese, the former Deputy Prime Minister, joins us on the line. Mr Albanese, hello and welcome.
ALBANESE: Good morning Angela.
HOST: You were raised in a public housing house, weren’t you, in Camperdown?
ALBANESE: I was raised in a little block opposite the children’s hospital. There was one block that was city council housing – the ten storey flats there that people might be familiar with, and the two storey semi-detached houses. I was raised in one of them. I lived there with my mum. She was born in that house. My grandparents moved in when it was built in 1927. My mum lived there all of her 65 years. There was a real sense of community because it was surrounded by the kids hospital, there was Weston’s biscuit factory, big industrial sites all around. It’s very different now. A lot of the old industry has been converted to housing. But it was very similar to the community at Miller’s Point. One thing we had in common was a lot of the kids in public housing were working class Catholics who went to St Mary’s Cathedral school in the city, so I got to know the Point, as it was called, and its people very well.
HOST: You were involved in a fight with Sydney City Council. I imagine it’s the first time you got really active in the community about something because the council wanted to sell your house, didn’t they?
ALBANESE: That’s right. I was still at school, in the latter years of high school and the council decided to sell its housing, and for my mum it had been her home all of her life. We certainly had treated it like I treat my current home. We renovated it at the back, closed in the verandahs, we painted it, we cared for it. It was our home. For Mum the concept of moving on would have been very difficult because of the connections she had with the community. That was the life that she knew and the whole community campaigned very strongly at the time. Some houses were sold off in the big flats at Glebe but there was a change of council control and the council then handed over the housing to the NSW housing department, and she was able to remain there for the rest of her life.
HOST: We’ve had this discussion several times on this program, and a lot of people see there is a lot of value in those houses at Millers Point now. Times have changed, it used to be a working class neighbourhood, it had a big connection to the wharfies and the waterfront here in Sydney, but times have changed and that’s now extremely valuable real estate which could be sold off to buy or build more housing, to house some of the 57,000 people who are on the public housing waiting list.
ALBANESE: I certainly support additional housing stock, and the Labor Government of which I was a part, very proudly increased that stock by 20,000 including a complete renovation in places like Lilyfield, in my electorate. But we need to have a public debate about the concept of community and treating people with some respect. I don’t think it showed people any respect, people who’ve lived there for more than 80 years to just get a move-on notice shoved under their door.
HOST: Has that happened?
ALBANESE: That is exactly what happened, at the same time as the public announcements were made, notices were left under people’s doors. I think that has created real apprehension in that community. We do need a public debate about what makes up a community. It is more than bricks and mortar. We increasingly communicate with each other on computer screens and with new technology. Perhaps we are losing sight of the benefits of human contact, and also the benefits of diversity in those communities. I don’t believe that the poorest people should automatically not have access to diverse housing. We can’t have a city that is functional if it’s made up of suburbs according to income. That’s a recipe for a divided city. I understand the economic logic. If you take people out of the equation, then yes, you’d sell off every house that was worth more than the median value of housing. What that would mean isn’t just selling Millers Point, it’s selling Balmain, it’s selling the Glebe Estate, it’s selling public housing in Newtown –
HOST: and Redfern –
ALBANESE: It would just make Sydney a very different city. And we need to have that debate. I had a lot of contact as a student with my friends down there in Millers Point. It’s a functional community, it’s diverse, there are community services that have been established there that you can’t just recreate in another area, because of that history. That social history and those links between people are really important. I’m concerned about the simplistic view that people who pay the most taxes should get the best houses. You and I know Angela that quite often the people in the best houses pay no tax at all. I know that my mum used to say ‘if we’d have been paying rent, we’d have owned this place by now’.
HOST: Can I just interrupt, some of those houses in Millers Point have fallen into disrepair. You said proudly that your mum and you renovated your house and kept it freshly painted. That’s not necessarily the case with lots of these places in Millers Point. They’re quite run down, they need lots and lots of money spent on them. Now obviously the public housing tenants who live there can’t afford to pay for those repairs, so the cost falls to the taxpayer. That’s not a very good use of funds, is it?
ALBANESE: If you look at where social housing has been successful, like Macquarie Fields, they have involved the community and made sure that there’s that engagement in keeping the housing stock up to standard. There are ways around that which are innovative, which provide for solutions other than just spending taxpayers money. The government should be looking at those examples which are successful in terms of the diversity of the community. If you move people on from Millers Point you really will have a very different city. I was hanging around there then a bit more, than I am now. Of course, it wasn’t as desirable a place to live. You didn’t have what occurred after Frank Sartor’s campaign to attract residential living into the city, which was successful. That’s made the city a more diverse place and brought enormous benefits with it.
HOST: What you’re really saying is that poor people should have access to the city – they shouldn’t just be moved off to ghettos far away. Pat has given us a call. Good morning Pat.
CALLER, PAT: The integration of that social housing back then, they were basically put everywhere throughout Sydney, in the west, in the south, and there are some great prime spots where this social housing is. They still are quite discreet. There are some that aren’t. But you just can’t move people because it’s desirable land. You can’t just decide to move everybody out to where they think it’s going to be best now. A public forum does need to be held. What’s to say in fifty years’ time that some parts of the city don’t go back to where it was?
HOST: So Pat, you’re agreeing with Mr Albanese?
PAT: Absolutely. Why should we move them out? Why does it have to be prime real estate? Prime to who? Who’s it prime for?
HOST: Well that’s right. It’s prime in terms of earning money for the state’s coffers. Thanks for your call Pat. I take your point Mr Albanese and I’m sure we all do, and so the debate continues. So you think we need to keep talking about what kind of city we want?
ALBANESE: Absolutely. Just as we need to talk about creating jobs where people live, increased density around our transport corridors, we need to talk about diversity in our communities. I’ve lived here my whole life, I love this city. But it needs to be diverse; it needs to celebrate the great mix, the great melting pot that makes a city successful.
HOST: Great to talk to you today, all the best.
ALBANESE: Thank you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.