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Debbie Gibson - The Life of Juanita Nielsen, 2012

Lee Rhiannon 7 Jun 2013

Debbie Gibson, Assistant Secretary of the Greens NSW, gave the speech about the life of Juanita Nielsen at the 2012 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture.

Juanita Neilsen disappeared on July 4th, 1975. It is widely believed that she was murdered but her body has never been found and those responsible have never been brought to justice.

Who was she and why do we have this memorial lecture series in her name? In what way is her story relevant to today?

For many years, Juanita Neilsen was to me, a grainy, black and white image of a woman with a remarkable beehive hairdo. As an eleven year old at the time of her disappearance, I have a vague recollection of seeing her image on the news and in newspapers. And as an eleven year old, I think it was the mystery surrounding the disappearance of this heiress that captured my imagination. Of course, at that time, I had very little, if any, understanding of the circumstances leading up to and surrounding her death. I think it was more the Agatha Christie romantic imagination of mine that drew her story to my interest.

It was only when I was asked to do this introduction and speak about her life that I really became aware of the broader events going on at that time that perhaps determined her fate. And it was through reading about those events, that I fully understood the importance of telling her story. The story of Juanita Neilsen is not just one of a long ago activist who met an untimely end. It is a story that is still going on today. It is one of power, corruption and greed. And it is far more interesting than any Agatha Christie novel I have had the pleasure of reading.

Born in 1937, Juanita Joan Smith was the only child of Neil and Wilma Smith, a wealthy branch of the Mark Foys family. It was the very privileged background of the super rich in Sydney that she grew up in. But Juanita showed early on an independent spirit that played a part in her later activism. 

At age 22 she set off for Europe and adventure. In 1962, to the dismay of her family, she married a seaman, Jorgen Nielson. The marriage didn’t last and Juanita returned to Sydney in 1965 where she returned to work at Mark Foys.

It was during this time Juanita became involved in a bitter family dispute over a takeover offer of the family business. The dispute led to an estrangement with her father, but this was later healed, partly through a gift of money. Juanita used these funds to buy herself a house in Victoria St, Kings Cross.

Perched on the edge of a sandstone escarpment, with million-dollar views westward to St Mary's Cathedral, Hyde Park and the city and north to the harbour, this beautiful avenue is lined with huge overarching plane trees and flanked by rows of elegant 19th century terrace houses. 

She also used some of this money to start a community newspaper: NOW.

It was the early 70’s and the struggle between developers, residents and conservationists was in full swing. 

It was a hard and sometimes violent struggle. Some areas like The Rocks suffered and Redfern and Wooloomooloo were substantially damaged, but countless houses and other buildings were saved from destruction. The turning point in the battle came in the early '70s when resident action groups gained a powerful ally -- building union the Builders Labourers Federation. Under a progressive new leadership headed by Jack Mundey the BLF underwent a revolutionary expansion of its customary role as workers' representative, which saw the union explicitly align itself with conservationists and resident action groups to oppose developers. The BLF imposed an innovative series of work bans -- soon dubbed 'Green Bans' -- to combat the developments planned for many inner Sydney suburbs. 

The Green Ban movement began with the pioneering 1971 ban on a planned housing development at Kelly's Bush in Hunter's Hill, which was the last remaining large tract of uncleared bushland on the lower Parramatta River. Green Bans proved tremendously successful in halting the thoughtless exploitation of these historic areas by the state government, Sydney City Council and property developers by preventing any worker in the union-dominated building and demolition industries from working on any banned site, effectively halting much of the planned development for years to come. Indeed, many of these areas, notably The Rocks and Victoria Street, owe their continued preservation to the BLF's progressive stance.

In the early '70s, Victoria St became a focal point in a long-running struggle against urban redevelopment. On one side were the powerful pro-development forces in local and state governments and ambitious, greedy property developers. On the other were the inner city residents who sought to preserve the character of their historic suburbs. 

The plan was to demolish the Victorian-style terraces on the wide, tree-lined street and replace them with apartment blocks. The main figure behind the new development was prominent Sydney businessman Frank Theeman. Theeman had initially made his fortune in lingerie, (manufacturing, not wearing), and moved into property development in 1972 after selling his clothing company. Theeman planned to buy up property in the street, demolish the existing terraces and replace them with a massive complex consisting of three 45-storey towers. 

As a resident herself, Juanita was vehemently opposed to the plan to "redevelop" Victoria Street by building a $60 million high-rise housing complex. Juanita and her neighbours were outraged by the plan, which would have totally destroyed the character of the street and the entire area. She refused to sell her property and vocally supported her neighbours in their fight to save their houses.

From her office in the second bedroom of her terrace house Juanita ran her small business: the little newspaper called NOW. NOW was set initially up to cover local issues and local politics, surviving on the sale of advertisements to local businesses. But increasingly she used it as a platform for her views, including her bitter opposition to the redevelopment of Victoria Street by Theeman.

Theeman had already spent millions acquiring property in the street, but as soon as the plans became public, Kings Cross residents and supporters rose up and mounted organised resistance to the development. Vigorous attempts were made to coax or bully the residents into selling up. When that failed, a gang of heavies was brought in. They threatened and intimidated residents, and on several occasions they 'roughed up' anti-development protesters who converged on Victoria St, while police stood idly by. But, bolstered by the key support of the BLF, Juanita and NOW, the Victoria St residents held out against the developers.

This disruption cost Theeman millions. Eventually, more than two years later, as a result of changed leadership and political pressure, the green bans were lifted. But Juanita held on and continued to fight. And each day Juanita continued the fight cost Theeman around $3000, a substantial sum back then.

Death threats were rife. Juanita was fearful that her activism was putting her in danger, and rightly so as it turned out.

Precisely what transpired on the morning of July 4 will probably never be known but it's clear that Juanita was lured to the Carousel night club with at least the intention of threatening and/or abducting her. 

At 10:30am on Friday July 4 Juanita made a telephone call to say that she was running late for the meeting. It was the last call she would ever make. 

The place of death or the manner and cause of death was never able to be proven. So who did murder Juanita Nielson? Years of corrupt police inquiries and coronial and parliamentary investigations have failed to identify her killers but there was evidence to show that the police inquiries were inhibited by an atmosphere of corruption that existed at the time.

In late 1977, two and a half years after she disappeared, Edward Trigg, the night manager of the Carousel and two others were finally arrested and charged with conspiring to abduct Juanita. Trigg absconded in 1981 while on bail awaiting trial but he was eventually recaptured in the US in 1988 and deported to face trial. He pleaded guilty and was gaoled for three years. The second suspect, Shayne Martin-Simmonds, a carousel barman was convicted in 1981 and was gaoled for two years. The third man, Lloyd Marshall, the Carousel's "PR man" in 1975, was acquitted.

The reality is that we will most likely never know exactly what happened to her.

So why is Juanita's story still told and why does it seem so familiar? 

Sadly we are still facing the same battles today. Greed and corruption still play far too big a part in the way planning decisions are made. Developers tend to employ less physical, but by no means less obvious, thuggery though the lawsuit seems to be the latter day heavy, employed to exact the same outcome…silencing opposition. The knock on your door these days is far more likely to be from a well dressed law firm employee than the colourful thugs of the past. 

The government continues to make decisions based on donation rather than social or environmental criteria.

Whilst reading about Juanita Nielson and writing this introduction for tonight, the phrase “accidental activist” kept popping into my head. I kept seeing Juanita as an accidental activist, a product of the circumstances she found herself in. But when I thought about this some more, I realised that that’s what we all are. When asked to write the obligatory “What do want to be when you grow up?” essay for my Year 3 teacher, I think it was something along the lines of “ballet dancer, or maybe a teacher…I don’t recall “activist” rating high up there. And yet I find myself standing here (somewhat reluctantly I admit), being just that and very proud to be in a room full of other “accidental activists”. I doubt whether any of you planned this life path at age 10, but for varied reasons, you find yourself, like Juanita, finding a courage and passion you may not have realised you possessed to fight for the cause you believe is right.

We gather tonight to pay tribute to Juanita Nielson and the courage and passion she showed in her fight. I would also like to pay tribute to all of you, your courage and passion are remarkable and inspiring. I salute you all.

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