Fee Mozeley, a community organiser with the Hunter Community Environment Centre, gave the speech about the life of Juanita Nielsen at the 2013 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture.
I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on traditional Indigenous land and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future.
I’d also like to thank Senator Lee Rhiannon for hosting this important annual event. When Lee first approached me regarding speaking tonight about the life and times of Juanita Nielsen I could feel the significance of the task and was humbled to be offered such an opportunity. Since that conversation I feel like I've come to understand Juanita is some small way. Reading about her remarkable life has brought new insights to my own work as a columnist and as a community organiser. While I may feel some sense of connection I want to be respectful of the fact that I didn’t know Juanita and that there may well be people in this room who did. It is therefore, not my intention to make comprehensive statements about who she was or wasn’t, but rather to pay my respects through discussing the social and political context around her fight for justice and the legacies of her courage.
Juanita was the publisher of the independent newspaper ‘NOW’. She was also an active campaigner against the overdevelopment of Victoria Street in Kings Cross. Juanita disappeared on July 4th in 1975. It’s widely thought that she was kidnapped and murdered because of her stand against local corruption and the inappropriate development of Victoria Street. A coronial inquest in 1983 found that Juanita was murdered, despite having insufficient evidence to determine how she died or who killed her. The inquest noted that police corruption may have compromised the investigation into her death at the time. Unfortunately, her murderers have never been brought to justice. However, Juanita’s story continues to be a source of inspiration for men and women standing up for social and environmental justice.
In order to appreciate Juanita’s legacy to the environment movement in Australia it’s necessary to understand the broader political context of the time. In the 1960s and 1970s corruption was rife in NSW politics and among police. Money was exchanged and backdoor deals were made to sure up approvals for development proposals. Developers with big money held the power. Verity Burgmann describes this period and the background to the struggles. She states:
[It] is the story of the destruction of Australia’s major cities in the 1960s and early 1970s, when vast amounts of money were poured into property development: giant glass and concrete buildings changed the face of our cities and valuable old buildings were razed in the process. The interests of homebuyers and architectural heritage lost out before often purely speculative construction. At one stage there were ten million square feet of office space in Sydney’s business district, while people looking for their first homes or flats could find nothing.
It was in this context that Green Bans emerged. The Green Ban movement shifted the power back to the people by placing industrial actions by unionists at the centre of non-violent campaigns that united union members, environmentalists, resident action groups, and students. This alliance was revolutionary and fundamental in the development of the Greens as a global political movement.
The Green Bans celebrated many successes. They prevented the reckless destruction of low-cost housing, bushlands and heritage buildings, and fast-tracked improvements in planning and environmental laws.
They were called ‘Green Bans’ rather than ‘Black Bans’ to emphasise the environmental objective and to evoke positive rather than defensive perceptions. Ann Turner in her book on union power states that:
... 'green' instead of 'black' was [considered] more truly descriptive of this form of environmental activity because the imposition of a 'green ban' had much more positive social and political implications than the more defensive connotation often associated in the public mind, with 'black bans'.
The Green bans movement began in 1971 with an action to save Kelly’s Bush in the affluent Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill. I was at Hunters Hills the week before last week and was heartened to see that to this day, it still retains its leafy splendour. A group of thirteen women for Hunters Hills who with the assistance of the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) were able to challenge and stop the A.V. Jennings housing development on the last remaining area of native bushland on the foreshore of the Parramatta River. The BLF applied a Green Ban to the area. The Green Ban demonstrated that concern for the preservation of the environment affected all classes in society. In 1983, the then Premier of New South Wales announced that Kelly’s Bush would be set aside for full public access on a permanent basis.
The second Green ban was imposed in late 1971 in The Rocks. This ban imposed by the BLF was called for by residents who held grave fears about the plans for massive high-rise overdevelopment in the historic precinct. By 1974 there were 42 Green bans imposed in Sydney, challenging inappropriate developments on grounds of environmental and social justice.
The most bitter and violent of the campaigns associated with the Green bans was against the destruction of Victoria Street’s terrace houses in Kings Cross. The tree lined street that provided low-cost housing was earmarked to be destroyed to make way for luxury housing. The development proposal was for a complex up to 45-storeys tall. The fight went on for years with unprecedented violence by the proponents and climaxed with the murder of anti-development advocate Juanita Nielsen.
The Victoria Street battle positioned residents against developers who were prepared to draw on connections with the criminal underworld of Sydney to employ brute force to intimidate and evict tenants. The proponent Frank Theeman, whose links with criminal elements are well documented went head to head with the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation who had placed a Green Ban on Victoria Street in April of 1973. The armed thugs vandalised the Theeman-owned buildings and terrorised residents. A foundational and vocal member of the Victoria Street Residents Action Group was kidnapped and tortured for three days. When he re-emerged, he was too traumatised to say what had happened to him and for years did not speak about the events that had taken place. Fears for personal safety were confirmed when Juanita Nielsen disappeared on 4 July 1975.
Juanita is thought to have become a target for Theeman because of her vocal stance against the proposed development. Juanita had strong emotional connections to Victoria Street. It was where she grew up with her family as a child. Upon return, after living overseas as a young adult, she once again took up residence in her much loved Victoria Street. It was at this time that she also purchased a local newspaper NOW. It was through her paper that Juanita was able to speak out against the injustice of Theeman’s development proposals.
Juanita by all accounts was a strong, independent woman who held the courage of her convictions. She was well known in the area, as well as among Sydney’s elite because of her ties to the wealthy Foy family. Juanita did not align herself directly the residents’ action group, but rather used her voice to speak to diverse audiences through her paper. In the lead up to her disappearance NOW had become her campaign platform. She wrote articles and editorials that were highly critical of the proponents, the politicians and the government agencies involved in all aspects of the approval processes. She was tireless in her fight for justice and thorough in her investigative journalism. Her strength and power was felt by those she challenged and plans were set in place to silence her.
I would argue that despite her death those plans failed. Juanita’s voice can still be heard and her story leaves in its wake a legacy of courage that fuels new generations of social and environmental activism. I first learnt of Juanita’s story when I was approached to speak at this event. The more I explored her life and battle for social justice the more I saw parallels with my own life and the battles we all continue to face today.
In my hometown of Newcastle, we now have a developer for a Lord Mayor. Our public assets and public services are being sold and cut, pocket parks labelled as ‘lazy assets’ are being lost to developers and our heritage buildings and trees are under constant threat. While the threats and losses are many, they are met with active resistance. The convenient relationships between government, developers and industry are constantly being challenged by individuals and groups, who like Juanita, will not be silenced.
Every time a local rag speaks out against corruption, or people gather to call for justice Juanita’s voice is echoed. Tonight she is remembered, honoured and celebrated. Her legacy has brought us together and she continues to unite and inspire.