As Chairperson of the Surry Hills Resident Action Group Andrew Jakubowicz convened a meeting in 1974 that formed Inner Sydney Regional Council. Now a Sociology professor at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) he looks back on the time that gave rise to this and many other organisations.
The surge for change that transformed the Australian political landscape in the late 1960s and early 1970s mirrored transformations occurring across the world. The long boom that reinvestment in the First World / West had created in the wake of the Second World War was faltering, as the so-called Third World discovered its political muscle. The OPEC oil-cartel on the one hand and the auto-liberation of former colonial and quasi-colonial societies on the other for the first time threatened the taken for granted dominance of the West as both economic and political overlord.
In Australia the children of the wartime generation were passing through the universities, while their parents’ generation began to realise an affluence built on a revolution of rising expectations. Within a fairly short period, the world-view of the Menzies decades (1949-1966) began to splinter, opening out along a whole series of fault lines long suppressed. The question of class remained, though economic exploitation and social disadvantage were increasingly overlaid by issues of identity and rights. The opposition to conscription, as national servicemen started to die in Vietnam, provided a society-wide fuel for activism and resistance to unquestioned authority.
The fault lines produced multiple social movements, driven by the dissonance between expectations and reality. The initial and fiercest activism emerged around gender, with the women’s movement challenging the embedded patriarchy that consumed opportunity, drawing strength from the economic reality of the need for women in the workforce. Indigenous demands re-emerged, finding widespread support in a society increasingly aware of the illegitimacy of its racist history. White Australia’s other face, immigration restrictions, also crumbled, as racially constrained limitations were abandoned. Sexual identity found expression through the Gay movement, while people with disabilities saw their own futures depending on building a movement for change. Underpinning these identity movements a green movement recognised the impact of expanding population and the destruction of the environment on the quality of life. Everywhere forms of counter-culture flowed through the cracks in the body politic.
At the heart of these movements was a desire for community, preserving it where it existed, building it where it was desired. The mass society that had produced endless suburbia and consumerism, thousands of kilometres of roadways, identities formed by a focus on consumption, was failing to deliver for significant minorities – those who had been marginalised by the privatisation of wealth and the poverty of public provision, by ‘lifestyle choices’ that garnered opprobrium from conservative media, and by ways of life that threatened the interests of church and state.
This was the context within which the Whitlam government was elected in 1972, and the urban transformations it called for were implemented. The ‘It’s Time’ plea was a call to national cohesion and energetic social development within a diverse and engaged society.
In Sydney the industrial actions of left wing building unions had found common cause with local communities resisting rampant destruction of both urban and natural heritage. While the unions were channelling the Euro-Communist ideologies of workers taking control of the impact of their labour, as an expression of the struggle to overcome alienation, residential communities were recognising the social value of the bonds they shared, seeing this social capital as worth defending.
All across Sydney actions began to confront the collaboration of capital and state in creating urban desolation denuded of community, which generated local resident action groups. Their emerging urban strategy took much from the Chicago experiences of Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation, the same base as a young Barak Obama would draw on decades later. It was also affected by the rise of urban action in Europe and the USA more broadly. The Coalition of Resident Action Groups (CRAG) was formed to bring these groups together and build a collaborative framework for identifying broader policy issues, mobilising inter-group support, and negotiate with the state. The strength came from the tri-partite alliance of local communities, progressive unions, and ‘evangelistic’ bureaucrats and professionals associated with the local state and professional institutions.
At the national level two new bureaucracies began to provide shape for a participatory vision for the country – the Australian Social Welfare Commission (ASWC) chaired by Melbourne feminist Marie Coleman, under minister Bill Hayden, and the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD) led by minister Tom Uren.
The ASWC created a national network of regional councils for social development, drawing together local community groups, local government, state government and federal bodies. These locality-focused planning bodies were designed to concentrate attention on defining local issues and finding locally-relevant solutions, while ensuring as widespread participation by community members and groups as was feasible. They were also charged with bringing on-board organisations reflecting the cultural diversity of neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile DURD was addressing the urban infrastructure, also seeking to find community solutions. In NSW a conservative Liberal Country Party government was antipathetic to nearly all of these moves – it opposed the national Labor government on principle, it hated urban activism, it detested trade unions, and it had recently sacked the Sydney City Council and re-jerrymandered it to ensure pro-Liberal majorities. Urban conflicts were apparent in South Sydney around the Waterloo Housing Commission development, in The Rocks with a proposal for widespread demolition and high rise renewal (once more apparent in the Sirius redevelopment and the expulsion of working–class communities), in Woolloomooloo around the redevelopment of terrace housing for high-rise commercial and residential schemes, and in Glebe in terms both of the Church lands housing and the western distributor (shades of WestConnex). In many of these conflicts Commonwealth funding was critical, either to advance the original plans of the State Government, or to provide alternative solutions backed by Uren’s department. The community, for a short time, thus had two powerful and resource-rich allies – the Commonwealth under the ALP, and the Green Bans led by the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (NSW).
In this context the Interim Inner Sydney Regional Council for Social Development was formed in 1974, amidst a string of Green Ban battles across the city. Most of the initial participants in the Council were drawn from activist groups associated with CRAG in the inner city – South Sydney, Sydney, and Leichhardt. Others included local and state-wide welfare organisations.
Local government was wary – the ALP in Leichhardt and South Sydney didn’t trust these new urbanites (a prelude to people who would ensure the fall of state inner city ALP seats to the Greens and independents two generations later). The independents in the City were a bit more positive – the ALP councillors were agreeable, in part because many of the activists were also ALP branch members (I was a member the Electoral Council that included the City which was OK with the ALP Left, but didn’t necessarily enamour me with the Right or the Balmain breakaways Alderman Origlass and Wyner in Leichhardt).
The City Council had a Civic Reform (Liberal-leaning) majority but in a cute sleight of hand Ald. Nick Shehadie, a Lebanese boy from Redfern (later NSW first bloke to Gov. Marie Bashir) had garnered support from two evangelistic professionals, engineer Leo Port and architect Andrew Briger, to outwit the Anglo-elite nominee for Lord Mayor. This outcome meant a more positive attitude towards diverse communities, an awareness of Anglo-racism, and a willingness to talk about implementing the new City of Sydney strategic plan which incorporated many of the CRAG proposals – including retaining The Rocks community and building Sirius to house many of them, supporting local community information centres (such as the one in the Surry Hills Library and its dedication to urban activist Enid Cook), and the retention of housing for mixed income groups in Woolloomooloo.
By 1975 the interim ISRCSD was established with a social planner and a team of community workers – the struggle in The Rocks was nearly resolved and the community leader there Neta McRae had been employed by DURD to advance community planning outcomes in Glebe. In Victoria Street Potts Point the struggle continued, as the smashing of the BLF(NSW) by the developers and the national union deprived squatters and residents of much of their firepower.
In many ways the tumultuous years that created Regional Council identified the issues that have continued to be the inner city challenges forty years on – public housing, community empowerment, public transport, sustainable environment, diversity, supporting vulnerable people in dignity, and creative participation in an inclusive city. Underpinning all of this remains an ideology of equity and smart thinking, that draws on the people of the city as its most important strength.
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