History matters: power and preservation

The 7th Annual Marg Barry Memorial Lecture

Dr. Lisa Murray, City of Sydney historian

The Marg Barry Memorial Lecture in 2011 commemorates a landmark event in the history of the Inner Sydney Regional Council for Social Development (‘Regional Council’). The organisation has taken an important decision to donate its papers and photographic collection to the City of Sydney Archives.

This evening, I want to reflect upon the importance of preserving community records. As an historian I am delighted at the vision and commitment of the Regional Council to preserve their records.

But, why should you care?

One of the mantras of the Regional Council is that information is a tool for community development. Indeed it is both a necessary prerequisite of, and a process for facilitating, community development.

The Regional Council has worked hard to help people know, understand and influence what is happening to their communities for over 36 years.

In line with the Regional Council’s aims, I would argue that a history is both a necessary prerequisite of, and process for facilitating, informed community decision making. If you don’t know your history – what’s gone before, why certain decisions have been made, previous campaigns or plans – if you don’t know this history, how can you possibly understand the current situation? And how can you plan for the future?

It is very easy for historians to access the voice of the government. Government decisions – at a federal, state and local level – have been published and documented through Hansard, policy papers, council minutes, development applications and newspaper commentary. In addition, many of the papers associated with these decisions are captured, archived and preserved in the National Archives of Australia and State Records NSW. This is required by law.

But what about community records? So many community organisations run on a shoe-string and rely upon volunteers. Their time and energy is (quite rightly) put into their campaigns, events and activism – whatever they’re set up to do.

Few community organisations have the energy or time to think about documenting their work or preserving their records. And yet, the records of community organisations provide a valuable insight into the everyday lives of ordinary Australians – the human story, not the government story.

The Regional Council continues to show community leadership by its decision to donate its records to the City of Sydney Archives, to enable their preservation and to allow ongoing public
access to the records.

The organisation will not let the actions of the past go unnoticed and by preserving its records, the Regional Council continues to ensure that the voices of the marginalised are being heard. And for that it should be congratulated.

The records of community organisations provide us with the grass roots viewpoint. In the case of the Regional Council, its archives provide a valuable record of community development and activism in the inner city from the 1975 to the present. The organisation’s records are valuable and of interest to historians because when it was established the Regional Council, as an organisation, represented new ideas in community planning.

In 1973, the Australian Labor government under the leadership of Gough Whitlam instituted the Australian Assistance Plan, which was a visionary program for local and regional development. The aim was to provide support for local community organisations and get community input into the planning processes. This was played out through funding for the construction of neighbourhood centres and other community facilities, but more specifically through the creation of regional councils. The idea was that regional councils would be a place where the ideas of local residents and local people would sit alongside the ideas of local planning authorities, state and federal public servants. One of the slogans of The Australian Assistance Plan was ‘People Power’. The regional councils were to be the conduit for the locals to provide input and feedback into government services.

In 1974 inner Sydney resident action groups banded together under the leadership of the Andrew Jakubowicz to explore the establishment of a regional social development council. Seeding funds were provided in mid-1974, strategies and submissions were written and the organisation was gradually formed. The Australian Assistance Plan was an exciting experiment – but the Whitlam government’s dismissal at the end of 1975 saw support for the Australian Assistance Plan quickly dry up. Just as the Regional Council was being incorporated in 1977, the Libs pulled the plug on the the program.

Much of the early years were spent on the National AAP Survival Campaign. Now, as we all know, the campaign failed, but the ideas and commitment survived.

Regional Council continued to be an organisation through which the community could be heard. It was and continues to be an organisation where information provides resources, knowledge and access; where bureaucratic jargon is explained; where help is given to write a submission; where people are given the power to have a voice of their own.

The establishment of the Regional Council came at a time in the heady 70s when locally, resident action groups were taking control of the planning process; and when nationally, wide-ranging reforms were being implemented in every field of public policy, including education and regional development.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the Regional Council has provided a voice to marginalised communities and helped in a range of campaigns.

The roots of the Regional Council are firmly planted in resident action and the battles and green bans for The Rocks; Woolloomooloo; Victoria Street, Kings Cross; Fig Street, Ultimo/Pyrmont and Waterloo. For me, though, it‘s not just this foundation, but all the campaigns in which the organisation has been involved.

The files that document these campaigns – the letter writing and submissions, the protests, the posters and newsletters are an amazing snapshot of community activism. I am currently writing a social and urban history of the former municipal areas of Redfern, Alexandria and Waterloo, and I am drawing heavily upon the records of the Regional Council to flesh out the stories of the local communities. In particular I am keen to represent the story of saving Waterloo – for the Green Bans are more than The Rocks – and the ongoing struggle against the Housing Commission.

The Regional Council has over time developed close links with resident action groups, tenancy associations, neighbourhood centres, youth centres and police youth clubs. It has also brought government agencies and departments to the community to represent community needs. So the records of the Regional Council allow the historian to grasp the policy positions and advocacy concerns of a whole range of community organisations.

Because of the organisation’s broad interest in community amenity, a browse through the complete run of the Inner Voice provides a contained and informed view of current issues at any one period in time. This is something that organisation acknowledged in the 30th anniversary edition of the Inner Sydney Voice back in 2008 (and I quote):

If you want a chronicle of social history in the inner city and eastern suburbs over the last 30 years – you have it. … The fascinating thing is that in reading back copies, it is clear that we are still struggling over the same issues. The details might be different, but the fight for social justice is ongoing and detailed for posterity.

There are so many areas of advocacy in which the Council has been involved. Many of them are documented here tonight in the photographs on the walls.

Let me just throw out a few slogans to remind you:

  • Planes or People. Which Count Most?
  • Save Our Homes. Save Waterloo.
  • The Great Eastern Disaster.
  • Inner City – ugly unhealthy ghetto?
  • The Hole in the Doughnut (about destabilising public housing estates and closure of hospital facilities)
  • Honk if you hate banks! (placard when CBA closed its doors at Waterloo in 1994).

Thirdly, I think that the records and photographs of the Regional Council are a valuable collection because they document the contribution of significant individual people who have been involved in the organisation. Behind all the issues, all the policies, all the information, are the people who worked and campaigned for a better city.

Tonight’s annual memorial lecture recognises one of those people – Marg Barry (1934-2001). Once described as the ‘Heroine of the ‘hood’, Marg Barry was a formidable force for good in the district.

Although she was involved in a range of organisations, including the ALP and the City Council, she was best known for her work as the Coordinator for the Regional Council for Social Development. She was an operator and a connector – a gossip in the best sense of the word. She befriended people in all places and stations, gave information and advice generously, and expected the same generosity and commitment in return. She put a lot of time and effort into the Inner Voice, a fantastic legacy for this organisation and for historians like me. Her contribution to the community just keeps on giving.

Marg was just one of the strong community members who made a difference through the Regional Council. I know there are many, many more. The documents, annual reports and articles in the Inner Voice can give historians the names of the people. But it is the photographs that provide a dramatic and compelling view of these people and the campaigns and activities that have been covered by the Regional Council.

Congratulations to the Regional Council for its vision and commitment to preserving its records for future generations. It is making a valuable contribution to Sydney‘s history. It will provide source material for historians to come and will ensure that the community‘s voices are represented and shine through in Sydney’s social history.