Marg Barry and a vision for social justice

On the 16th of September this year I was asked to give the introductory speech at the annual Marg Barry lecture, the theme being “The Revival of Social Justice”.  Marg Barry was a resident of Waterloo who campaigned tirelessly in the 1970’s for affordable housing and the creation of a just and sustainable community in Southern Sydney.  Her work saved a number of public housing estates in Redfern and Waterloo from being sold to private developers and in doing so she helped to preserve the communities that are so important to the residents of the area.

Sadly today the communities of Redfern and Waterloo are once again in danger.  The Government is chomping at the bit to sell off public housing and scatter the communities that live there in a massive social engineering exercise, so Margy’s fight is far from over.  Below is the text of the speech I presented at the lecture.

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It is an honour to be here today to commemorate the work of Marg Barry and to talk about social justice.

Marg Barry was one of the great community activists to come out of Waterloo who fought against the tyranny of power and government social engineering, which saw the “slum clearance” of much of the working class housing in the area to make way for the then Housing Commissions plans for the high rise public housing developments that are evident in much of the area today.

Marg was part of the Green Ban movement which saved the houses in Raglan Street and was the Coordinator of the Inner Sydney Regional Council for Social Development, our hosts today.

It is ironic that a few decades on from Marg’s battle to save Waterloo we are again facing the Government’s plans for socially engineering the area. This time the residents of the area are facing the new housing philosophy of “social mix” which will see the selling off of public land and the gentrification of the area.

This may or may not be a good thing but it is the treatment of the existing residents which would worry Marg Barry who refused to see socially disadvantaged people treated as objects to be moved around at will by a faceless bureaucracy.

The idea of selling off public land to private developers in a time when there are tens of thousands of people on waiting lists is appalling and is being done under the guise of fixing dysfunctional public housing communities.

The philosophy is prejudiced against social housing tenants and destroys existing communities in the name of creating a “social mix” that will magically solve all the problems of poverty and disadvantage.

If “social mix” is so good why don’t the Government bureaucrats insist on its being part of the new Barangaroo development where a precinct for the incredibly rich is being created on public land with little respect for the working class history of the area  and which excludes medium and low income earners.

At the Barangaroo development for all their talk the probable amount of housing for these low income earners is a measly 2.3% and the preference of the developers is for the housing, which is only affordable not public, to go offsite. It will probably turn up in the North Everleigh development or the Housing NSW redevelopment of Redfern and Waterloo.

It is here that we come to the thorny issue of social justice. Is it just for the government to be selling off public land here and at Barangaroo or Green Square to the rich while the poor and disadvantaged lose even more chances of creating affordable housing for the growing number of low income earners?

We will undoubtably hear more about social justice from our keynote speaker Professor Baldry but I would like to say a few words on the meaning of social justice to my party the Greens.

We have four key principles in the Greens one of which is Social and Economic Justice which is based on the belief that it is the right and opportunity of all people to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment.

I’m sure Marg Barry, a long time supporter of the Labour movement would also support these goals which demand a fair deal for all rather than the neo liberal agenda of personal greed which is dominant today.

 Social justice demands a more egalitarian division of the wealth and opportunities that come from a rich society like ours not the whittling away of public resources to the wealthy as we will see with NSW government land sell off.

It is a sad truth that as our society has become more wealthy it has also become more mean and thus we see the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal people, the refusal to help refugees, the lack of meaningful funding for mental health and the threat to extend income quarantining across the country.

Where is the social justice today as we wait for the latest changes to our neighbourhood and our community? Where is the fair dealing that our community deserves?

I don’t believe that the public housing communities in Redfern and Waterloo need the radical changes that are planned for the area, rather we need a social justice approach that would put money into supporting the community, creating jobs, providing medical services for the disabled and aged and programs that would build on the community that already exists.

We don’t need our communities broken up we need our communities supported. We don’t need our old people being forced to relocate never to return. What we need is the type of social justice that will uplift our residents not scatter them to the winds.

This, I believe is what Marg Barry would have demanded – it is not a lot to ask for in this day and age of extreme wealth and opportunity.

 Marg knew that social justice wasn’t given away by those in power, it is something that has to be fought for.

So for us here in Redfern and Waterloo the fight goes on and I’m sure Marg is watching and urging us on.

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