AHC Story

Judge Bob Bellear

(1944 – 2005)

The late Judge Bob Bellear, one of nine children, rose from a working class background to become Australia’s first Aboriginal judge. He was the founder of the Aboriginal Housing Company in 1972, a Director of the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service through most of the 1970s, and Chairman of Tranby College.

Below is his first-hand account of how the Aboriginal Housing Company Ltd was established on The Block

The Aboriginal Housing Company was Born

Breakthrough by Bob Bellear

Source: Black Housing Book, edited by Robert W. Bellear, pp.4-5; printed by Amber Press, May 1976

The initial commencement of Aboriginal Housing Companies in New South Wales was set up in Redfern, a Sydney inner city suburb in November 1972.

The breakthrough arose after a series of conflicts had occurred between the local police and the blacks. The police, who have been bastards for years highlighted their oppressive attitudes when they arrested a number of Goomies [Blacks who are not necessarily alcoholics but who consume alcohol in excess of the norm set up by the dominant culture. Excessive alcohol consumption is often a trait of an oppressed minority group] for trespassing in empty houses owned by absentee landlords. Those empty houses were the only shelter available in the Sydney area where this group of people could have peace of mind and be able to do their own thing without interruptions from the so-called normalcy of the dominant culture to which so many other blacks have conformed.

The 15 blacks arrested were represented in court by the Aboriginal Legal Service and were discharged into the care of the three priests from the Redfern Presbytery, and Kaye Bellear who at the time was a nurse at Rachael Forster Hospital [Kaye, not long after the abovementioned incident, terminated employment with this hospital because of its racist and oppressive attitudes towards black patients. Kaye is also the wife of the author].

Kaye and the priests then set up House in the church hall for the fifteen people which almost immediately rose to about 50 people as news spread to the occupiers of other empties.

The blacks collected beer and wine bottles on garbage nights starting late in the evening and finishing in the early hours of the morning, and in the daylight hours the bottles were separated into the various colours and then broken into respective drums to be sold. The money collected was shared amongst the residents who gave most back to the priests to purchase food for the gang and to go towards gas and electricity.

The South Sydney Council, who showed complete ignorance and lack of understanding in respect of anything done towards the betterment of those people, regarded by society as derelicts, served an eviction notice on the Archdiocese of Sydney to rid the hall of other people it contained, due to health reasons. (I really felt it was because of the complaints the Council received from the so-called Christians who attended the various Masses and who could not miss seeing blacks at the back of the Church before they entered. There was also a significant drop in attendance whilst the residents remained on the premises.) It is significantly obvious that the Council was not concerned about the health of the people because they certainly had not tried to do anything healthwise to help the blacks before they moved into the premises.

Through a lot of correspondence and negotiations with the Council they were forced to hold off eviction for about a month, but being completely dissatisfied with this arrangement, the Council then served an eviction notice on the Cardinal who forwarded it on to Redfern Presbytery to dispose of in a way Redfern thought fit. This eviction contained a fine of $200 and a penalty of $10 a day for everyday the people remained on the premises, and was to take effect after the expiration of 21 days.

Prior to the eviction notice taking effect, the three priests, Kaye and myself selected a number of houses to purchase, including those from which the people had been originally arrested. (The proposed houses are now houses included in the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Project under construction.) These were in Louis Street, Chippendale and were leased to predominantly Aboriginal families for the past 60 years by absentee landlords until a major development company, IBK Constructions, moved in and purchased most of the houses in the area, removing all the residents, shoring up the doors and windows to maintain their emptiness with the help of the police and a very sad, but very racist security officer. A lot of the people had to move out into the western suburbs for cheaper rentals, whilst others had to live in empty houses in the area just to exist. (This was the situation when the fifteen were arrested, as stated earlier).

The outcome of considerable negotiations with IBK was the use of the empty premises pending the commencement of their capitalist development which was due to begin in the very near future. The houses which they allowed us to use were dilapidated, burned out and absolutely unfit to live in, but we took the initiative and selected more suitable accommodation on the site. The development company had also placed some very stringent rules and conditions upon us which we were to abide by in order to obtain the premises but as soon as we moved in those conditions were waived by us.

In the early hours of a morning in December, 1972, a mop-and bucket brigade (see picture above) was formed by the inhabitants of the hall and armed with the various utensils a full-scale assault was made on the various houses to be used.

The now exiled State Builders’ Labourers, through Bob Pringle, were called in to erect doors, fix windows etc., while some members of the Plumbers Union fixed taps, toilets and other plumbing facilities required for a more liveable habitation. The electricians turned on the power and the Gas Company put on the gas rent free as soon as they were aware of our situation. On completion of the clean-up a Health Department officer from the controversial South Sydney Council just happened to be on the scene and to our surprise passed all houses concerned as liveable by their health standards.

Several unions showed interest but the mainstay was the State Builders’ Labourers who assisted in every possible aspect.

Soon after the move occurred from the church Hall to the newly acquired premises, IBK requested that we vacate as their development was due to commence but we had regarded ourselves as squatters now and were not prepared to move at any cost. We tried to keep out the police but on several occasions they got under our guard and forced their way in. We were able to stave off any arrests, as we successfully (but not legitimately) poked the contract in their faces pointing out our claim. As mentioned earlier this piece of paper showed that we could inhabit the premises. If we complied with the conditions – the police did not know that we had broken all the conditions put to us. From this point on we knew we would be under constant threat from all authoritative elements to get us out and everyone involved was aware that he or she could be arrested on any number of charges. This did not perturb any one of the inhabitants – in fact I brought greater unity into the group as all were well aware of the reasons for squatting. Less alcohol was being consumed by the heavier drinkers, in fact a lot of them had given up drinking completely and Kaye was called in on numerous occasions to aid those who had gone into the DTs from cutting out alcohol altogether.

Again our request to the State Builders’ Labourers to put a ban on any building development in the area had been carried out (with much dispute from several other unions) giving us extra time to retain the houses.

The Brown Nurses, a Catholic Order, were very helpful in supplying food, blankets and toiletries which were most welcome, and their assistance in medical needs was most appreciated.

Discussions were set up with representatives from Capital Funds and Special Funds Branch [Branches within the Department of Aboriginal Affairs] who suggested we form a committee and then make representation to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, who at that time, was Gordon Bryant. The Minister acted on our request and met a delegation consisting of members of our newly formed committee, along with Bob Pringle from the State Builders’ Labourers and two other union officials from other unions. Mr Bryant gave us a favourable hearing and suggested we get a submission to him as soon as possible, which we did immediately and were granted $500,000 to get underway with the project.

The money was deposited in the Commonwealth Bank in Redfern but the bank, not believing we could handle the money which was made available to us, required that we make out a submission each time we needed to withdraw money to purchase any items relevant to the project. It was not until after much hassling and proving to the bank that we could handle our own affairs, that we had the need for the submissions eliminated.

Progress on the Project was very slow for the first one and a half years but after an almost complete turnover of administrative staff and employees the output on houses expanded tremendously. We are now at a point of completing one house a week.

The hardships involved in the company have been tremendous, it is unlike any other company, being one of the first of its kind. The directors, whom we elected to represent the members of the company did not have any building experience at all and had to rely a lot on information gained through advisors. A number of the supposedly top employees were in the situation but the information given was not good and consequently rip-offs occurred. It was not until the directors became aware of what was happening that progress became obvious.

It was under the Australian Labor Party government that we were able to start on a project such as this and it certainly would not have been contemplated had it been under the Liberal/Country Party government.

However, a large number of decision makers in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs under the A.L.P. are not necessarily members of that particular party, and some of the decisions that are made do not have the assent of the Minister and do not comply with the A.L.P. policy on Aboriginal Affairs. It is these decisions along with the way the Department carries out requests that fetter progress and it appears to be done intentionally, examples being –

The convenient loss of submissions; withholding of cheques; not passing on information to Treasury to have cheques drawn up; opposing nearly everything put forward in the form of submissions; the passing of value judgments when in absolutely in no position to do so; and many more incidents which happen in the department to inhibit progress.

At the moment we are in the position of not being able to receive any money for the acquisition of further houses until March 1976 – some seven months away. By that time we will have added a number of people to the now enormous unemployment list. At the time of writing this article there are twelve houses completed and occupied, and forty applicants waiting for housing.

You are about to embark on a journey that has been set in the outskirt of Sydney, with all the making of a best seller, humble beginning under great adversity, poverty, betrayal, self-determination, being the master of one’s destiny would be the best way to describe what has happen, and still have the fire in our belly to accomplish.