Two worlds collide in the Rocks. One, accessible mainly to the rich, is expanding: the world of boutique stores, world class restaurants and luxury hotels. The other, the residential world where the workers who made Sydney city once lived, is dying a slow death at the hands of developers and politicians, all in the name of “progress”.
The Sirius building is the latest to be put on the chopping block, with the NSW government aiming to sell it for $100 million.
Appeals to the historic significance of the building have fallen on deaf ears, the government refusing to place it on the state heritage register. Most of the 79 residents of the complex, designed to house up to 200, have already been evicted. Ruby Martin, one of the last people to stay, was woken on a Sunday morning in September and told that she was out. An agent “said we had lost. That’s it, we would be relocated”.
The attack on public housing at Millers Point and the Rocks has generated a lot of anger. A rally on 17 September brought more than 1,000 people onto the streets to call for Sirius to stay, and the ongoing campaign has received widespread support.
The government argues that the money gained from the sale will be used to build more public housing away from the city centre. There are no indications that it means to follow through with this, but even if it were the case, the overall proportion of social housing is still abysmally low at 5 percent nationally. Taking with one hand to give with the other is no solution to the growing housing crisis.
Nor is it merely a question of how much housing is available. Brian Parker, CFMEU state secretary, made the simple but important point at the rally to save Sirius: “Everyone deserves a harbour view, not just the rich”.
There is a history of social cleansing in the Rocks. In the 1970s, the government and property developers tried to eradicate one of the oldest working class suburbs in Sydney and eject the residents. It took a concerted campaign from the most left wing union in the country, the Builders Labourers Federation, to save the area from redevelopment. This was the famous green bans movement, which combined a total ban on working the construction sites with militant picketing to block scab labour.
The memory of this incredible moment in working class history gave added weight to the announcement at the rally that the CFMEU is officially placing a green ban on the Sirius building. In many ways, this is a continuation of the same fight, as the Sirius building was specifically built to rehouse those who had been evicted during the green ban struggles.
It won’t be easy to defy the government’s attack, but the campaign couldn’t have a better blueprint for how to fight and win.