Dollars trump humanity in NSW public land purge

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The One Way Jesus sign, previously propped against the windowsill so that commuters coming in on the train each morning might see it and so receive some succour, is gone.

Sirius ComplexThe Brutalist building — so ugly on the eye when I first saw it all those years ago, now a familiar milestone on the journey into the city — has been condemned to an undignified death; soon it will be demolished, a luxury apartment building erected in its stead. The long-term residents have packed their meagre belongings and gone (though not without a fight).

Such is the pattern of progress in New South Wales, under a government that has no compunction in selling public land to the person whose wallet is the fattest.

At Barangaroo, James Packer's high-rollers-only casino soars heavenwards, altering forever Sydney's skyline and the shady economy that helps fuel it; the wedge of foreshore carved out of Barangaroo for public use has transformed the city, too, but it feels like a bribe from a government keen to keep its constituents quiet.

And there, across the railway tracks and overlooking the Opera House on the other side of the bridge, that staggered, Brutalist, Sirius building, with its lilac-painted rooftop pot plants and drooping lace curtains and public housing tenants, is wrenched back from those who need it most and delivered into the hands of profiteers.

The terrace houses in nearby Millers Point, where Mary MacKillop and her Josephite Sisters worked among the poorest, and which have housed some of the most disadvantaged since, are sold off to private buyers with enough money to both purchase the title deeds and eradicate the stench of poverty.

And no-one complains, for money has become our god, and we all know that it is harder for a poor man to enter an earthly kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Nor should a poor man be allowed to live in a place as heavenly as this; once the site of bubonic plague and the playground for ragged orphans, it is now a blue ribbon harbourside neighbourhood filled with residents who look to be a better fit: educated folk who walk with confidence, who have jobs to go to and a purpose to fulfil.

 

"A society that values its poorest citizens, that elevates them to the loftiest of positions and judges them on what they need rather than what they are worth, is one that sees humanity where it might otherwise see dollars."

 

The rich, we seem to be saying when we fail to oppose our government's sale of public land and public housing, are far more deserving of access to the foreshore, of that fresh air and proximity to the city, than are the poor. If you can pay for it yourself, it's yours; if you've acquired it through the public purse then part of it is mine, and why should you have that water view I could never afford myself?

But there's no democracy in parcelling off tracts of land for exclusive use by the rich. There's no diversity in cities engineered to exclude the most marginalised. There's little social cohesion in regions that have been sliced up into a series of sterile, discrete, distinctly homogenous neighbourhoods.

And — something to consider, perhaps, for those who oppose welfare and the people who rely on it — there's little incentive for the well-off to be grateful for what they have when they're quarantined from the poor. Our own sense of wellbeing is influenced and reinforced by our perception of the wellbeing of others. It often happens that when those around us have more than we do, we feel worthless; when we're frequently exposed to poverty, we feel grateful for what we have.

The poor are not exhibits, of course, and their presence in affluent areas shouldn't serve to make us feel better — or worse — about ourselves. But it should help us to feel better about the city in which we live, for a society that values its poorest citizens, that elevates them to the loftiest of positions and judges them on what they need rather than what they are worth, is one that sees humanity where it might otherwise see dollars. And we must never forget this: what such a society does to the least of its brethren, that it will do to us, too.

 


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, public housing, Sirius building

 

 

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Existing comments

They'll find rational reasons for this. The rates are too high - money for public housing would be better spent on a larger number of dwellings further away, or public tenants don't appreciate or preserve the beauty that surrounds them. They may be correct. But Catherine Marshall is right. And worshipping Mammon always involves human sacrifice.
Joan Seymour | 17 August 2016


Perhaps we could start with a mere opinion that the poor, like most of us, should live close to the ground in low-rise dwellings in the suburbs, amidst the democratic fluid that is the flow of people through and between the shopping strips and malls, parks and gardens, public libraries and community services, and so on. When the physical impossibility of everyone having a 'view' means that having a 'view' cannot be a human right, the state can arbitrarily privilege some of the poor to be 'better off' than the rest, or it can lever the irrationality of the desire of some to pay ridiculous amounts of money in freehold or lease for the sight of some water or to be close to it into purposes that benefit the non-'viewing' that comprise the majority of its constituents. But, of course, underlying all this is the subjective opinion that Sydney Harbour water views are overrated. But, many so-called objective opinions derive from a subjective opinion somewhere, as not everything can be proved by science, a notion to which a people of 'faith' should be used.
Roy Chen Yee | 18 August 2016


The beauty of Sydney harbor is not to be denied. A trip across on a ferry on a blue sky morning can lead one to praise the creator. Sitting ,looking out a window at sparkling water must truly lift one's spirits. I can only agree with Catherine on the value of sharing the beauties, cultures, education and mores of a decent society with all our citizens. It seems that the prevailing thought is to keep our poor, sick and disadvantaged out of sight , and relegated to the "bad lands". Manus island and Nauru , Guantanamo Bay, our frightening prisons are prime examples of this . To those who have been given much , much will be expected. Let's look at the allocation of shared resources in a more humane and equitable way. Democracy, diversity and social cohesion are worth striving for. The play currently showing in Melbourne, Jasper Jones highlights the depressing values exhibited in an imaginary Australian country town in the 60's. Have we moved on from those attitudes and values?.In our approaches to social inclusion and cohesion , I wonder?
Celia | 18 August 2016


So succinctly put.
Tony Hughes | 18 August 2016


Thank you for a great story about Millers Point and Sirius. The campaign to Save Our Sirius continues with events and rallies planned for coming weeks. Search #SOSSirius on social media sites to follow developments.
John Dunn | 19 August 2016


A beautiful piece of writing from the heart and mind of someone who really cares. The NSW Baird Government obviously doesn't see the needs of the poor and homeless - only the greed of the rich and powerful. Those who voted them back in may feel inadequate or apathetic, and have allowed the callous to get away with criminal disenfranchisement! The well-educated well-off middle class usually comes to the rescue here. Are the bare majority too ignorant, too fearful, or too self-interested to understand that they do have the power to change things.
Annabel | 26 August 2016


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