Wollongong councillors stopped short of voting to tear down all structures at the Sandon Point tent embassy after vehement protest from members of the Aboriginal community.
Instead they agreed the council would help with the removal of any structures put in place since the end of 2016, and any other structures in consultation with the five Aboriginal groups who have responsibility for managing the site.
Last week, the council revealed Illawarra Aboriginal leaders from three of the five groups had asked the council – and if necessary the police – to step in.
This request – described by the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council as a last resort – came after months of incidents involving an occupant who moved in late last year without support from the custodians of the site.
For instance, according to the council, a Thirroul resident reported that their family was assaulted by a person at the site last October.
Council staff had subsequently recommended the complete removal of “all structures”.
However at Monday night’s meeting, councillors were addressed by two representatives of the Sandon Point Aboriginal Tent Embassy (SPATE) who spoke of their “disgust and disappointment’ at hearing of a plan to remove all structures at the 17-year-old protest site.
Former Aboriginal land council CEO Sharralyn Robinson, who was involved in setting up the embassy, outlined the history of the sacred site telling how it had been used for millennia for trade, ceremony and teaching, and reminding councillors of the 6000-year-old skeleton uncovered there in 1998.
“Those structures are symbolic, they are part of the history of the Illawarra. Why is it that we don’t pay respect and ask those people that fought those battles [to set up the embassy], should they be removed?,” she said,
Jade Kennedy, son of the tent embassy founder, Roy ‘Dootch’ Kennedy – who set up the first tents in response to Stocklands’ plans to built the waterfront housing developments at Sandon Point – asked the councillors to hold off making a decision until further consultation could be done as he believed the request to remove the embassy was not held by the wider community.
“The structures that exist on that site, exist as not only the resistance to the development and a story that brought the Illawarra together, but as a recognised cultural stance against the desecration of the most significant site on this eastern seaboard,” he said.
“Appropriate consultation has not been taken, due process has not been taken.”
“We have asked for the assistance for the removal of a mentally unwell Aboriginal member of our community – somehow it has been turned into action to remove the actual structures on that site.
“We came to you fellows asking for help. Your response to us was to [say to] tear down the only thing that gives us representation in this nation.”
But Labor councillor David Brown said it was not an option to do nothing, as the council had signed an agreement with the five groups who have a role in jointly managing the site.
Based on a 2005 court ruling, these groups are the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council, Sandon Point Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Korewal Elouera Jerrungarah Tribal Elders Aboriginal Corporation, Wadi Wadi Coomaditchi Aboriginal Corporation and the Wodi Wodi Elders Council .
“I think doing nothing here is worse than actually acting,” Cr Brown said. “Either we accept the degree of self-determination [for the Aboriginal community] or we don’t.”
”We have received information that says the structures there are causing harm to the Aboriginal place and we a in receipt of requests to act by the Aboriginal Joint Management Partners. How does the council maintain credibility with the joint management agreement if we don’t support this decision?”
But Greens councillor Mithra Cox questioned hers and other councillors right to make any decision over the future of an Aboriginal sacred place, suggesting that councillors instead vote so that tent embassy structures would not be removed without consultation with the five groups and SPATE members.
“I felt sick when I saw that we’d be voting on the matter of removing the structures at Sandon Point,” Cr Cox said.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong with the system when a council made up of non-Aboriginal people is making decisions about the tent embassy.”
Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery also stepped back from what was suggested by staff, recommending that any removal work – apart from structures built since December 31, 2016 – be done in close consultation with the Aboriginal community.
However he also emphasised that the council needed to take some action on the “place of national significance and beauty”.
“Not to act would be to negate the management agreement, and our integrity,” he said.
“Not to act on this request would be an act of reinforcing two or more centuries of going back on our word and compromising our relationship with those who have occupied this land for millennia.”
Following nearly a hour and a half of debate, councillors voted unanimously to provide assistance to local Aboriginal leaders with their request to remove structures at the Sandon Point Tent Embassy site built after December 2016. Any other structures at the site will only be removed in consultation with the five Sandon Point Joint Management Partner organisations.
After the meeting, Ms Robinson and Mr Kennedy said they remained concerned about the council’s involvement in removing any part of the tent embassy.