‘This is the last bastion’: Cut and run tactics leave community centre’s future up in the air

The National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern, a cornerstone of the local Aboriginal community, has been left in limbo after tumultuous negotiations between the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

The National Centre for Indigenous Excellence (NCIE), at 180 George Street in Redfern, has served the local Aboriginal community for 16 years. The NCIE opened in 2006 on the former site of Redfern Public School and offers sport, fitness, conferences and community classes including tutoring and educational support. With the Aboriginal Medical Service based around the corner on Redfern Street and the Aboriginal Legal Service two blocks over, the local community sees the NCIE as a vital part of Redfern’s Indigenous support service network.

As the process of gentrification forever changed the social and cultural landscape of Redfern, the centre has remained an important meeting place for local Indigenous people.

It’s become the base of operations for Redfern Youth Connect, the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy and Tribal Warrior Association. Local Elders use the centre’s pool and gym facilities alongside kids learning to swim. High school students are given tutoring and taught vocational skills such as hospitality. Young mums and working parents rely on the centre for out-of-school-hours care, where their kids are provided with food, cultural and social support.

One recent estimate found that every dollar spent on the centre creates three times as much value for the local Aboriginal community.

However, last Monday, staff at the centre – a majority of whom are local Indigenous young people — were informed they were being made redundant and offered a one-off payment of $700 as compensation. Dozens of staff were ushered off the premises. Some stood crying on the footpath. All were asked to sign non-disclosure statements as a condition of receiving their severances.

The decision to close the NCIE came after the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC) failed to reach an agreement with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council on the future of the Redfern centre. Recently-appointed NCIE CEO, Jasmine Ryan, expressed her concern about the decision.

“Everyone is being made redundant,” Ryan said.

“We have a large number of First Nations staff here, many of whom grew up in the community.”

Ryan says staff had little warning about the closure and the future of the NCIE remains uncertain.

“From my understanding from what they’ve told us, those negotiations essentially broke down, they weren’t able to come to an agreement and because of that, the ILSC made the decision to close the NCIE down,” she told Honi.

The Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation is a federal body which acquires millions of dollars in land and sea assets for use by Indigenous communities. The ILSC bought the NCIE site in Redfern in 2010, with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council taking ownership in June of this year.

In a joint statement, the ILSC and the Land Council said they had worked in “good faith” to come to an agreement over the management of the centre.

“Unfortunately, we have not been able to reach an agreement on terms for ongoing support of the organisation, and as a result it will close,” the statement read.

“We are disappointed by the outcome and will work to support affected staff.”

The Aboriginal Land Council said it remains committed to working with stakeholders to ensure a smooth transition for offboarding staff, redistributing assets and offsetting programs.

Land Council chairperson, Dan Chapman, stressed that tenants of the NCIE’s facilities would still have limited access to the building prior to its closure.

“In the interim, the land council will work to provide community members with safe access to the centre’s fitness and aquatic centre,” he said.

But a project officer at Inner-Sydney Empowered Communities said no one from either the ILSC or the NSWALC has communicated this to stakeholders.

“Everyone is really worried and nobody has told us anything,” they said.

“This is the last bastion. We don’t want to be diluted out of here, too.”

The issue gained national attention last Tuesday following a statement from Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, who described the centre as “the beating heart of Redfern’s Aboriginal community.”

“I strongly encourage the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council to work together to find a solution,” she said on Twitter.

After an extensive social media campaign championed by local community organisation Redfern Youth Connect, hundreds of locals gathered in front of the NCIE last Wednesday to protest the centre’s closure, and to lobby the ILSC and NSWALC to reopen negotiations.

Aunty Margaret Haumono, co-founder and executive director of Redfern Youth Connect, described  the situation she and the community find themselves in is “devastating.”

“I’ve got kids asking me ‘Aunty Marg, where are we going to go? What are we going to do?’” she said.

“This place is not just a gym and a pool for us. This place is a meeting point.”

Aunty Marg was one of more than 400 people who came to the community centre on Wednesday demanding an inquiry into the closure.

“It’s disgusting, and we’re calling for an independent inquiry into the divestment process.”

Last Friday, there were scenes of overwhelming emotion, relief and cautious celebration as the NCIE’s immediate closure was averted due to government intervention. 

Linda Burney, along with Federal Minister Tanya Plibersek, announced that the centre had been granted a stay of execution, meaning that the centre would tenuously continue to operate while fraught negotiations between the ILSC and NSWALC reopened. 

“Here is the bottom line,” Burney said as she addressed rugby league players, boxers and wrestlers, community members, and tenants and staff at the centre. 

“I want to see the tenants who work out of NCIE given permanency … I want to see that this place stays open, and most importantly that people keep their jobs.

“Voices need to be heard on this and the fact that you’ve got so many people here, hundreds of people, is a very loud voice.

“It can’t be beyond people to sit down and negotiate in good faith because this joint is important.

“To the parties involved, get your act together and sort this out.”

This has been punctuated by a release from the ILSC last Saturday, which asserted that negotiations between the Commonwealth and the NSWALC had concluded, and an agreement had been reached as to the centre’s future. The NSWALC responded quickly with a release stating that no such agreement had been reached, and that the ILSC’s statement had been made without consultation or approval from any other stakeholders.

It seems, for the meantime at least, that the NCIE’s future will remain unknown. As the centre continues to operate some services to a reduced capacity and host demonstrations – such as the midday sit-in this Monday – tense negotiations continue as federal politicians and community stakeholders attempt to mediate discussions.

This will decidedly not be the last time Honi reports on this ongoing crisis in Redfern.

The Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation declined Honi’s request for comment.