Senator Lee Rhiannon – speech regarding a constituent’s time spent in Palestine with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI)

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
March 28, 2017

I congratulate Aletia Dundas for her work monitoring human rights violations by Israeli settlers and the military, and for providing protective accompaniment to Palestinians harassed because of the Israeli military occupation.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:14): Between November 2016 and February 2017, Australian Aletia Dundas was based in the southern Hebron Hills of Palestine, serving as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, a project of the World Council of Churches. She and her team monitored human rights abuses and provided protective accompaniment to Palestinian schoolchildren, workers and activists who faced the threat of violence or harassment as a result of Israel’s military occupation.

The following are Aletia’s reflections on her time in occupied Palestine:

Each Saturday morning we would accompany and observe local nonviolent land actions. These actions were usually organised by Palestinian activists who were joined by sympathetic Israeli activists, and a small group of internationals. Operation Dove, Ta’ayush and Christian Peacemaker Teams are some of the organisations that we work with. Operation Dove is an Italian peace organisation also offering protective presence to people affected by the military occupation. Ta’ayush is an Israeli-Palestinian human rights organisation that works for an end to the occupation through nonviolent direct action. Christian Peacemaker Teams is also committed to nonviolence and provides protective presence in Hebron and the surrounding areas.

As the sun beat down on the hillsides south of Hebron, a cheerful and determined band of residents headed off to plant a tree on their agricultural land a short distance from the Palestinian village of At Tuwani. Followed closely behind by a group of internationals and Israeli activists, they marched along the side of the hill holding olive seedlings, gardening equipment and flags. At the chosen spot some began to dig a suitable hole while a couple of women fixed a banner which said ‘Women for freedom of movement’ to a fence nearby.

I asked one of the Israeli activists from Ta’ayush what sort of difficulties they face when they participate in such actions. He told me that their car will often be stopped on the road as they travel from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and the Israeli soldiers will look for any possible reason to detain them. They have been arrested and questioned multiple times during land actions. Palestinians pay an even higher price for engagement in activism, and are subject to military courts rather than civilian. The role of Israelis who condemn the occupation and abuses of human rights is also important. The cost of nonviolent activism for all is high in a context like this.

Glancing behind this group, a short way up the hill I notice a few settlers beginning to gather by a small shed. These settlers live in an outpost near to the Jewish settlement called Ma’on. Both the Ma’on settlement and the nearby outpost encroach upon the land that belongs to the residents of At Tuwani. Settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law. The outposts are too. Outposts were illegal under Israeli law until very recently. And yet, these settlers were clearly unsettled by the presence of a cheerful and harmless group of predominantly women and children standing up for their rights. So they called in the Israeli army for backup.

Within minutes six army jeeps, a police car and the civil administration vehicle arrived at the scene and surrounded our group, which was about 30 strong at the most. When the army first arrived, it wasn’t clear what they would do. Eventually, they did the only thing they could legally do, which was to declare the area a closed military zone. Some of the soldiers were young men and women, aged still in their teens, who seemed hesitant and afraid. They briefly detained one Israeli man from Ta’ayush and ushered the rest of us back to At Tuwani.

But the action wasn’t over. Reports came through that a group of about 30 settlers had entered the Palestinian village of At Tuwani. They were singing loudly and trespassing in various Palestinian homes. In a very relaxed way, and only because so many internationals were there as witnesses, the army encouraged the settlers to leave. None of them were detained or arrested as far as we know, and the tension was eventually dissolved.

This situation led me to reflect on the conditions needed to achieve justice through nonviolent means. Olive tree planting is such a beautiful metaphor. While olive branches have come to be understood as an international symbol of peace and conciliation, they also represent the homelands and livelihoods that are under threat while settlements continue to expand onto Palestinian land and while the military occupation continues. Planting more olive trees, and doing so on land that has been stolen, is an act of strength, resistance and summud (steadfast perseverance). While the Palestinians were the ones planting the trees, this tiny act of resistance would not have been possible without the witness and solidarity offered by Israeli and international friends.

I congratulate Aletia Dundas for her work monitoring human rights violations by Israeli settlers and the military, and for providing protective accompaniment to Palestinians harassed because of the Israeli military occupation.

On another matter, when it comes to the housing crisis it is clear that young people are getting done over. It was not so long ago that houses were recognised as homes for people, but now they are increasingly commodities to make money from. A generation ago you only needed three or four times your annual income to buy a home; now it is more like 10 times in our big capital cities. Government used to intervene into the market to ensure homes for all, but it is now a cutthroat world with millions in housing related stress.

There is clearly a generational divide, but we must remember that many older people are also doing it very tough. In particular, owing to the sexist nature of our workplaces and retirement benefit schemes, older women are increasingly being left without a secure, affordable home. Just remember these figures: 105,000 Australians face homelessness every night and over 40 per cent of these are women. Fifty-five per cent of homeless women are fleeing domestic violence.

Last year, the government threatened to cut the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. Thanks to the tireless work of housing campaigners, including an open letter signed by 209 major charities and frontline services, it was saved for another year. A cut would have impacted some of the most vulnerable people in our community. Unless the NPAH is extended and increased we will see more people living on the streets, more women facing family violence and sexual assault alone, fewer young people going to school, higher unemployment and more admissions to emergency departments. All these things are connected. Not spending enough on homelessness is particularly harmful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, who disproportionately experience both family violence and homelessness.

Why are so many women finding themselves homeless? The issue is of course complex. However, there are two major reasons why this has become a major crisis. Housing has become a commodity in international financial markets. House prices continue to escalate in major urban centres. Housing has become unaffordable for the average resident. The Liberal-National government argues that the solution is to increase the stock of housing. Developers and investors, including foreign investors, are being encouraged to build more housing, with tax breaks to encourage this. But in fact, according to a recent UN report a significant portion of investor owned homes are simply left empty—for example, one report estimates that 82,000, or about one-fifth, of investor owned units in Melbourne are unoccupied. In such markets the value of housing is no longer based on its social use. Properties are equally valuable to these people regardless of whether they are vacant or occupied. They are built with the intention of lying empty and accumulating value, realised thanks to the unfair tax breaks on capital gains. Developers and speculators are likely to replace affordable housing that is needed locally with luxury housing that sits vacant because that is how best to turn a profit quickly.

This goes to the heart of why there is the housing crisis that we have today. United Nations special rapporteur for housing Leilani Farha said it best in her recent report:

Housing has … become a financial commodity, robbed of its connection to community, dignity and the idea of home.

Women and children are most vulnerable to this disconnection. There are many reasons for this, all embedded in an unjust patriarchal society that privileges male control over female human rights. For example, women are still more likely to have low-paid, part-time, insecure jobs. As single mothers, women have less opportunity to find suitable employment. When domestic violence occurs, women are often forced to flee and often lose the family home. Domestic assault in NSW has risen from a rate of 257 per 100,000 people in 1995, reaching a high of 400 incidents per 100,000 people in 2014. Similarly, reports of family violence incidents in Victoria have increased steadily since 2010-11, with an 8.8 per cent increase from 2013-14 to the following financial year.

The private rental market is also becoming increasingly unaffordable. This also creates gender segregation. In Australia, average-income single female workers can afford to live in only one suburb of Melbourne and cannot afford to live anywhere in Sydney. Older women are even more vulnerable to extreme poverty and homelessness,. They are more likely than men to experience discrimination during their lifetime of employment, are very likely to spend much of their retirement years living alone, have relatively little access to superannuation and are likely to experience severe poverty in their old age. Indeed, one study found that 51 per cent of older women over 85 live in or near poverty. Older women, especially those living alone, become particularly vulnerable to homelessness if they are in the private rental market and dependent on the pension. The number of older women renting in the private rental market is increasing, from 91,000 in the 2006 census to 135,000 in 2011. The vulnerability increases in the case of a medical crisis or a chronic medical condition, as successive governments have cut Medicare down to the bone. According to a new report from the Mercy Foundation, women older than 55 are being squeezed out of the private rental market in Melbourne as real estate prices continue to rise. As a result, more older middle-class women are being exposed to homelessness, especially those who have led traditional roles raising a family.

Adequate housing must be seen as a human right. It is not a commodity. Older women—our mums, our grandmothers, our aunties—are increasingly vulnerable to homelessness. We are now in a major social crisis, and it will get worse if we do nothing. Governments must intervene to revitalise public housing and take on the real estate speculators and big banks. We owe it to those women to reclaim housing as a right and a social good.

On another matter, a troubling issue has arisen in the Manly Dam catchment area in the northern suburbs of Sydney. Seventeen years ago, several hectares of heritage listed bushland in the headwaters of the Manly Dam catchment were bulldozed in an act of overdevelopment and unnecessary urban sprawl. We are once again seeing an assault on this critical public land, this time, heartbreakingly, to expand a school that was once lauded as a model for environmental education. The bushland identified for the expansion currently serves as both a treasured green space for Manly residents and a home to many threatened species, including the eastern pygmy possum, the powerful owl, the eastern bent-wing bat, the grey-headed flying fox and the swamp wallaby.

It is unacceptable that a rethink of the entire plan was not undertaken by the relevant New South Wales environment and education departments. It is possible to ensure adequate space for the school’s expansion without destroying valuable public land that has already suffered from overdevelopment. The Greens’ New South Wales spokesperson on the environment, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, has met with members of the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee, and together they are calling on the government to permanently protect this land. I recently had the opportunity to visit this area with the Greens’ parliamentary leader, Richard Di Natale, and the Greens’ New South Wales planning spokesperson, David Shoebridge. We met the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee. They briefed us and provided us with the most stunning bushwalk, and it all provided a powerful reminder of why this area should be protected.

I first became acquainted with Manly Dam in 2000. At the time, the New South Wales government had put land in trust to the Spastic Centre of New South Wales. It was rezoned by the Warringah council to allow medium density, and it was then sold to Ardel, which then proceeded to overdevelop the area—a classic case of the problems with Sydney’s planning laws.

In June 2000, many locals, members of the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee and supporters like me stood together in acts of civil disobedience opposing this overdevelopment that was damaging the urban bushland that is unique in this area. For many days, at the crack of dawn, we would gather and greet the bulldozers. On 16 June, I was arrested along with five others. It was a story that I took into the New South Wales parliament, where I was a member at the time. At our arrest there were 40 people on site. Not long afterwards, hundreds of people rallied at the site in a last-ditch effort to save the land. Sadly, however, much of that area was destroyed by the bulldozers.

Today, once again, the bushland in the Manly catchment is under threat as a result of poor planning. Sadly, this time, as I said, it is in the name of public education, but that is a totally false construct. The choice between the environment and public education is a manufactured problem. It is a false trade-off. Greens are strong supporters of equipping our public education system, our teachers and administrators with the resources they need to provide world-class education to all children. Financing and building high-quality infrastructure underpin the achievement of this goal. But there should be no false dichotomy between education and the environment. Instead of pursuing innovative solutions in the planning process to find space for 1,000 pupils without destroying the precious bushland, the planners have reverted to 1950s-style chop-it-down planning.

The most recent approval for land clearing around the school completely flies in the face of the values of this great community, as articulated by the former principal, David Tribe. In 1989, Manly Vale Public School was designated a centre of excellence in environmental education. Principal Tribe’s contribution was outstanding. So many Manly residents that I have met understand that excellent public education and protecting our environment go hand in hand. I congratulate members of the Manly Vale school community and the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee for all that they have done to resolve this situation and to protect the community’s land.

The Greens support the call for the remaining public land in the catchment of the Manly Warringah War Memorial Park to be protected either as a nature reserve or by adding it to the Garigal National Park. This level of protection is warranted considering the environmental diversity of this land and to remove the threat it is under.

Poor New South Wales planning laws are causing the destruction of the last remaining bushland found within too many suburbs of Sydney. Our urban bushland should be protected. Manly Dam bushland is one of these areas. It should be preserved for future generations and for the many species that are part of the rich biodiversity of this area. To achieve that, we need to recast the planning laws in New South Wales and also ensure that the political donations from developers are not allowed to pollute the democracy of that state.

Link to parliamentary Hansard