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Public Submission

Lucinda Watson - 17 February 2014

I welcome the Commissioner’s comments in his opening address of this inquiry  “These assets don’t belong to any Government…they are only the custodians, the real owners are the people of the NT”.

It is imperative that this site is allocated to a Community group(s) in the NT and could be granted as a perpetual lease as an opportunity to finally do what is right for the wellbeing of Territorians.

It is without doubt, that until the “Apostleship of the Sea” forfeited their lease on the Stella Maris site, it was well utilised by the Community.  Many Seafarers were accommodated and cared for.  The Stella Maris or ‘Stella’s’ as it was known, was also well cared for by subsequent caretakers.

Sea Farers were given what was seen as a haven.  There were both men and women whom needed usually a short term place to stay.  It was a good place to stay and not prejudice or racist. It was affordable and easy.  In short, Stella Maris Hostel was fulfilling it’s purpose.

Recently, the new East Arm Port Seafarers Centre was opened. The Chief Minister opened the new Community service and said “To have a centre to support the wellbeing of our maritime workers is important, without them our maritime industry would just cease to exist.”

How right our Chief Minister was.  This is what the Stella Maris in the CBD had been doing for decades.  The number of seafarers who utilised the centre and stayed in the accommodation in those decades is not available.  The church account for the rentals payed to them may give some indication of usage.  Father Fyffe of the leaseholder ‘Apostleship of the Sea’ claimed that Stella Maris was financially unsustainable for 2 years before it’s demise.  But there were so many positive outcomes for seafarers, most of which Father Fyffe and the Church were probably not aware.

The Stella Maris Seafarers Centre in central Darwin had operated since 1957 (Green Left Weekly November 24, 2004) This article quoted the then Chair of the Darwin Port Welfare Committee Brian Manning.  Mr Manning played a pivotal role in the welfare of seafarers and indeed a strong role in the Unions for decades.  The continuation of the Unions role in the Stella Maris was obvious through the continued dedicated work of Brian Manning.

Most seafarers who stayed Stella Maris belonged to a Union too, but it was a place that became a meeting place for those in one Union or another.  But the caretaker role of the Stella Maris was never given to the Unions, but they did harbour the place well.  The Catholic Church didn’t see eye to eye with all the Unionists but from what I recall, those Unionists who prioritised the welfare of seafarers were acting a great deal more Christian than members of the Church……

The Watson family were placed as caretakers late in the lease and until it’s demise.

My Sisters Linda and Jessie Watson were caretakers for 2 years. They stayed in the old railway house and the seafarers in the other accommodation block.  The caretaker role was simply making sure the seafarers had a safe place to stay on their short stay and keeping the site tidy, rubbish removed and the lawns mowed.   They still paid rent. The Church provided a chaplain who was never seen and the caretakers kept an eye out for those coming in from sea. It worked so well.  It was what  a Community run centre is all about.

So there can be no denial of the fact that the seafarers were looked after in a Communal way for decades until the ‘Apostleship of the sea” committee stopped the Stella Maris operating.

Some years earlier, the ‘Apostleship of the sea’ had leased out the club and either ended their lease or something, as word had it that drugs were found at the club. But this was to the detriment of the Stella Maris as the club was closed permanently.  After that, the church and in particular Father Fyffe seemed to have lost interest then in the welfare of both the sea farers and the caretakers.

Abruptly one morning, Father Fyffe turned up to announce that everyone had to go. Father Fyffe started threatening both the caretakers and the seafarers and they were all told to remove their belongings.  Surprisingly, there was very little protest as everyone was in shock.  But Father Fyffe didn’t stop and shouted  “do you know who I am?” He was finally put in his place then and told to ‘start acting like a priest instead of a prick’.  It was a very non Christian day and a sad day for Darwin.
Since then, the house was restored incorrectly to some strange era and the club boarded up and grass uncut for long periods.

But by 2012 it was fairly common knowledge that Unions NT had been working on a plan for the Stella Maris site.  As a Community stakeholder, I looked up the plans online and felt  happy that the plans appeared communal and inviting.  It was a centre run by Unions NT but appeared to be inviting to other Community organisations.  The proposal stated that future grants ‘could be obtained for much of the work if the focus of the site was to provide services to seamen, union members, and community organisations.’   This sounded like a winner.

It is also likely to have deterred other established organisations from formally applying for the site.

As an owner of the Stella Maris Communal asset, I thank the Commissioner for his time.

Lucinda Watson