Stories from 40 years of advocacy

By Robert Mowbray, Tenants' Union Project Officer for Older Tenants

Robert Mowbray
Robert Mowbray, Tenants' Union Project Officer for Older Tenants

Robert Mowbray was a founder of the TU and continues to be active in the movement for the rights of tenants through his work as the TU Older Tenants Project Officer and his work with residents of Miller's Point. In this article for Tenant News Robert recounts some his favourite stories from his years of activism.

An outside agitator

Late one evening one of my clients who lived in a country town was told by his neighbour that she had just overheard a telephone conversation ... and his landlord was coming next morning to demolish his house. The client rang me immediately. I sprang into action. I organised a solicitor to seek an injunction first thing next morning in the Land and Environment Court. The Minister’s office also was contacted. My wife and I arrived at the client’s house at the crack of dawn and rallied the neighbours. At 7.45 the landlord arrived with a bulldozer, several trucks and two security guards carrying guns. I ordered them off the premises, warning them of a raft of laws that they were about to breach. We called the police. The developer pulled back. We won a stay in the Land and Environment Court. It all ended up in the Court of Appeal five years later in the case of May v Ceedive. The police report on the incident states that Robert Mowbray ‘appeared to inflame the situation’ because he insisted ‘that police prevent action by [the landlord]’. This report then refers to Mr Mowbray as an ‘outside agitator’. Justice Murphy in Neal v The Queen, High Court 1982, said of the defendant: ‘If he is an agitator, he is in good company. Many of the great figures of history have been agitators, and human progress owes much to the efforts of these and many who are unknown.’

Sub-tenant and landlord, both winners

With great relish I served a Notice to Quit on a tenant … on behalf of his sub-tenant. The landlord had walked into the office of a real estate agent who agreed to manage his property. But, instead of entering into a management agreement, the real estate agent signed a tenancy agreement himself. And then promptly sub-let it to my client at a substantially higher rent – much more than the rent that he was paying to the landlord. Subsequently, my client found out that his landlord owned the corner shop and they got to talking about the property. The landlord was aghast to hear what the tenant was paying. So, I agreed to serve a Notice to Quit on his tenant – the real estate agent – and negotiated a new tenancy agreement between the landlord and my client, with the landlord collecting an increased rent and my client paying a lower rent.  The sub-tenant and landlord, both winners!

Unorthodoxy

Housing NSW wanted to sell a tenant’s house, because it was seen as too good for social housing. (Read: Housing NSW could sell it for lots of money because it had appreciated greatly in value.) Neighbours rallied in support of the tenant. She was the only social housing tenant in the street. They signed petitions and lobbied the local MP. I wrote many letters. Housing NSW was not moved. Finally, I wrote directly to the Director saying that I was coming to his office, picking him up and driving him to the tenant’s house, so that he could explain why they wanted to evict her. My letter was passed down the chain and halfway through a subsequent telephone conversation with the Area Manager I said: ‘You’re not going to evict the tenant, are you?’ He replied ‘No’.

A crossed telephone line

In the late 1970s Andrew Refshauge, then a doctor with the Aboriginal Medical Services (and later Deputy Premier in a NSW Labor Government), referred a single mum to my service. He was concerned about one of his clients being very depressed and he realised why – it was her appalling housing situation. It was clear that she was being exploited by an unscrupulous landlord. We organised for ABC TV’s ‘This Day Tonight’ program to film at her place. That night, the wife of the producer of 'This Day Tonight' picked up her telephone to call a friend and got a crossed line. And it happened to be the caretaker of the building talking to the landlady. The producer’s wife had been watching 'This Day Tonight' and recognised what they were talking about. One of the things they said was, 'Well, whatever you do, don't let anyone find out about the old couple upstairs.' So she then relayed that conversation to me at South Sydney Community Aid and we pursued how this couple was being ripped off. The tenant who was filmed eventually was rehoused rent free by a landlord who had watched the program.

Accidental counsellor

Sometimes tenant advocates find themselves in the role of ‘accidental counsellor’. I received a call on the Tenants’ Hotline from a distressed person. A not-unusual share housing situation where good friends had fallen out. I found myself giving advice on techniques for calming down when you feel like throttling your flatmate! I said: ‘Imagine their pants are on fire, their teeth are falling out, their hair is turning green …’ ‘Oops’, I said, ‘you said you live in Newtown. Perhaps their hair is green’. The caller replied ‘Yes’.