Working class hero Myra Demetriou fought for her home and the history of the working class to stay in the heart of Sydney

Myra Demetriou fought not just for her home, but for the history of the working class to stay in the heart of Sydney with her local member Tanya Plibersek standing beside her in solidarity. Here is their story

I had to ask her then. I had to ask Tanya Plibersek, a senior member in the Australian Labor Party, what was it about talking about Myra Demetriou that made her cry.

“She was just a completely decent person,” Ms Plibersek starts, “generous and loving to the people around her. And fun,” she says, stopping thoughtfully, “she was so much fun and mischievous.”

“Just a great human being.”

When I read about Myra Demetriou’s death this week, I was upset. I had been talking about the campaign Save our Sirius just a fortnight ago with my family. This story inspired me. It was one of those true Australian underdog stories filled with grit and determination, but was always fair and compassionate. It was one of those stories that you think ‘if only they could see this, for what it is, they would understand.’

By ‘they’ I mean the Morrison Government, and by ‘understand’ I mean finally fight for fairness and the working class; to appreciate diversity, to work with it not against it, and to really understand that those that have experienced hardships can use their struggle for better.

“Myra always used her life experiences, including the hardest times to inform her fight for fairness for others,” says Ms Plibersek about her long-time friend.

“She always stood up for fairness and was the first to stand up for others.”

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For those who don’t know the story of Myra Demetriou – let me give you the Cliff’s notes version. For a start, she’s not Greek – even though everyone thought she was.

Myra married Nick Demetriou, hence her surname. He was 11 years her senior and a little shorter; he was Cypriot and knew little English and they met at ballroom dancing. She described Nick as a ‘bit naughty’. Together they had two children and with their family, they rented a place from the Maritime Services Board, Nick ran the shop downstairs and Myra ran the household with the bedrooms above. Business was thriving because the Balmain ferry would dock close to the shop.

Then, overnight, an arbitrary decision to change where the ferries docked saw their business collapse.

“It was those decisions – the idea that a government body or a distant bureaucrat can make that could completely change your life was a familiar hardship for her,” explains Ms Plibersek.

It happened first early on in her life when she was trying to raise a family, the shop was run out of business, and then with her fight to stay in the Sirius building.

“It is sad and frustrating that she had had these two terrible experiences,” says Ms Plibersek adding, “but it also informed her politics, her compassion for other people, her determination to work with her community, to stand up to that arbitrary decision that gave her enormous strength.”

Ms Plibersek remembers first meeting Myra Demetriou – a stalwart in the Labor movement – in the early 1990s. She knew her from branch meetings and from the community, but it was when she stood for preselection for the seat of Sydney, a seat she’s held since 1998, did she get to really know her.

“I remember visiting her at her home and asking her for her vote as the candidate for Sydney.

“She was very encouraging and very determined that it was a woman who took over from Peter Baldwin. She was always supportive of women like that.”

When I asked Ms Plibersek what advice Myra gave her then as a young candidate who – unbeknownst to her was about to start on an important and successful political career – she said:

“Myra was very clear that it was the job of a local member to look after the least powerful people, it was the job of a Labor Member of Parliament to stand up for the most disadvantaged and that’s what she expected.”

This local member has gone on to represent her community in Ministerial roles in crucial portfolio’s such as Health; Housing and Human Services, but always at the back of her mind was the advice from Myra.

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There’s an unwritten rule as to why people enter politics – someone or something becomes your consciousness. Ms Plibersek credits Myra. When making a political decision, one that would impact the lives of Australians, she refers to Myra – could she explain it to Myra, would Myra understand? If that’s her benchmark, we can only wish other politicians would follow suit because if they did, we would indeed once again be the ‘Lucky Country’.

“People that I admire like Rosie Batty and Grace Tame – they take the worst and most difficult things that have happened to them and they use it to power something better for everybody else, they think no one should suffer like I’ve suffered.”

“That was Myra – she was the first to stand up for others and always stood up for fairness.”

In 2014, the then State Government announced that it was going to sell the Sirius building – a social housing building that had the best views of Sydney harbour and was Myra’s home – and the money from the sale would go to building public housing elsewhere. There was public outcry, marches, protests, but as quickly there were eviction notices, and as everyone moved out. Myra stayed.

“With Myra, it was never about me – I want to live here, I like it here. It was this place; this community should have working class people in it.

“This building was built as public housing and it should stay that way and our city should be diverse, it shouldn’t be that only rich people can afford to live in the city.”

“The Millers Point; Dawes Point and Rocks community really represented another period in Sydney’s history; in Australia’s history, and one of the amazing things about this is we had a truly working-class community right in the heart of our city.”

And this is why Myra fought for Sirius. It was never about her, but a reminder of who was there before, why they were there and what they meant for the history of the city, but even more so the country.

Myra always fought for her community. Ms Plibersek remembers Myra standing in solidarity with her when Millers Points Post Office was to be closed, “she was there with me every Saturday getting petitions signed, making sure the media knew about it”.

“If there was any work to be done in the community, you could always count on her to help.”

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Sirius Public Housing Block resident Myra Demetriou, the last resident to forced out of the apartment block at the Rocks. Photo: AAP/Ben Rushton

Myra cared for her community – she nurtured them.

“She was the sort of person that made a suburb into a community… she was a helping hand to her neighbours, the first person to volunteer, to cook them a meal, or bake scones for a charity drive.

“The public housing tenants really looked after each other and supported each other – it was a community in the heart of our city, and she was the heartbeat.”

Myra was born of a different era – a working class era, and she wanted to ensure that history was present in the cultural heart of Sydney. In the same way my mum talks about the old days of Fitzroy , Brunswick and Collingwood in Victoria and my dad talked about Thebarton and Mile End in Adelaide, Myra saw the working class history of the community of Sydney being eradicated and she fought to preserve it.

“There is this common thread in the Greek community – because you have so many post war migrants who really did it tough when they came to Australia – they know how important it is to work hard, to save money, look after your family,” says the former Deputy Leader of the Labor Party.

“But they also know there is so much of life that is just about chance and if you have the opportunity to help someone who is down, you should take it because it could be you tomorrow.”

That’s what sits with me and just lingers – ‘it could be you tomorrow’. And that’s what I’m certain has driven me.

Right now, we are living in a topsy turvy world; one that is made up of decisions out of our control determining where we can go, who we can see, and when. We have seen the disadvantaged fall further behind, we have seen the pandemic cause job losses, and keep families apart in times of need.

But it has also made us all stop and think about what is really important. Whatever side of politics you sit on, it has been refreshing to hear from one of Australia’s political leaders talk about decency and the importance of being a good person. And it’s refreshing to know that Myra Demetriou’s legacy will continue to inspire.

“Myra’s response to hardship was not to curl up in a ball and be overwhelmed by it or to become bitter and hostile to the world, but to use that hardship and it strengthened her resolve to make the world better.”

“She was the living embodiment of Australians who had lived through tough times. And it hadn’t made them bitter or selfish – it made them compassionate, generous and loving to the people around them.

“And that wasn’t just their immediate friends and family they were compassionate to, it was strangers.

“People who’ve really been through tough times know the value of kindness from a stranger.”

Thank you for reminding us Myra.