The forgotten people: Howard on Menzies

Robert Menzies with factory workers at Birmingham, England in 1941. Photo:

On Saturday afternoon I turned on the TV to catch up with world news. The dial was set to ABC and as the TV flicked into life I realised I had tuned into a repeat of the earlier episode of Howard On Menzies. It didn’t take me long to forget about world news and become engrossed in what I was watching. Having enjoyed that, I lapped up the final episode last night. Howard wasn’t a bad interviewer, I decided, and had access to an A-list of talent. The subtitle of the documentary was Building Modern Australia, and that was John Howard’s theme, that Robert Gordon Menzies had ruled Australia for so long we could talk of a “Menzies era” inexorably shaping the country as it glided through the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s.

The ideas in the television show (and let’s remember that is what it was, a “show”) come from Howard’s monumental 700-page biography The Menzies Era: The years that shaped modern Australia. Howard says historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested he (Howard) was ideally placed to write the biography of Menzies “from a political perspective” as another long-term leader from the same party. Howard says the era of Menzies lasted from 1949 to 1972, as the three Liberal prime ministers that followed him were all served as ministers in the Menzies government.

Menzies was a towering figure in Australian politics throughout the centre of the 20th century and his influence began well before 1949. Menzies was a brilliant intellectual who would have succeeded in whatever career path he chose. Born in a small country town (an upbringing he was proud of, but quietly escaped) he served a political apprenticeship in the Victorian parliament and was a stellar barrister. Former judge Michael Kirby told Howard that Menzies would have certainly ended up on the High Court had he continued in law. But he gravitated towards federal politics in the 1930s where he found an easy fit as attorney-general in Lyons’ UAP government.

In 1935 he went to England, which began a lifelong affair with the country and its institutions. “One realises that a Parliament for England is something growing from the very roots of English soil”, he wrote. For Menzies “home” was Britain, though that was not to disparage his native Australia, which he saw as a British appendage. Menzies was in the constant public eye as AG, earning the nickname Pig Iron Bob for his firm stand when he clamped down on workers who refused to load boats carrying iron ore for Japan.

When Lyons died in 1939, Menzies was the obvious replacement. Though he had resigned from the ministry in a dispute with the Country Party over the national insurance bill, Menzies was sworn in as UAP prime minister. Ongoing hostility from Labor and the Country Party left Menzies vulnerable and he did not help his cause by spending much of the early war years in Britain. Britain was where the action was, and where Menzies wanted to be, but he neglected his power base. An ungrateful Australia booted him out of office in 1941.

Left to stew in his juices in a backwater while the affairs of the world went on without him, Menzies did a root and branch investigation into what power really meant to him. The start of his political renaissance is charted by his best biographer Judith Brett in her analysis of a series of radio speeches beginning in 1942 called The Forgotten Years. Then a backbencher, ‘The Forgotten People’ is Robert Menzies’ appeal to the Australian middle class, whom he saw as the moral backbone of the society. “proud, scrupulous, thrifty and modest.” The middle class lived outside the public sphere and centred their lives on their homes. Menzies imagined them as independent citizens exercising their judgment as to what is best for the nation as a whole. These views struck a powerful note with their intended audience and were to ground his future political success.

The occupations they had were “salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”. Menzies believed that no party spoke for these people and set about creating his own as he sat out the war. His new Liberal Party was smashed in the 1946 election but the time was right in 1949. By then the electorate had enough of Labor’s post-war austerity and wanted something new to believe it. The times were right for Menzies.

Menzies had a lot of luck in his following career. In 1954 he was on the nose until he used the Petrov Affair to whip up the fear of communism. The Labor party split of 1955 put it out of action for the rest of the decade, yet Arthur Calwell almost snatched government in 1961, Menzies winning by one seat. Menzies’ final victory in 1964 was a triumph as he used Labor sectarianism to push through popular reforms in education, snatching much of their Catholic vote in the process. He retired in glory on Australia Day 1966 handing over power to Harold Holt.

Hated and despised by Labor in equal measure, it wasn’t until another towering intellect came along in Gough Whitlam, that Menzies’ ghost could be exorcised. And it took another Labor genius Paul Keating to read the last rites. Howard tries to get us to look at Menzies in a new light, but with Howard being in Menzies own image, perhaps is fatally undermined in that task.

But as a gripping sequence between Howard and Bob Hawke reminds us, Menzies’ longevity in power is extraordinary in a democracy and questions need to be asked about he survived so long. Luck played a large part as did his ability to turn world affairs to his account. The quality of his opposition was poor, Labor being even more conservative and set in their ways than Menzies was. And the power of his personality made him the dominant figure in his own party making sure that there would be no night of the long knives from within. His patrician bearing could never make him a man of the people and he failed in his personal quest to ban Communism. But he was always a political survivor. As Barry Humphries said “no one liked him except the electorate”.  

Howard On Menzies teased out many of those issues, as it was about Howard as much as it was about Menzies. Menzies’ success was based on “quiet prosperity” which is an oxymoron today, and probably was in Menzies’ time, predicated by hiding behind tariff walls, picket fences and whitewashed history. There was no doubt the people Menzies appealed to were hard-working and decent and Howard tried to tap into them to guarantee his own long term survival. But by the late 20th century the walls were crumbling and despite Howard’s dictum of “we will decide who comes to this country”, he could not keep his Australia as white and pure as Menzies’ Australia.

As I said, Howard had a stellar list of Australian greats ready to give their fascinating tuppence worth on Menzies. But one of Menzies’ key lessons was missed in the program. As he sat out the war, he realised an important electoral demographic was women, and he spoke to their needs. But Judith Brett aside, they were largely absent from Howard on Menzies. They remained the forgotten people.

On John Mulvaney and Indigenous antiquity

John Mulvaney (right) at Lake Mungo in the early 1970s. National Archives of Australia A6180,23/8/74/3

There were two bits of intertwining news yesterday, one exciting, one sad. The exciting news was that a study of Indigenous Australian DNA dated their origins to more than 50,000 years making them the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth. The sad news was the death of a man who did more than most to place the Aboriginal context in deep time: John Mulvaney, aged 90.


Aboriginal Australia lacked a written language which made it inscrutable to historians, making it easier to write them out of the history. It took experts from other disciplines such as archeologists like Mulvaney, anthropologists like Bill Stanner and ethnographers like Deborah Rose Bird to make sense of the texts that were available and create a new history for Australia that was 50,000 years old not 230 years.

Over ten years ago another geneticist Spencer Wells found proof that humans travelled from Africa to Australia and not vice versa when he found Australian Aboriginal blood has DNA mutations, or markers, from Africa that are 50,000 years old, but no African tribes have Australian markers. He also found genetic data which shows humans travelled along the south Asian coastline (at a time when sea-levels were low) before reaching Australia. The new study by geneticists that also traced the DNA journey from Africa to Australia would have been no surprise to Mulvaney. He made the astonishing discovery that although Africa was the wellspring of humanity, the earliest signs of human evolution outside Africa are in western New South Wales.

At the time sea levels were lower than at present and mainland Australia was part of the mega continent of Sahul with New Guinea and Tasmania. There is evidence to suggest humans were here at least 50 kya (thousand years ago).  The earliest direct age for human occupation of Australia is between 50 and 60 kya for stone tools at Malakunanja and Nauwalabila rock shelters in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Humans quickly fanned across the continent.Given we have seen rabbits spread across Australia in a century, it is not unreasonable to believe the human invasion happened in a similar timeframe. The spread would have been aided by great herbivore trails that crossed the land linking watering and feeding sites. Stone artefacts have been found at Devil’s Lair, a single-chamber cave area, near the south-west tip of Western Australia which date to 48kya.

The oldest human remains are found in western New South Wales at Lake Mungo (Willandra Lakes). A near complete skeleton was found in 1974 sprinkled with powdered red ochre before the grave was filled in. In 1999 paleoanthropologist Alan Thorne said the Lake Mungo 3 skeleton is 62kya plus or minus 6000. However later research in the Nature journal said humans had been present at Lake Mungo no earlier than 50kya and no later than 46 kya while the skeleton itself dated to 45-42 kya. 

Mulvaney was one of the first archaeologists to realise the significance of the find. He had gone on a scholarship in the 1950s to Cambridge to study pre-history and had urged the need for preservation of cultural materials in museums and legislation to protect important sites. He used the new science of carbon dating to push back the known dates of human existence in Australia, first to 13 kya, then eclipsed by others to 20 kya, 30 kya and beyond. And it was he who had carefully packed the Lake Mungo skeleton into a suitcase to take to the National Museum of Australia. 

The Lake Mungo finds put Australia on the world map of pre-history. Use of ochre for paint and grindstones for pulverising plant food were skills humans learned in Africa and brought to Australia. From about 60-43kya Lake Mungo was full of freshwater and the land was green and lush but the newcomers had to adapt to climate stress. Australia was an ancient land with low fertility, poor soil quality and a low energy ecology. At Kow Swamp in Victoria a population of humans dating to 22-19 kya lived by Kow Lake shore in a period of glacial advance in the Southern Highlands until their shellfish population died out and they moved on.

Mulvaney was instrumental in getting Kakadu and Lake Mungo added to the World Heritage List (and had helped develop the criteria for that list in the 1970s.) The discovery at Lake Mungo showed the power of the site to represent archaeology’s resonance in society and the broader cultural meaning of antiquity. It also helped the political ambitions of Indigenous Australians when they could point to this astonishing connection with deep time.

The new genetic findings, based on a new population analysis of 83 Indigenous Australians and 25 Papuans, shows these groups can trace their origins back 50 kya and they remained almost entirely isolated until 4kya. I said these findings would not have been a surprise to Mulvaney. Nor are they a surprise to Indigenous Australians. Larissa Behrendt said they confirmed what was in the oral history (another form of history mostly ignored in the western written tradition). Behrendt said Aboriginal culture and traditions were often viewed through a Eurocentric gaze that failed to see the rich historical wisdom in its values and teachings.”Cultural stories were often illustrated for children without looking for deeper meanings and codes,” Behrendt said. “These stories didn’t just tell a tale of how the echidna got its spikes, they contained – like parables in the bible – a set of messages about the importance of sharing resources in a hunter-gatherer society and the consequences of selfishness.”

What Behrendt is talking about is the dismantling of the racial discourse of white Australia and its near-sighted notions of superiority. What Mulvaney found was that pre-history and its awesome timescale was uniquely qualified to make that discourse irrelevant. In an attention economy-dominated society where a week is a long time in politics, fame lasts 15 minutes and soundbytes eight seconds, the deep timescale of Indigenous Australia cannot be discussed enough.





Remembering William S Burroughs

william-s-burroughs-2Some 20 years after his death William S Burroughs still has the power to keep media writing about him. This week The News Hub recounted the story of how Burroughs was arrested in France in 1959 for importing opiates into the country but he was released after trial. The reason? “Burroughs was excused and given a suspended sentence because his work ‘The Naked Lunch’ was considered to have too much artistic value to leave the man rotting in a Paris prison.” The French appreciated Burrough’s debauched writings, while his native America was “too caught up in (its) Protestant predispositions to appreciate a great artist.”

The story is true, but it does underestimate Burroughs’ intrinsic American-ness. In his biography “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him” author Graham Caveny said Burroughs was “as American as the electric chair”. William Burroughs was the grandson of William Seward Burroughs I who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company. In 1885 the elder Burroughs invented and patented the first workable adding and listing machine in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandson William Seward Burroughs II was born in that city 29 years later in 1914 just as Europe was about to go to war. His father Mortimer Perry had no desire to join the family business and ran an antique shop. But the family wealth gave young William a good education.

He went to his namesake John Burroughs school in St Louis. There was no relation nor was there an affinity and Burroughs the boy left Burroughs the school without a graduation. He was sent to the private Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in New Mexico. In this rustic scout-like setting, Burroughs discovered sex and drugs. He was gay but he was expelled for taking chloral hydrate, a sedative drug used for insomnia. Disgraced and back in St Louis he kept his head down long enough to finish high school and enrolled for Harvard.

He arrived there in 1932 at the bottom of the depression. There were 25 million unemployed and the US was deep in debt. He seemed to buckle down and got himself an arts degree in four years. 1936 was the cue for the Grand Tour of Europe. In Europe he found homosexual freedom he could not find in the US. Nonetheless, he married Austrian Jew Ilse Klapper who needed an American visa to flee the Nazis. Ilse was living in London and her visa was about to expire when Burroughs saved her life. They married in Athens and then separated. She lived in New York until the end of the war and divorced Burroughs before settling in Zurich. They always remained friends.

Burroughs returned alone to St Louis. His parents were distraught he had treated his wife so shabbily. But they did not stop his sizeable allowance. Burroughs mooched around following boyfriends until Pearl Harbor stepped in. He was drafted but his mother had him declared mentally unsuitable for military service. The punishment was a six month stint in a psychiatric evaluation unit. On the advice of someone he met there, he travelled to Chicago.

Men were scarce and jobs were easy to get. He became a “bugman” for AJ Cohen Exterminators, an experience that informed his writing. But the thrill of killing cockroaches eventually died and he followed a lover to New York. He settled in Greenwich Village and was introduced to a shy young Jewish boy from New Jersey named Allen Ginsberg. Through Ginsberg he met Jack Kerouac and their mutual friendship solidified. Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Lucien Carr, another friend of Burroughs, killed his male lover. Carr told Kerouac and Burroughs he had stabbed him after a row and dumped the body in the Hudson river. Burroughs advised him to find a lawyer. Carr turned himself in after two days and after plea bargaining down to manslaughter he served two years at a reformatory. Burroughs and Kerouac were charged for a failure to report a crime but released.

Burroughs had always written on and off but the murder spurred him into life. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped him on his manuscripts. Burroughs experimented heavily with drugs and learned how to persuade doctors to write morphine prescriptions. As the war ended, he got involved with another woman. Joan Vollmer was one of the Beats, a smart lady and a match for Burroughs. She knew he was gay but said “he made love like a pimp”. She was addicted to benzedrine. Their house was raided and Burroughs was given a four month suspended sentence for forging prescriptions.

He returned to St Louis and Joan deteriorated. Burroughs came back to her when he found out how bad her condition was. In 1947 they moved to a ranch in Texas where they could take their drugs unmolested. Joan gave birth to William Burroughs III that year. The Burroughs were forced to leave Texas after he was arrested and lost his licence having sex with Joan in his car. They moved on from New Orleans after police there took an interest in his drug habits.

They went to Mexico where their mutual self-destruction took a sudden turn. When drunk in their apartment, they decided to play William Tell. He placed an apple on her head but missed the apple and shot a bullet through her head. Burroughs was released on bail after 13 days and was told the trial for her murder would be a year later. Burroughs did not take his chances with a Mexican court and fled to New York.

Joan’s death was the catalyst for literary greatness. Later he said, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death”. He quickly wrote his first two novels about his two main predilections: “Junky” and “Queer”. “Junky” was released in 1953 under the named of William Lee. Burroughs travelled to Europe and eventually settled in the Moroccan frontier city of Tangiers where he could indulge his taste in drugs and men. With the help of Ginsberg he published The Naked Lunch in 1959. It was banned in Britain (the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case had yet to decide if it one could read it to one’s wife and servants). Burroughs said in the introduction Jack Kerouac suggested the title. “The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

The non-linear story of sex and drugs was published in the US in 1962. Police in Boston arrested a bookseller for obscenity when he tried to sell the book. It took two years for the trial to come to court and the defence called in the heavies. Norman Mailer defended the Naked Lunch speaking of “artistry..more deliberate and profound than I thought before”. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work “not obscene” based on criteria developed largely to defend the book. The case against Burroughs’s novel still stands as the last obscenity trial against a work of literature prosecuted in the United States.

Burroughs was now living in Paris, the home away from home for US intellectuals. In this intense period he produced The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). By 1967 he was famous enough to merit a spot on the album cover of Sergeant Pepper. He returned to New York where he was the darling of a set mixing with Warhol, Basquiat and Ginsberg. Ginsberg was now also looking after Burroughs’ son William Junior. Father and son never got on and young Billy Burroughs turned his hostility into autobiographical published works of his own. He was also drug dependent (probably since birth) and he died of liver cancer in 1981. By now Burroughs was becoming a giant of counter-culture. He released voice albums and starred in movies. In Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, he played himself in the role of Father Tom a defrocked priest and junkie.

In 1983 he moved to St Lawrence, Kansas, where aged almost 70, he bought his first and only home. David Cronenberg filmed the unfilmable Naked Lunch and Burroughs returned to NY from time to time to meet old friends. There weren’t many left. They were dying off as a result of their extravagant lifestyles but Burroughs seemed to outlast them all. Allen Ginsberg died in April 1997 and that was enough for Burroughs himself; he finally threw in his Russian roulette chips barely four months later. He was 83 and an opiate addict for the last 40 years of his life. All through his life he kept another addiction; that of guns, even sleeping with one every night.

His reputation is mixed. Some like Mailer say he is one of the greatest and most influential writers of the twentieth century, but others found him over-rated. What is undeniable is that his impact across literature, art, cinema and music is vast.At the end of the Naked Lunch, still his best known work, Burroughs wrote: “The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement.” As the Telegraph wrote, this aberrant perspective is perhaps the reason why his words were widely adopted.

To Big Red, Birdsville and back

Just back from a long weekend in Bedourie where the highlight was a trip to Big Red west of Birdsville. This adventure was planned months ago as neither my Bedourie friends nor I had been to the dune but it was put in doubt by the big rains down south which played havoc with the Birdsville Races last week.

Even as I drove the five hours down from Mount Isa to Bedourie on Thursday, the news was that the road to Birdsville was open for 4WD but the Big Red road was still closed. It was fingers crossed for Friday morning.

The news in the morning was good – Diamantina Council had just re-opened the Birdsville-Big Red road to 4WD access only.

So I set off with my friends in their big Prado and the car proved its worth on the drive.

There was plenty of water over the road between Bedourie and Birdsville but the track out to Big Red was a serious challenge.


We saw one vehicle stuck awaiting help from a council grader to get out of the mud. Local knowledge said the best strategy was to stay on the centre of road where the base was hardest and we made it through, taking about 30 to 40 minutes to drive the 30km from Birdsville.


The 30m high dunes stand out in the flat wilderness and situated on a north-south alignment they provide great views east towards Birdsville and the Channel Country and west into the vastness of the Simpson Desert. Below is the view east with the site of the campground below where the annual Big Red Bash concert is held (though like the Birdsville Races it was rain affected this year and moved into town.)


Below is the view west into the Simpson Desert National Park. There is a track down below which remains officially closed though that wasn’t stopping two intrepid South Australians we met on the top of the Dune who were heading to Adelaide via Maree. They cheerfully invited us to join them. We respectfully declined. It would be a long journey even they could somehow make it through. A sign along the way says the Birdsville Bakery was a “cupla miles away” but in the other direction the Mount Dare pub was a “cupla days away “.


It was a bit blowy on top of the sand dunes so we didn’t hang around for long but we stayed long enough to enjoy the endless view into the desert. This was as far as the road was open, it was clear the further south you went the more rain there was.


The Prado comfortably managed the job up and down.


Then it was back through the puddles and rivers of water to Birdsville. Take my word for it that it was muddy in parts and it felt like proper bush bashing.


Back in town Birdsville had emptied out the thousands of racegoers during the week and was back to its sleepy self.br8.JPG

However we didn’t go to the pub but our preferred option which is the Birdsville Bakery. The Bakery only opens in winter but it has a good vibe and a good way in slogans: “It’s a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll.”


On the wall inside is what looks like a cardboard cut-out but is an actual photo of Malcolm Turnbull with the Bakery owner in August 2015 eating one of their famed camel pies. As communications minister Turnbull was out this way with then-local MP Bruce Scott to check out local telecoms difficulties. But the tagline on the photo tells you what happened next: “Old mate Malc got the top job 2 weeks after he had a Curried Camel Pie! What will it do for you?” As for me, I never got to find out, plumping for a chicken and mayo roll instead. Unlike Turnbull, the only thing I spilled was breadcrumbs.br10.JPG

The Diamantina was running freely in Birdsville as was the Eyre Creek further north (pictured below). The bird life was amazing and all that lovely water should be filling Lake Eyre up nicely.


Mary Kathleen uranium mine and ghost town

mk7.JPGMary Kathleen is a ghost town halfway between Mount Isa and Cloncurry which used to be an uranium mine that existed from the 1950s to the 1980s. Uranium was first found at the site in 1954 by Clem Walton and Norm McConachy and the site was named for Norm’s wife who had died only two weeks earlier. They sold the mining rights to Rio Tinto who formed Mary Kathleen Uranium (MKU) Ltd to develop a mine and service town. An architect-designed town grew during 1956-58, with reticulated water from Lake Corella.


A sales contract with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was signed in 1956. The project was developed by MKU at a cost of $24 million. Mining commenced at the end of 1956 and the treatment plant was commissioned in June 1958. At the opening, Prime Minister Robert Menzies unveiled this plaque with Queensland premier Frank Nicklin. In the first five years of its open-cut operation, MKU extracted 4080 tonnes of uranium oxide but in 1963 the major supply contract had been satisfied ahead of schedule, and large reserves of ore lay at grass. The works were closed down until 1974, when Rio Tinto got new supply contracts with Japanese, German and American power utilities.


This photo from the Mount Isa North West Star taken in December 1974 promoted the town.  The caption read: “The town centre where shops, post office, canteen, bank and other facilities are located. The town’s churches and sporting facilities, including swimming pool, bowling greens and golf course, are nearby.” The company made a share issue to raise capital, and the Commonwealth Government, through the Australian Atomic Energy Commission underwrote this, thereby obtaining a 42% holding in the company. At the end of 1982 the mine was depleted and finally closed down after 4802 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate had been produced in its second phase of operation. During the 12 years of operations about 31 million tonnes of material was mined, including 7 million tonnes of ore. About 1200 people lived at Mary Kathleen in 1981.


Mary Kathleen then became the site of Australia’s first major rehabilitation project of a uranium mine, completed in 1985 at a cost of $19 million. All the buildings were carted away leaving the site empty. The sign on the gate at the Barkly Hwy entrance to the site says “Even though no buildings remain, the ghost town like atmosphere makes one wonder what this flourishing community would have been like”.mk3.JPG

A long unmaintained partially bitumen road takes you to the entrance to the town. The mine itself is a further 5km away. The site is now private property but open to visitors and a regular stopping point for caravans in the winter tourist months.


Only a few remnants of buildings remain. Everything was dismantled and auctioned off. A couple of buildings remain at Mary Kathleen Park, 60km away in Cloncurry.


One of the old streets of Mary Kathleen where houses once stood.


This is a view looking down eastwards towards the abandoned township nestled in the Selwyn Ranges whose peaks line the highway from Cloncurry to Mount Isa.


The original mine site still has the remains of the processing plant and site office as well as the open cut mine. Nowadays the mine resembles a swimming hole and exudes a spectacular blue colour due to the washing of minerals from the mine walls. People swim here but it is extremely toxic and radioactive. Geiger counters still go ballistic around the region. According to scientists, uptake of radionuclides and heavy metals into vegetation are sufficient to raise concerns over cattle now freely grazing across the site.


Big Things From Little Things Grow: The Gurindji Wave Hill walk off – 50 years on

Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam

This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Northern Territory Wave Hill walk-off by the Gurindji People. It eventually led to one of the most iconic moments in Australian race relations: Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand. The strike had massive consequences, positively for land rights and negatively for Aboriginal employment in the stock industry. The collapse of that employment led to profound consequences still being felt today.

In the early 1960s Indigenous people were the bedrock of the pastoral industry in northern Australia. They were cheap labour, governed under the Wards’ Employment Ordinance in Queensland and the NT. The Ordinance set low wages and poor living conditions and excluded Indigenous people from industrial awards.

Indigenous groups were pushing for equal pay for equal work, a move resisted by the pastoral industry. In September 1963 the ACTU adopted a comprehensive statement endorsing equal wages. The move targeted pastoral workers unions, the AWU and North Australian Workers’ Union, initially indifferent to the plight of Aboriginal workers.

The NT Cattle Producers Council appealed to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission for a full bench hearing to keep the clause excluding Aboriginal workers. The NT Council for Aboriginal Rights said the cattle industry exploited their people on low wages for years and “kicked us, whipped us, shot us, and raped our fairest daughters”.

In 1964 a big Darwin rally increased pressure on NAWU. The newly-formed Australian newspaper under enlightened editor Adrian Deamer and the Melbourne Herald’s Douglas Lockwood lent publicity to the cause, highlighting appalling conditions at British company  Vesteys’ operations.

Cattle Producers Council lawyer John Kerr, later the Governor-General who sacked Whitlam, detailed evidence drawing on supposed racial knowledge over many decades to show cultural differences made Aboriginal people less useful workers. An Aboriginal stockmen loudly complained in court “you plenty liar” but Kerr’s case was not effectively countered and the Commission accepted it.

It was not until the full ruling in March 1966 the Commission embraced equal wages but in a compromise deferred it until December 1, 1968. The Commission accepted the employers’ argument that repeal of Wards’ Employment Ordinance would greatly increase costs and also lead to unemployment and displacement of workers and dependents.

In time this is exactly what happened.  However this was not the fault of the Indigenous workers.

Indigenous NAWU organiser Dexter Daniels complained about the delay. Daniels had been to Kenya in 1964 and seen how black people were winning rights from colonial masters. “Our people have been waiting more than 50 years, and they should get the award straight away,” he said. Daniels organised a strike of 80 Aboriginal workers at Newcastle Waters and wanted to spread it to Wave Hill a few hours away to the west. Wave Hill was a 16,000 sq km pastoral lease with 40,000 cattle and employed the largest number of Aboriginal people in NT.

The Wave Hill area was colonised in the 1880s and the station was bought around 1900 by British agribusiness Vesteys. At first, white cattle station owners killed many Aboriginals and ran others off the land; later they lured them with beef, flour and tea and exploited them as cheap labour.

Vesteys had a terrible reputation. Stan Davey from the Victorian Trades Council was shocked by conditions. “I have been astounded at the blatant continuation of a feudal type of control of Aborigines,” he said. “Their pay has been irregular and would appear to have frequently fallen short of the prescribed [wages]. People at Wave Hill were living structures no bigger than dog kennels. There were no sanitation provisions and no readily accessible water supply, People have been fed a slab of bread and a piece of salted beef three times a day.”

Wave Hill head stockman Vincent Lingiari, then 47, was in Darwin and Daniels arranged to meet him to see if he would join the strike. On August 22, 1966 Lingiari led 80 workers and 120 dependents in a walk-off to Wattie Creek. This was not the first strike at the station. They had walked off before in 1949, 1952 and 1955 but this was the first strike supported by a union.

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union placed a black ban on Newcastle Waters and Wave Hill. In September unions and employers struck an agreement that “fully efficient” Aboriginal workers would get the full award rate, married men would get basic wage less keep and singles would get smaller increases and keep.  A publicity tour led by Gurindji stockman Captain Major to southern capitals raised considerable funds. “You can see I have a black skin, but I have a white heart. What I want is a fair go for my people,” Major told his audience.

The Gurindji refused to go back to Wave Hill. In October 1966 Labor MP Gordon Bryant read a Lingiari letter to parliament demanding the return of “tribal lands” belonging to “forefathers from time immemorial”.  Author and journalist Frank Hardy was on his way north on holiday when he heard about the strike and he rushed to Wave Hill.

Hardy later wrote about the struggle in his book The Unlucky Australians (1968).  It took Hardy a while to realise the dispute was more than about pay. Lingiari explained they ultimately wanted to replace Vesteys with Indigenous owners: “One day last year we talk about these things, about hidings, about living in dog kennels, about white men taking our women, about bad tucker, about no pay. We decide then we got to go. Make our own way. We can do these things.” Lingiari told Hardy: “I bin thinkin’ in my mind we can run Wave Hill, without Bestey mob”.

Once Hardy grasped the significance of Gurindji demands, he became their spokesperson. He drafted a letter to The Australian: “Vesteys do not own this land…The land is Crown Land controlled by the Federal Government but the rightful owners of it are the Aboriginal tribes of the Hooker Creek area who lived there for centuries before the white man came to pillage the land, despoil their women and reduce them to the status of slaves. Aboriginal stockmen at Wave Hill …asked for equal pay with white stockmen and were ‘sacked’ from their own tribal and sacred lands for having the temerity to do so… The economic issue is equal pay but a more momentous issue lies at the heart of the matter. The moral issue of the plight of the native people, the monstrous and criminal indifference to their welfare, the cruel exploitation of them. Of course they must be granted equal pay.. and it should be granted now instead of three years as the Court has decided. But what of the wider issue. What about compensation from the cattle barons and the great mining companies who are raking great fortunes out of the north? And what about tenure of their own tribal lands?”

Lawyer Dick Ward advised Hardy it would be difficult to make a legal claim but a better bet would be a petition to parliament like the Yirrkala did in 1963 for their land near Gove. Hardy discussed the idea with Bryant who was keen to assist. The Petition signed by Lingiari and others represented claimants demanding their tribal land:

“We the leaders of the Gurindji people, write to you requesting that you bring before the Parliament of Australia the present position of our people, and our earnest desire to regain tenure of our tribal lands…of which we were forcibly dispossessed in times past, and for which we received no recompense.  This land belonged to our forefathers from time immemorial, and many of our people have been killed trying to regain it. Therefore we feel that morally, if not legally the land is ours and should be returned to us. The very name by which you call us, ‘Aboriginal’, acknowledges our prior claim to this country in which we are now a depressed minority.”

They wanted a lease they could run co-operatively as a cattle station. Hardy said the legal question was whether land tenure began with white settlement or with the original owners. In late 1966 Major returned to his own country and claimed the name Lupgna Giari. Lingiari asked Giari to have “proper talk” with Hardy. They put together a new petition which outlined the Gurindji relationship to Wattie Creek and claimed the land. On Lionel Murphy’s advice, it was addressed to Governor-General. There was a new passage inserted: “our culture, myths, dreaming and sacred places have evolved in this land… We have never ceased to say amongst ourselves that Vesteys should go away and leave us to our land. On the attached map, we have marked out the boundaries of the sacred places of our dreaming…we have begun to build our own new homestead on the banks of beautiful Wattie Creek…This is the main place of our dreaming only a few miles from the Seal Gorge where we have kept the bones of our martyrs all these years since white men killed many of our people. On the walls of the sacred caves where these bones are kept, are the paintings of the totems of our tribe. We have already occupied a small area at Seal Yard…we will…build up a cattle station within the borders of this ancient Gurindji land.”

Hardy played a crucial role in marking the Aborigines as “Gurindji” a tribal marker that authenticated their claim to the land. They put up a sign at Wattie Creek which they saw as having extraordinary power. One elder told Hardy, “All them mob hab sign outside. Bestey’s got ’em sign outside, policemen got ’em sign outside. Welfare got ’em sign outside. We want ’em sign for Wattie Creek homestead. Can you write ’em sign?”

Hardy asked them what they wanted on the sign. “Put that Gurindji word there,”  they replied, “We never been see that word, only in we head.”

When they put up the sign which read “GURINDJI, mining lease and cattle station”, Peter Morris, Vesteys’ manager of Vesteys’ pastoral properties asked Lingiari what they were doing on Vesteys land and who had painted the sign. Lingiari replied “this belong to my grandfather…I asked that Frank Hardy to paint it. It’s our sign and we camp here.”

The Liberal Federal Government rejected the petition a few months later. But land rights was moving to the forefront of the reform agenda. Gurindji, Wave Hill, the Yolngu and Yirrkala would become major symbols of the battles that followed. The petition gathered 100,000 signatures by 1969 and when the Labor government was elected in 1972, Whitlam appointed Ted Woodward royal commissioner to consider how Aboriginal people could be granted land in NT. In 1975 Whitlam attended a ceremonial handover of Wattie Creek to Gurindji, widely regarded as an enormous achievement in Indigenous civil and land rights. But it took land rights legislation passed in 1976 to allow for valid claims on the basis of traditional association. The Gurindji 1976 claim for 3293 sq km of Daguraga Station was finally achieved in 1983.

The events were immortalised in Paul Kelly’s song Big Things From Little Things Grow and it was indeed a great success in land rights. But it came at a terrible price. Most stations sacked their Aboriginal workforce rather than grant equal pay. A huge influx of itinerant populations came into towns with no work and no prospects. Many lives descended into alcohol and violence as a result. The era of great Indigenous stockmen and women “born in the cattle” was over.

Long Tan and Australia’s relationship with Vietnam

In recent years as a journalist I’ve attended all of the annual military commemorations in the towns I’ve worked in, Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and Long Tan Day. The format of the commemoration is almost identical for all three: the ode, the anthem, the minute’s silence, the last post, reveille, the lone bugler or piper. But each day has its own peculiarities. With all the Australian First World War veterans dead and not many left alive from the Second World War or the Korean War, the Vietnam Vets are taken their place as our most senior veterans from overseas conflicts.

Unlike in previous wars, their placement in Vietnam was controversial as there was considerable opposition to Australian involvement in that war in the 1960s. Normally Australia took its lead from the United Kingdom but under then prime minister Harold Wilson Britain refused to commit troops to the conflict, leading to the famous Wilson quote to his cabinet that “Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam”.

Of course Australia sent far more than just a bagpipe band. Prime Minister Holt would later go “all the way with LBJ” but Australian involvement began much earlier in the Menzies era.

The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam was sent there in 1962 at the beginning of the conflict and Australia was involved right through to last days of the war 1974. Almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam. Of those, 521 died as a result of the war and over 3000 were wounded.

The decision to send those soldiers to war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or jailed, while soldiers, most of them draftees met a hostile reception on their return home. Many of those soldiers suffered post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that mostly went unrecognised at the time.

While the reputation of those brave soldiers has rightly been rehabilitated over the years, many were never able to fully readjust to civilian life. I can understand their anger that Vietnam did not allow Australians attend the battle site at Long Tan (where 18 Australians died 50 years ago) but I also understand Vietnam’s reluctance in the matter.

The country lost upwards of three million people in the war and the wounds are taking a long time to heal. In time it will become like Gallipoli, a place of shared sacrifice, but Australians must be patient.

Though still ruled by the same Communist Party that took over the south in 1974, Vietnam is slowly becoming a wealthier country. Its 90 million people constitute the world’s 13th largest population and it is the world’s 37th largest economy in transition from centrally planned to market-based and from agrarian to industrialised.

The transition is reflected in its foreign policy. Resolution No.13 by the Politburo issued in 1988 aimed to have ‘more friends and fewer enemies’ and Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995. It is a claimant in the South China Sea territorial dispute, but wants it settled through negotiation and peaceful means, in accordance with international law.

In 2015 Australia and Vietnam signed the Declaration on Enhancing the Australia-Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership. The Declaration sets out an agenda to guide the strategic relationship and covers regional and international cooperation, trade and investment, industrial, development, development assistance defence, law enforcement and security.  The Declaration builds upon the 2009  Australia – Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership and the bilateral Plan of Action (2010-13). A new Plan of Action is due to be signed this year.

The links between the country will only grow. In the 2011 Australian Census, 221,114 people in Australia claimed Vietnamese ancestry. Vietnamese represent the fifth largest migrant community in Australia and Australia is the second most common destination for Vietnamese migrants, after the US. Vietnam was Australia’s fastest growing export market in ASEAN during the 10-year period 2003-2013 (average annual growth of 16.3 per cent) and this trend continues.  A minor spat over a  minor battle (in Vietnamese terms) is not going to change that. What’s needed is a prime ministerial visit. No Australian PM has been in Vietnam since Julia Gillard in 2010. This is a relationship too important to let a dispute over access to a battle field derail it.