This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Northern Territory Wave Hill walk-off by the Gurindji People. It was a move that 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 both 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 the north of Australia. They were cheap labour, governed under the Wards’ Employment Ordinance in Queensland and the NT. This Ordinance set low wages and poor living conditions and excluded Indigenous people from industrial awards and wages.
Indigenous groups were pushing for equal pay for equal work, a move greatly 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, which were 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 on the case to have the clause excluding Aboriginal workers deleted. 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 there was a big rally in Darwin which increased pressure on NAWU. The newly-formed Australian newspaper, then under enlightened editor Adrian Deamer and the Melbourne Herald’s Douglas Lockwood lent publicity to the cause, publishing articles 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 was among those to complain 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 years old, 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 three times 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 letter from Lingiari to parliament demanding the return of “tribal lands” that had belonged 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 for their land near Gove in 1963. 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 sought Giari’s help and asked him 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 petition was rejected by the Liberal Federal Government 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 there was a ceremonial handover of Wattie Creek to Gurindji attended by Whitlam, 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.