Aboriginal Land Fund Commission
In 1972, the McMahon Government recognised that not all the land over which Aboriginal people declared customary ownership was reserve land. The Gurindji case illustrated a dilemma shared by many Aborigines seeking land security: their land was now privately owned. By the time the McMahon Government lost office, eleven months after his Australia Day promise of land purchases, only a small number of transactions had been concluded.
Justice Woodward's reports in 1973 and 1974 also recognised the problem faced by Aborigines outside the reserve system. He too called for a land fund, and the Whitlam Government legislated it in 1974 - setting up the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission (ALFC).
The ALFC, unlike the Land Rights Act, was not limited to the Northern Territory. All Indigenous Australians whose lands were now under non-Indigenous title could ask the ALFC to purchase their land back on their behalf and then hand them the title.
The Aboriginal Land Fund Commission lasted from 1974 until 1980, when it was replaced by the Aboriginal Development Commission.
The five members of the Commission were: C.D.Rowley (Director of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia), Ernest Bridge (Shire President, Halls Creek, Western Australia), Stumpy Martin Jampijinpa (Community Adviser, Willowra Station, Northern Territory), Thomas Williams OBE (Director of Field Operations, NSW Aboriginal Lands Trust and Member of Aboriginal Relics Advisory Committee), and Neville Amy (Senior Rural Officer, Commonwealth Development Bank of Australia). Bridge, Martin and Williams were Indigenous Australians.
Paying out $6 million, the ALFC purchased 59 properties. It relied on the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for advice about what land was being requested by Aboriginal people, but it struggled to maintain its own criteria for establishing priorities. The ALFC was committed to letting Aboriginal need, rather than non-Indigenous conceptions of what was good for Aboriginal people, determine purchasing priorities. Land purchased was conceived by the ALFC as compensation for land previously taken. The ALFC had to fight for such a philosophy to be accepted. There were many politicians and officials who expressed dismay that a purchase could be based on anything but purely commercial considerations.
In 1980, Rowley reflected on his Commission's departures from Australian habits of thought about Aboriginal people's 'welfare', and on the effects of the Commission's work on Aboriginal people themselves:
'The Commission's work challenged a long standing assumption of white Australian folk history - that of the necessity of 'progress' to ever greater wealth...During the life of the Commission, the Commissioners' conviction that the purchase of property is vital for any substantial social and economic gain by the Aboriginal people was greatly strengthened. The importance of holding control of a safe home base may not be appreciated by those of us who have always had it - a place from which the person or the group cannot be removed at the whim of an individual or a government. Without this anchor in security neither economic success, nor gains in social cohesion are possible...Aboriginal affairs are seen as welfare matters rather than matters of justice and politics, and governments approach welfare as a matter of the government cheque. So it proves easy to give out of pocket money, but difficult to transfer property in which to invest money and work. Yet a beginning was made through the Commission...[T]he transfer of land or other property to a group long dispossessed brings a new upheaval, as new problems of its use, of leadership, and distribution of any profit, are thrashed out. In some cases this internal conflict lasted for years, but the Commission would intervene only when requested. In most cases this was not necessary.'
Keywords: activism, Australian Labor Party, land rights, McMahon, William, Northern Territory, resistance, Whitlam, Gough, 1975-80
Rowley, CD 'The Aboriginal Land Fund Comission, 1974-1980', in Peterson N (ed), 'Aboriginal land rights: a handbook', Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Press, pp 258-9.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor