When Interior Minister Peter Nixon told Parliament in September 1970 why he rejected the Gurindji demand for land, the Canberra Times editorial rebuked him as 'astonishingly presumptuous' and as indifferent to 'the intense feeling the issue is creating in certain quarters'. The editorial continued:
'Australian governments have given the Aborigines land rights of a kind: extensive reserves have been set aside for their benefit and, under a recent ordinance, individual Aborigines will be able to apply for leases of land within reserves in the Northern Territory. But this does not recognise the validity of their claims to specified areas under Aboriginal custom. The peculiar nature of the Aborigines' attachment to land should not be dismissed as irrelevant by a civilisation, which gives to land a significance which is primarily economic. The spiritual or religious values certain areas of land represent for the Aborigines are to them a title of ownership as valid as that established by purchase or Royal grant. The mining bonanza that has invaded lands and sacred sites which Aboriginal tribes claim have been theirs from time immemorial is giving their demands greater urgency. The awakening of an ethnic consciousness among them and their bitter opposition to repressive and discriminatory controls are also part of the picture.
Most of the agitation at the moment centres on the Gurindji tribe's claim to ownership of 500 square miles of land at Wattie Creek included in a lease held by the British Vestey family company. The family's reported readiness to cede the land was implicit recognition that there is some justice in the tribe's claim. But the government has rejected it and has offered the tribe instead a much smaller area of land at Wave Hill on which it would build a housing and welfare centre. This offer has not been accepted because it stems from the failure on the part of the Administration to understand the nature of the Gurindjis' demand. What they want is a particular area of land, which they regard as the foundation of the tribe's existence. The university students who are the principal supporters of the Gurindji claims may be a little impetuous in their zeal at this stage but they are at least prodding a lethargic Australian conscience. And they are not content to utter catchy slogans, they back their words with deeds.
The Government's attitude, which is probably not shared by all in the Ministry, is at variance with its avowed aims of allowing the Aborigines to become masters of their destinies. It betrays a reluctance to abandon the paternalistic approach of the past and, possibly, an inability to rise above the technicalities of a legal system imported from Europe. There may also be a fear of creating an embarrassing precedent. Its main fault could well be an insistence on "We know best what is good for you" and its consequent failure to take enough account of what the Aborigines themselves want. Allied to the Government's lack of a satisfactory policy on land in general is its haphazard attitude to Aboriginal sacred sites, one of which is said to be 30,000 years old and is thus of far greater antiquity than the pyramids of Egypt. Mineral wealth is a valuable asset but the remaining fragments of the record of ancient man are at least of equal value. If the Aboriginal culture is worthy of being preserved surely this can best be done by preserving the Aborigines themselves and, to this end, their claim to undisturbed ownership of the ancestral lands must be given serious consideration as a matter of simple justice.'
Keywords: 1967 referendum, activism, Gurindji, land rights, Northern Territory, Vestey, Lord, 1970
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor
Source: Editorial, Canberra Times, 4 Sep 1970.