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...Land, the underlying issue...
...Land, the underlying issue..., 1967-1975

The Wave Hill strikers were unlike other Australian workers in that they did not see their boss as the rightful owner of his capital - their land. Their April 1967 petition to Governor-General Casey asked for 1290 square kilometres (500 square miles) on which to set up their own mining and pastoral enterprise; the land, which included Wattie Creek, was to be excised from Wave Hill and Victoria River Downs pastoral leases. Unwilling to concede the Gurindji's sense of prior land ownership, the Gorton government refused this claim in July 1968, offering instead a small land portion, outside the pastoral leases, for a new township.

The Gurindji campaign became a popular cause, attracting the attention of the trade union movement, churches, students and many interested citizens. Aboriginal leaders such as 'Captain Major' (Lupna Giari) and Vincent Lingiari addressed meetings in the southern capitals, including lunchtime meetings of trade unionists. University students spent vacations at Wattie Creek, helping to build houses and other facilities.

In one way of seeing the issue, the Gurindji were David, the Wave Hill lessee, a large British company popularly known as Vesteys, Goliath. However, the greater adversary of the Gurindji was the Australian Government, which cautiously promoted Aboriginal rights to better wages and conditions while fearfully deflecting any suggestion that Aborigines had a traditional right to land. For it was land, not merely working conditions, which emerged as the real sticking point. As the strikers' friend and chronicler Frank Hardy confessed in 1968: 'The white men, including myself, who had assisted Dexter Daniels to organise the Wave Hill strike, believed the issue was wages and conditions.' His realisation that the deeper Gurindji motive was to repossess some of their land produced in Hardy 'a certain feeling of exultation.'

By 1970, there were rumours that Vesteys was prepared to give up part of the lease, probably to reverse its run of bad publicity and to regain the confidence of a skilled workforce. The Australian government was not interested.

The Commonwealth Minister with responsibility for the Northern Territory, Peter Nixon, sought on 3 September 1970 to end 'misunderstanding throughout the community' about the Gurindji grievance. The residents of Wattie Creek were not, in his opinion, 'a vigorous group with capacity and determination, needing only land and finance to prosper by their own efforts'. Their gardens were small, their houses unoccupied. Nor would it be wise to grant them land on the basis of their'racial qualification'. 'It is important for Australia's future that we work towards minimising race consciousness and avoid steps which tend to emphasise divisions on a racial basis. Of course, where there is need for special educational, social or economic measures to help a section of the community which requires assistance, appropriate assistance should be provided.' The assistance that would benefit the people at Wattie Creek, Nixon insisted, was to build houses and provide schooling and medical services.

In 1972, Lord Vestey offered to sell a portion of his leases to the Australian government. The McMahon government was disinclined to act quickly, and by December 1972 it had been voted out of office. The purchase (3,000 square kilometres out of Wave Hill lease) was not effected until 1975, one of the first made by the new Aboriginal Land Fund Commission, set up by the Whitlam Government in 1975. By August 1975, the lease was vested in the company Murramulla Gurindji Inc. Under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth), the lease was subsequently claimed by the Gurindji, and the land became 'Aboriginal freehold' title in 1985, almost 20 years after the stockmen walked off Wave Hill.
Keywords: Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory)(1976), activism, Australian Labor Party, Communist Party of Australia, Gurindji, land rights, pastoral industry, pastoral lease, resistance, resistance, strike, trade unions, Vestey, Lord, Whitlam, Gough, 1967-1975

Sources : Hardy, F 1968, 'The Unlucky Australians' Nelson, p 167 ; Nixon's 3 September 1970 statement to the House of Representatives was reproduced in 'Smoke Signals' September 1970. Still: Gough Whitlam and Vincent Lingiarri. Courtesy of AIATSIS.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor