Aboriginal land rights

"If we all stand together"

Aboriginal struggles in the 1970s and 1980s.

(Excerpted from Tom O'Lincoln ([email protected]) Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era, Bookmarks, Melbourne, 1993.)

 

ABORIGINAL people have been besieged for two centuries. Under the Whitlam Labor Government some of the pressures abated, but under Malcolm Fraser's conservative regime they again began to mount. In central Australia, blacks accounted for 663 out of 889 registered jobless in 1976, while the federal Government estimated that out of 30-35,000 Aborigines in the workforce nationwide, about 14,000 were unemployed. Mike Braham, director of the inner-suburban Chippendale community centre, described the consequences in Sydney, particularly for those in the grip of hire purchase companies:

"Things are so tough here that about 12 people a week come to borrow a dollar or two for milk or a bit of food to see them through ... After seeing the way the blacks are hounded, hunted and impoverished I'd put South Africa on a pedestal."

The Aboriginal Medical Service reported that in nearby Redfern, 25 percent of children under five were so malnourished they would suffer brain damage, while 20 percent of children had spent more than two months in hospital before their first birthday. A continent away, in Perth, the Princess Margaret Hospital had admitted 20 percent of the city's Aboriginal children in 1974, more than half of them undernourished. Things were no better in more remote areas; for example the infant mortality rate for Northern Territory Aborigines was 75 per thousand live births, compared to 16 for whites.

Black communities were often locked in conflict with the police. In August 1977 Brisbane police invaded two hostels and arrested activists, attacked a camp of homeless where they threw several elderly people into the river, then picked a brawl in the Ship Inn in Woolloongabba. When blacks at the Inn gave a rather good account of themselves in the fracas, the cops retaliated with a wave of harassment and arrests, charging three people with attempted murder. In rural areas the police complained bitterly at the role of the Aboriginal Legal Service in monitoring their work and documenting abuses. At that time, of course, the extent of black deaths in custody was not so widely known.

The land has an immense importance for Aborigines and the demand for land rights goes back a long way, but it was the struggles of the sixties and seventies which made it front page news. It formed the most important of two battlefields, with blacks' call for better welfare provisions and community control constituting the other ... but no battle was easily won.

Aborigines' political and social power was generally fairly limited. They had long been a small minority of the population. They did not form an important voting bloc outside the Northern Territory, nor did they have a middle class with economic leverage, nor were they concentrated in sufficient numbers in any urban area to use riots or the threat of them to put pressure on the state, in the way that ghetto blacks in America had done. (The 1976 census estimated 14,000 Aborigines in Sydney, the highest urban total.) Apart from a declining presence in the outback pastoral industry, they lacked industrial muscle. In all these ways they were in a far weaker position than, say, migrant workers or white women.

Consequently outside support was particularly important. They needed positive publicity both in Australia and overseas, and solidarity from sections of white society, in particular the trade unions and social movements such as that against uranium mining. Unfortunately, backing from these sources was in decline during the Fraser years. Attempts to gain widespread international publicity during the Brisbane Commonwealth Games were a failure -- partly, it seemed, because Fraser had managed to buy immunity on the issue of Australia's indigenous people by conspicuously condemning racism in southern Africa. The unions were losing confidence in their ability to fight, while the anti-uranium campaign began to sag from 1978.

Whitlam's reforms had encouraged some Aborigines to look to Canberra for help. But while the Fraser Government proceeded with legislation to grant large areas of land in the Northern Territory, Whitlam's Act was scaled down, despite a 1000-strong Alice Springs protest rally. Aborigines were no longer to control all roads running through their land, and Fraser gave the Northern Territory government the power to pass laws on the day-to-day operation of land rights. (In 1978 the Territory passed laws allowing certain whites to enter black lands without permission.) Most crucially the Fraser version omitted a clause granting land rights based on need, which meant that people living in towns whose connections with particular areas had been destroyed, and those who worked and lived on cattle stations, could not establish land claims.

In every other area Fraser had only disappointments to offer. The Aboriginal Medical Service which had documented the grim health situation in Redfern applied for a grant to improve the local people's nutrition, but only got half of what it wanted -- this from a Department of Aboriginal Affairs that finished 1976 with considerable unspent funds. The 150 Aboriginal housing associations which had been encouraged under Whitlam were obliged to dismiss employees. The government refused to fund a health service based in Darwin, pleading a lack of cash; it took two sit-ins at the DAA office before limited funding was made available. Despite the jobs crisis, the Government wound down the activities of the Department of Employment's Aboriginal section, then demoted a black public servant who commented publicly on the cutbacks.

Fraser also scrapped the National Aboriginal Consultative Council. In its place he convened a National Aboriginal Conference, with electoral boundaries altered to give more weight to people in traditional rural areas, apparently in the hope they would be less demanding than the urban activists.

Cuts to programs were so severe in 1976 that leaked public service documents expressed fears of "a sharp reaction in the black community", and this was only the start. By 1982 Aborigines were $213 million short of what Fraser had promised them in 1975. In the 1981-82 budget, spending on Aboriginal Affairs was over 35 percent lower in real terms than under Whitlam. The first minister, Ian Viner, gradually exhausted his credibility; so Fraser put Fred Chaney in charge, whereupon the National Times naively boosted him as "the best Aboriginal Affairs minister since Arthur Phillip," but Redfern blacks had a more realistic view of the Chaneys of this world. "They never leave their offices in North Sydney," said Sylvia Scott of Murrawina ("black woman") pre-school. "Fred Chaney has been in Redfern once: we expect to get a letter next year just on election time."

It was hardly surprising that many communities joined the "outstation" movement, turning their backs on the marginal position white society allowed them and seeking to build new lives away from white-controlled centres. But others chose, or were obliged, to stand and fight, as symbolised by the decision in 1976 to set up an "Aboriginal embassy" in Canberra for the first time since 1972.

It was at Aurukun on the Gulf of Carpentaria that the Fraser Government prepared the most bitter disappointment for Aborigines. The strong Aurukun community had learned from the experience of nearby Weipa how destructive mining could be, and they had fended off mining companies in the past, but after Whitlam's fall a consortium of these companies secured a mining lease from the Queensland government. This violated written promises from that government that no mining would go ahead without the community's consent, making the people particularly determined to resist. Fourteen of them occupied an airfield and mining camp at Tipperary, while some trade unions expressed support.

The community took legal action and won in the Queensland Supreme Court, however Premier Petersen then appealed successfully to the Privy Council in Britain. The State government seized direct legal control of Aurukun and Mornington Island reserves from the churches (who had been too sympathetic to the black cause for Petersen's liking) and sent in administrators in May 1978. In response the Aborigines refused to let them leave the airfield, and occupied community facilities to show they intended to control their own affairs.

The Aurukun community expected Canberra to help them -- after all, hadn't Fraser told a national Aboriginal conference that "we will not fail these people"? Federal parliament did pass an Act in April allowing community control of Aurukun and Mornington Island reserves, but Petersen simply responded by declassifying them --they were technically no longer reserves. Reluctantly the Aurukun and Mornington Island Councils agreed to a six-month trial of the new system. Before the six months had expired, however, Petersen dissolved both councils, replacing them with his own agents; in the mean time his government had constantly meddled in their affairs and withheld funds.

On 16 May the Queensland parliament passed an Act giving Petersen the power to sack the local councils and deny basic legal rights. Yet despite pleas from Liberal Senator Neville Bonner, himself an Aborigine, minister Ian Viner blandly announced that the federal government would accept Petersen's actions. In fact the Fraser regime appeared to be implicated itself, for as the Melbourne Age reported, "Mr Viner said he and his opposite number, Queensland's Local Government minister, Mr Hinze, had worked hard on the legislation and it should be given every chance to work."

Fraser had the power to declare the communities self-managing and free of State control, but refused to do so, preferring to posture about ending white rule in Zimbabwe. In 1979 four more Queensland reserves at Yarrabah, Kowanyama, Cherbourg and Mossman Gorge asked Canberra to declare them self-managing, to no avail. On the contrary, Canberra continued negotiating with the State government without reference to the Aborigines. When he did meet with Aboriginal Council members, who told him that the 50 year leases Bjelke-Petersen had provided were no substitute for full land ownership, Fred Chaney replied arrogantly that there was "too much sloganising" going on. No doubt he had the same attitude towards uranium mining.

Ranger and uranium

Uranium mines have cost the Aborigines dearly, beginning with the postwar mine at Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory, which resulted in the contamination of about 100 square kilometres of the Finniss River flood plain. In the seventies the miners again turned their attention to Aboriginal land, after finding huge deposits in Arnhem Land. This was a beautiful region populated mostly by blacks, and the local people feared that mining could ruin it and them. Oenpelli Council chairman Silas Maralngurra argued:

"Balanda [white man] push, push, push. Soon pubs everywhere and they will kill the race ...look at the Larrakia. Darwin is their country, and they are living on the rubbish tip."

Lucrative royalties (up to $25 million a year) could not begin to compensate, and the Commissioners believed the Aborigines "would happily forego the lot in exchange for an assurance the mining would not proceed". Yet while recognising that the traditional owners of the Ranger site and the Northern Land Council were opposed to the mining of uranium, the Commission concluded that "their opposition should not be allowed to prevail." The Commission, after all, belonged to Fraser, who wanted mining to go ahead. Aborigines would have the right to negotiate the terms, but not to refuse. If they refused, Fraser would install an arbitrator, and they risked losing the land along with the Land Rights Act and the Northern Land Council.

Thus the NLC was negotiating under duress. Even so it had two sources of bargaining power: the determination of Northern Territory black communities to resist, and their links to black and white supporters in the southern cities, where the land rights struggle was allied with the movement against uranium mining, raising in turn the prospect of trade union action. As the black women's paper Koori-Bina put it:

"There are two ways in which we must proceed. First we must support the Aboriginal communities in developing the kind of determination and solidarity that began the modern land rights struggle ... The other way to proceed is to enlist the support of the white Australian working class culminating in union action to prevent the destruction of our lands. It was from the unions that the Gurindjis obtained their greatest support ... The Land Councils are aware of the critical need for union support and have asked supporters in the southern cities to ask for union bans."

Initially the union response looked fairly encouraging, so the government moved decisively to cut the links to the south.

NLC chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu along with two traditional leaders from Oenpelli had decided on a speaking tour to coincide with anti-uranium demonstrations in Melbourne and Sydney at the end of March 1978. When he heard this, Ian Viner summoned Yunupingu and the NLC's white manager Alex Bishaw to a conference. After the meetings, at which pressure from Viner was apparently complemented by advice from Bishaw and Charles Perkins to scrap the tour, Yunupingu cancelled it.

Marcia Langton, general secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, responded sharply to this retreat, writing that "the repercussions are many, the most serious being the severing of ties with southern and urban blacks, and the consequent concession to the government-propagated myth of `southern stirrers'." The NLC, said Langton, was "a victim of the power game of the government and the mining companies". It was not to be the last time.

Negotiations proceeded until September 1978 when Stephen Zorn, a professional negotiator, initialled a draft agreement with the government. While it provided for substantial royalties (though some thought Zorn could have done better), the environmental safeguards left much to be desired. Plus there was wide scope for the government to decide it was "impossible or impracticable" for the miners to meet them. Zorn told the NLC that the deal was not as good as it should have been, but cited the "constant threat that the government would use arbitrators and take away what had been gained in the negotiations."

Yunupingu said Fraser had threatened to stop Aborigines going back onto tribal lands. "They threatened us. It was long, tough and hard." The NLC accepted the deal "under protest", as its deputy chairman Gerry Blitner put it. Even as it did so, there were signs of mounting dissent.

In Darwin police had removed black and white demonstrators from the Ranger office. Telegrams arrived from four Aboriginal communities demanding the right to send representatives to the NLC's deliberations. After these concluded, eight communities sought an injunction restraining the Council from signing the agreement, forcing it to review the issue. A thousand Aborigines arrived in Darwin to protest the deal, traditional landowners at Oenpelli voted to reject it, and 300 people from Goulburn Island angrily confronted Yunupingu. The NLC then agreed that the communities would be fully consulted about any agreements, including those living outside Oenpelli but with a traditional interest in the land.

The government was obliged to further apply pressure, inducing Yunupingu to call a secret meeting at a remote location. On the second day the Council met with Viner, who again secured its reluctant acceptance of the agreement, but very much on the understanding that the final say depended on the communities. Only two delegates voted against, but the decision was actually quite vague as one of the dissenters, Leo Finlay, indicated:

"There was never an actual motion. We put up our hands but no one knew what exactly we were agreeing to. I relied on the Oenpelli people because I knew they were strong and would not let the NLC rush them."

Viner and some of the Council then flew to Oenpelli, but no real consultation took place. Only four of the thirty or more traditional landowners were present; the rest refused to appear. Silas Maralngurra left the meeting in disgust. After addressing those present, and without actually asking their consent, Viner flew to Darwin and announced they had agreed to uranium mining.

Later, in 1980, in order to force through a mining project at Nabarlek, the government announced special legislation to forestall a likely legal victory by Aborigines. A year after that it rushed through further legislation to change the boundaries of Kakadu National Park, so mining companies could once again pursue the almighty dollar with impunity. The anti-uranium campaigners in the south protested, but by now they were themselves a declining force.

In a 1977 interview, Bruce McGuiness of the Aboriginal Co-operative in Melbourne had warned on the subject of uranium mining: "They put up the pretence of consultation. They do it all the time. They have no intention in the first instance to listen to what Aboriginal people are saying." It had not taken very long for Ian Viner and Malcolm Fraser to prove McGuiness right.

Noonkanbah: "If we all stand together"

The Northwest was the last Australian region apart from the central deserts to be invaded by Europeans, but as elsewhere, when white pastoralists arrived in the 1880s they imposed a system of virtual slavery. Finally, after the famous 1946 strike in the Pilbara, wage labour came to the Aborigines of the Northwest. The exploitation did not end, however, but rather took on new forms. When black people became eligible for social security benefits in the 1960s, the pastoralists found ways to channel much of the cash into their own pockets. In 1969, the standard pastoral award was applied to Aboriginal station hands, following the historic Gurindji strike of 1966, but with a "slow worker" provision allowing employers to pay as little as $20 per week.

By this time there was considerable unrest on the stations, and most Aboriginal people in the Kimberley either walked off or were evicted, gathering at the nearby township of Fitzroy Crossing. One of these groups was from a station called Noonkanbah.

At Fitzroy Crossing the Noonkanbah Aborigines found only squalor. What hopes the people held for the future lay in the demands for land they began making in 1972 and 1973, encouraged by the growth of the national black protest movement and the more enlightened policies of the Whitlam government. In 1976 the Noonkanbah station was advertised for sale. The Aboriginal Land Fund Commission acquired it and placed it in the hands of the WA Aboriginal Lands Trust, and a 200-strong black community returned to the station in September; finding it very run down, they set about restoring it. Over the next two years their confidence grew. But these years also saw a renewed interest in the region's mineral wealth because WA Premier Charles Court, who had built his career on resource development, was keen to crown it with major projects in the Kimberley. Court had no patience with opponents:

"Interviewed in 1977 ... he remarked that before any development project could begin, three things had to happen: first, the site would be deemed sacred or of historical significance to some group; secondly, the trade union movement would place it under a black ban; and thirdly, conservationists would declare it the last remaining location of some rare species ... Challenged on his basic beliefs, his reflex action was to portray opposition as left-wing conspiracy or anarchistic dementia."

By May 1978, 497 mineral claims had been pegged on Noonkanbah station without any consultation. One company interested in exploring for oil was Amax, a multinational with strong links to BHP and CSR. In October 1978 Amax selected a site for drilling, which it apparently believed would not infringe sacred sites. The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act allowed for protection of any "sacred, ritual or ceremonial site", but the legislators had probably understood this to mean specific features, narrowly defined. At Noonbanbah, by contrast, as anthropologist Kingsley Palmer reported after visiting there, "although certain places ... were recognised as being of particular importance for one reason or another, the whole land was recognised as being endowed with spiritual essence."

Capitalist society with its drilling projects could not be reconciled with the community's culture and tradition. Peter Bindon of the Western Australian museum reported this after touring the area. Sent back to try again, he reported a second time that "the whole area within which any drill hole could be located by the company falls under the influence of the sacred sites." A long, intricate tug of war followed, from which at times Amax seemed ready to pull out, but Charles Court dug in his heels.

In May 1979 the Noonkanbah people sent a representative, Dicky Skinner, to Perth with a petition against Amax:

"These people have already made the place no good with their bulldozers ...They mess up our land. They expose our sacred objects. This breaks our spirit. We lose ourselves as a people."

The petition made a media splash, and Skinner followed it up with an address to the WA Trades and Labour Council, which carried motions of support and sent letters to Amax and CRA. But about the same time, Cabinet met and reaffirmed its hard line. "I do not want either the local or the overseas people in Amax to feel I have not personally followed this matter through," wrote Court. Acting minister Dick Old formally instructed the State museum to give its consent, whereupon the government authorised the company to drill.

On 15 June, a company representative sought access to Noonkanbah station but was turned back at the gate after verbal exchanges. This event made the Perth papers, and either Court or the company apparently decided on a tactical retreat: for almost nine months, the issue disappeared. But in 1980, having won an election, Court was ready to try again; in March, contractors entered the property, accompanied by police. However resistance was also stiffening.

Sympathisers rallied at St George's Cathedral in Perth. The relevant unions recommended bans on all work for the Noonkanbah drilling, the most important being the Transport Workers whose members would have to transport a rig from Broome, and the AWU which covered the drilling crew. Bob Hawke called on Amax to pull back, while the AWU suggested that all nine oil rigs operating in WA could be closed down if drilling at Noonkanbah went ahead. The unions' assertiveness reflected the strengthening of their industrial position between 1979 and 1981. Noonkanbah was delighted. The community wrote:

"So we are very pleased that all these people are coming out to help us, the Trade Union mob trying to stop Amax, and all the other people. That never happened in the first place. If we all stand together like this we can be friends and have respect for each other."

Ivan McPhee and Nipper Tabagee came from Noonkanbah to Perth to address supporters, including the TLC. Later some 30 fringe dwellers from Swan Valley briefly occupied the city's main cemetery, saying that their sacred sites deserved the same respect as white cemeteries. April 2nd saw another Perth demonstration of 500 people. Back at Noonkanbah, a session of Aboriginal song and dance lasting until 3 am gave the local people enough of a psychological advantage to intimidate the contractors, who departed the site when the community confronted them the next day. This unexpected victory had an impact on blacks around the country. Said poet Jack Davis:

"For years we had been demonstrating for land rights. I think to most blacks the call for land rights was slightly nebulous ... But what happened at Noonkanbah seemed to solidify their feelings."

Meanwhile the links with trade unions continued to improve, but outside Perth rank and file support was limited. In April Dicky Skinner met with a two-person TLC delegation in Derby, who had toured workplaces to assess the level of support. The labour force in the Kimberley was largely ununionised and anti-Aboriginal, and it became clear that the muscle would have to be applied at higher levels to be successful. In some cases unionists' main motivation was to settle old scores with Charles Court.

Even so, the prospect of union intervention worried Amax. In late April there was speculation that the company was getting cold feet. Noonkanbah also showed signs of becoming an international issue, after Jim Hagan of the National Aboriginal Council addressed a United Nations sub-committee in Geneva, with US television networks picking up the story. But Court was tenacious. In May he visited Noonkanbah personally to talk to the Aborigines; the resulting exchange left both sides as far apart as ever. In July Amax transported a water drilling rig to the site despite a token blockade by the local people.

July also saw the first of two defections by prominent blacks. John Toby, who had previously led a struggle against attempts by CRA to mine diamonds at Argyle, suddenly made a private deal with the company, for which he was condemned by the Kimberley Land Council. It was an ominous precedent.

At 1 am on 7 August, a convoy of 49 vehicles set out from Perth. Near Karratha six picketing union officials were arrested, while in Roebourne 40 Aboriginal people protested as the convoy passed. Two more union officials were arrested at Port Hedland, then just north of the town 160 blacks blocked a bridge and police had to push them back. Another 200 protesters greeted the convoy near Broome. At Noonkanbah the community also decided to oppose the convoy: 60 men established a blockade at Mickey's Pool where the road dipped into a sandy creek and no detours were possible. After a night-long stand-off, police and Aboriginal police aides cleared the blockade. The cause seemed lost when the news came through that the drilling crew, all trade unionists, had met and voted not to work the rig. Court's hard-line tactics had exploded in his face.

Six months earlier the AWU had unionised the crew on this rig. They were not particularly pro-Aboriginal, but some of them felt important union principles were at stake. During several meetings they stood their ground while CSR, under ACTU pressure, announced it would not operate the rig without the union crew. At this point Amax, after talks with Bob Hawke, was again willing if not eager to pull out, but Court had an ace yet to play: he arranged for Amax to transfer its rights to the State government, which then passed them on to a $2 shelf company. The technicality got CSR off the hook, so drilling could go ahead with a new crew. Court also chose his moment well. For some time his government had secretly been cultivating Ken Colbung, black chairman of the Aboriginal Lands Trust. In August Colbung, who had previously backed the Noonkanbah community, suddenly called on them to lift the ban on drilling, arguing that Aboriginal sites were not at risk.

Court chose that day to start the drilling, and Bob Hawke immediately made conciliatory noises, forswearing any retribution. That was to be expected from the man who was soon to preside over "national reconciliation" -- then sell out the Aborigines in 1984 by scrapping plans for uniform land rights legislation. The bravery of an isolated black community, together with the honourable actions of a small minority of trade unionists, had given Court a tremendous battle, but the wider union mobilisation that could have defeated him did not occur. It was fitting in more ways than one that after this disgraceful chapter in Australian history, the drilling at Noonkanbah yielded a dry hole.

A fight on many fronts

Aborigines also fought for their rights on many smaller fronts. In New South Wales a 1976 Land Rights Conference elected an independent Land Council and demanded the abolition of the Lands Trust, an unrepresentative body to which the Wran Government had granted a small area for lease. Council president Allan Woods was one of a group occupying 56 acres owned by the Lands Trust at Llandilo near Penrith. This linked the land rights struggle directly to the needs of homeless blacks in Sydney, because the Gunya Way Council, organisers of the occupation, were simultaneously applying for funds to build emergency dwellings for the homeless.

In 1980 Aborigines joined other protesters at Middle Head Beach in a campaign to stop sandmining. Along with the environmental issues the protesters were concerned about a sacred site at the southern end of the beach. It was quite an event:

"The dredging goes on, but the backdrop is quite extraordinary -- mass confrontations, mass arrests, songs of solidarity ringing through the forest, protesters falling out of trees as bulldozers push them down. Whites and Aborigines, united in passionate defence of the beach, have broken down the barriers between them in a way that is unprecedented in the area."

In 1982 the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service launched a supreme court action demanding the return of nearly 10,000 hectares they said had been taken from black people between 1893 and 1968. Around this time there was also violent unrest both in Redfern, where residents fought back against police harassment, and in the country centre of Moree. The Head of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, black activist Pat O'Shane, described as "justifiable under the circumstances" a riot which broke out after the shotgun death of one Aborigine and the wounding of two others.

Following the unrest, Attorney General Frank Walker said that the answer was land rights, however it was not until 1983 that the NSW government got around to passing a sort of land rights bill, which ensured that NSW Land Councils got 7.5 percent of land tax receipts but which also had major drawbacks. Lands under private ownership or lease were left untouched; blacks had no right to claim crown land being used for other purposes, no right of access to sacred sites or traditional hunting grounds, no rights to minerals or royalties. 2000 people marched in vain against these limitations.

In Victoria in 1979 Aborigines blockaded Framlingham Regional Park near Warrnambool over claims for 1000 hectares of forest. A year later they allied with white environmentalists to warn of the dangers posed by Alcoa's giant aluminium smelter at Portland. The Gunditjmara tribe feared the destruction of relics and disturbance to sacred sites, and were prepared to confront police about it. Their leader Christina Frankland, won some legal battles along with eight other women. For her trouble she and about 50 other people were later driven out of Portland by racist harassment.

In 1978, after mass demonstrations, the Pitjanjatjara of South Australia won their claim to 160,000 square kilometres complementing areas they had gained under federal legislation in the Northern Territory. But then the Tonkin Liberal government, elected in 1979, allowed the legislation to lapse. It took a further campaign, with the Pitjantjatjara Council bussing demonstrators into Adelaide, before they got their land in 1981 ... without the right to veto mining.

In January 1979 the Northern Territory Central Land Council lodged a claim for Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the surrounding areas. Their case was powerful. Tourist industry spokesperson Keith Castle conceded it was "common knowledge, and we accept this, that there are areas of deep significance to the Aborigines around Ayers Rock." But there were vested interests involved, too: Barry Bucholtz of the Ayers Rock Chalet warned that "if they say they want a piece of the action, it will be machine guns at 40 paces." While in this case a victory for the Aborigines could not be denied, Bucholtz summed up perfectly the logic of a racist, capitalist system that never gave an inch where it could avoid doing so.

Against this system black people could make only limited gains on their own. In fact, they desperately needed allies, in the environmental movement for example, but especially in the white working class. Because union support for the Aurukun people never went beyond statements of principle, Aurukun could be isolated. In the Ranger disputes, blacks had more meaningful support in the anti-uranium movement with its strong working class component. Fraser recognised the threat this posed to his plans, and sought to weaken the links. Finally at Noonkanbah, it was union action which came close to foiling the WA government's attacks on land rights. Still, these struggles were all defeated because the solidarity actions were not effective enough; it was another indication of the need to rebuild the labour movement on a new basis, with better leaders.

 

Sources

In re-formatting this text for the internet, the footnotes were lost. If you want to follow something up and you canít get hold of Years of Rage, write to the author at the address above. Much of the material came from newspapers, but two valuable books are: J. Roberts, From Massacres to Mining, Melbourne, 1981; S. Hawke and M.Gallagher, Noonkanbah, Freemantle, 1989.

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