The Wave Hill walk-off, 1966-1975

Wave Hill strikers

A short history of the Wave Hill, or Gurindji, strike, when aboriginal agricultural workers walked out for equal pay and then lodged a claim for the land they worked on. They remained out for an incredible nine years, and were eventually given back a proportion of the land.

Stockmen protest for equal wages

Aboriginal stockmen, who had always been the backbone of the northern Australian cattle industry, were not paid wage equal to those of their white counterparts.

In fact, it was illegal up until 1968 to pay Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and money. An attempt to introduce equal wages in 1965 failed because pastoralists argued that equal wages would ruin the industry if paid immediately. It was decided to defer a decision for three years.

In 1966 Aboriginal people first protested for equal wages at Union Camp at Newcastle Waters Station, about 270km north of Tennant Creek [3]. The strike focused national attention on the entitlements of workers on pastoral properties across the NT.

Although they lost the strike, they started a groundswell of resistance to the appalling working standards imposed on Aboriginal people. It was a catalyst for the Wave Hill walk-off.

23 August 1966 - Australia’s first land claim at Wave Hill

But Aboriginal people did not submit to this decision. On 23 August 1966, 200 Aboriginal stockmen of the Gurindji people and their families walked off Wave Hill pastoral station, 600 kms south of Darwin in the Northern Territory, owned by a British aristocrat Lord Vestey.

Led by Vincent Lingiari, a community elder and head stockman at the station, they set up camp in the bed of Victoria River. The camp moved before the wet season of that year and in 1967 the Gurindji Aboriginal people settled some 30 kilometres from Wave Hill Station at Wattie Creek (Daguragu), in the heart of their traditional land, near a site of cultural significance.

The Wave Hill walk-off was well supported, including non-Aboriginal people. Unionists Brian Manning, a Darwin waterfront worker and fervent unionist, organised a strike fund with fellow unionists and Aboriginal actor Robert Tudawali and Roper River man and Union organiser Dexter Daniels. Manning loaded his truck with supplies and made the first of up to fifteen 1,600 kilometre round-trips from Darwin to Wave Hill. Manning’s support was key to the strike’s success.

The strike made headlines all over Australia. While the initial strike was about wages and living conditions it soon spread to include the more fundamental issue about their traditional lands. The Wave Hill walk-off had morphed into a land claim.

Aboriginal leaders petitioned the Governor-General in 1967, requesting a lease of 500 square miles to be run cooperatively as a mining lease and cattle station [5], and toured Australia to raise awareness about their cause.

The Gurindji Aboriginal people were claiming that this land was morally theirs because their people “lived here from time immemorial and [their] culture, myths, dreaming and sacred places have been evolved in this land”. This was the first claim for traditional Aboriginal land in Australia.

While Vestey’s company was prepared to hand the land over, opposition to this unusual and new idea was very strong.

The strike went on for 9 years until Prime Minister Gough Whitlam visited the site of the strike and made history with a symbolic gesture - pouring soil into the hand of aboriginal elder Vincent Lingiari.

16 August 1975 - Wattie Creek becomes Aboriginal land

Nationally many people resisted the idea of handing back land to its traditional owners. Five years later (the government had changed too), on 16 August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (Labor) handed over title to the land to the Gurindji Aboriginal people—the first act of restitution to Aboriginal people and the start of the land rights movement.

Gough Whitlam pouring soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hands has become a defining moment in Australia’s history.

The Wave Hill walk-off had paved the way for the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. In 1975 the Gurindji people bought the pastoral lease. After the NT government threatened to resume the lease, the Gurindji lodged a land rights claim.

In 1986 they gained freehold title to the waterhole on Wattie Creek known as Dagaragu, which is located in the Victoria River Region of the Northern Territory.

Today 700 Gurindji live in the communities of Daguragu, on the banks of Wattie Creek and Kalkarinji, formerly known as Wave Hill [1].

Was it successful?

The big question is: Was the walk-off and strike successful? Are Aboriginal workers better off?

Professor Jon Altman from the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University took a hard look in 2016, the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk-off and 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

His findings are not encouraging. [6]

“It would be fair to assume that today – 50 years after the walk-off and 40 years after the passage of the federal land rights act – the situation has massively improved and that the problems raised half a century ago have been fixed. But has the situation really improved?

“After a period of thirty years of gradual improvement to 1996, things have gone backwards. In 1966 Aboriginal people could walk-off in protest, but today their choices are more limited, there is less freedom. Back then it was the Vesteys Groups, a privately owned UK group of companies that was mistreating Aboriginal labour, today it is the Australian state.

“The inappropriately-named Community Development Programme is looking to disgracefully exploit Aboriginal workers in regional and remote Australia by paying them less than award wages for a mandatory 25 hours work a week with none of the usual contemporary benefits of work like holiday pay, superannuation or long service leave entitlements. And if people do not comply with draconian work-for-the-dole or train for training’s sake requirements they are breached, they lose their welfare entitlements at historically unprecedented rates and have to survive with no income for periods of up to eight weeks.”

Footnotes

[1] 'Big thing for Gurindji mob', Koori Mail 438 p.53
[2] 'Gurindji stand tall', Koori Mail 509 p.11
[3] 'Historical listing for outback NT camp', Koori Mail 443 p.47
[4] 'The Gurindji people farewell that “jangkarni marlaka”', Crikey 22/10/2014
[5] 'A petition to the Governor-General', National Museum of Australia, indigenousrights.net.au/land_rights/wave_hill_walk_off,_1966-75/a_petition_to_the_governor-general, retrieved 15/8/2016
[6] '50th Anniversary Of The Wave Hill Walk-off -- A Reflection Of The Past, Present And Future', Tasmanian Times 19/8/2016

Excepted and very slightly edited by libcom from www.CreativeSpirits.info, Aboriginal culture - Politics & media - Walk-off at Wave Hill: Birth of Aboriginal land rights, retrieved 23 August 2016