Land Rights Struggle in Australia
Aboriginal Policy Origins
by Stephanie PeatlingLand rights movement born with 5,000-acre claim
This is how it all began
The Gorton Cabinet decided in 1968 not to grant eight square miles of land to the Gurindji people after they walked off the Wave Hill Station, because of concerns it would appear as if the government was moving away from its policy of assimilation and set a precedent for granting land rights.
In August 1966, nearly 400 Aboriginal workers and their families left the station in the Northern Territory, then owned and operated by Lord Vestey for his family's meat company, after disputes over low wages and long working hours.
Under the leadership of Vincent Lingiari, the Gurindji people eventually set up camp at Wattie Creek, now known as Daguragu, and made an unsuccessful application to the governor-general for 500 square miles to be excised from the Wave Hill pastoral lease and handed over to them.
In a submission to Cabinet in April 1968, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, William Wentworth, asked that eight square miles (or 5,000 acres) be handed over to the Gurindji for "residence and horticulture".
The Minister for the Interior, Peter Nixon, urged Cabinet to give the Gurindji the small parcel of land. "It is a social experiment that should be tried; the alternative of institutionalised living in government or mission settlement is more expensive and less likely to build self-reliant people who can in due time take their own place in the community," his submission said.
However, Cabinet was also made aware, in a number of submissions, of the unhappiness of the Northern Territory Cattle Producers Council (which was supported by the Australian Woolgrowers and Graziers Council and the owners of Wave Hill) with the suggestion.
They objected to it on the grounds that it was "communist-inspired" and led by novelist Frank Hardy.
"The proposed action represents a new form of segregation, which would hinder assimilation, since it is not based on viable economic activity; political pressure for 'feather bedding' will undermine any prospect of self-reliance," a letter from the council said.
Cabinet finally decided in July against granting the lease on the grounds that it wished to "avoid a concession of principle such as would be represented by agreement to provide any fixed facilities at Wattie Creek".
The Gurindji won their claim in August 1975 after winning over then prime minister Gough Whitlam. The Wattie Creek battle is now regarded as the birth of the Aboriginal land rights movement.
This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and is distributed by the Grassroots News Network.
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