After the Walk-Off


‘Come on, people, give Mick some space!’ an organiser shouts. Mick Rangiari Lumbulla, a frail old man wearing sunglasses, is in danger of suffocating in the crowd of whitefellas who surround his wheelchair in a photo-taking frenzy.

It’s Freedom Day, 2006 the 40th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk-off, and Rangiari, nicknamed ‘Hoppy Mick’ for the limp he sustained in a mustering accident, is the last surviving leader of the strike. According to his nephew Maurie Ryan, Rangiari has been ‘holding on’ for the celebration.

In 1966, around 200 Aboriginal stock workers and their families walked off the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory which was owned by British beef baron Lord Vestey in protest. The Walk-off initiated a strike which, backed by unions and southern sympathisers, lasted nine years and culminated in the hand-over of traditional land to the Gurindji, and the establishment of the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

In his personalised account of the Walk-off, The Unlucky Australians, Frank Hardy describes Mick as ‘the most accomplished orator’ among the Gurindji leaders. Today his thin voice quavers and he keeps it short and sweet.

‘I never seen that in my life,’ he says, referring to the large crowd sitting under awnings near the site on the Victoria River where the strikers made their first camp. With about 2000 attending, this year’s commemoration of the event is the biggest ever.

Traditional owners and others from the twin communities of Kalkaringi (the old Wave Hill settlement) and Daguragu (the new settlement at Wattie Creek) are there, among them around 40 surviving participants of the Walk-off. Relatives from neighbouring communities have come, and groups of dancers from as far away as Alice Springs.

A VIP marquee shelters parliamentarians and other luminaries, among them NT Chief Minister Clare Martin, Peter Garrett and Whitlam Government Ministers Les Johnson and Tom Uren. (Whitlam himself has sent a video.) Unlike the 1975 hand-back ceremony, no representatives from the other side of politics are present.

The Wave Hill Walk-Off 40th anniversay celebration

There are unionists, Land Council leaders, public servants and professional types, media, members and descendents of the Stolen Generation taken from Wave Hill, bunches of friends, families, tour groups and a handful of ferals.

‘Very hard men, Vesteys, you know,’ Mick tells the crowd, ‘treating us like a dog.’

‘They had lived like dogs alright,’ Hardy writes, after seeing the accommodation at the station camp. But it was more than iron humpies and malnutrition that drove the Walk-off from Wave Hill.

There’s an argument, made topical recently by a feature in The Australian, that the Aboriginal stockmen’s strikes in the Top End were a strategic disaster for cattle station Aborigines. By striking, the argument goes, the stockmen forced pastoralists to find ways to replace them, at the same time as their insistence on equal wages was pricing them out of the market.

It’s an argument that overlooks the abuses most Aboriginal people on stations were subject to: deep, and sometimes vicious, racism; the systematic abuse of women; and unpaid, or underpaid, wages.

‘Aboriginal people had to defend their own dignity, had to defend their own integrity,’ says Indigenous leader Pat Dodson.

I was a kid in Katherine at a time when the Gurindji had walked off and there was a huge ‘Rights for Whites’ meeting taking place in the town You know, these are real things; you had cruel men involved in these places. These people were exploited, like many other Aboriginal people. Women were abused in these places. It wasn’t just poor rations and the poor living conditions, it was an absolute abuse. And people had had enough.

The suggestion that the strikers bowed out of an industry they would otherwise have remained a part of, seems naïve in its implication that innovations in the cattle industry would not have occurred without the strikes, or that Aboriginal workers would have survived massive redundancies had they stayed on.

‘It was only a matter of time before this range method of raising cattle was amended to more control of cattle,’ says Brian Manning, a founder of the NT Council for Aboriginal Rights and key participant in the Gurindji struggle. ‘And of course they don’t have horse plants they use trailbikes these days and helicopters. So it was inevitable. All that happened [was the strikes]just sped it up a bit. The inevitable was that the Aborigines were going to be displaced.’

The Gurindji’s claim for equal wages and land played a pivotal role in Australian history. The story of the Walk-off, the strength and determination of the Gurindji leaders, and the subsequent campaign, engineered by a huge cast of supporters around the country, should be widely known and celebrated.

Gough Whitlam pours the symbolic handful of
sand  into Vincent Lingiari’s palm

However, forty years on, it would also be naïve to celebrate, unreflectively, the freedom of the Gurindji people.

Smart, generous, funny and poetic, with a sense of identity inextricably linked to their family and country, these are strong people. But still far from fluent in ‘Mainstream Australia’ and its culture and institutions, they suffer from a sense of inferiority at not being able to understand, or operate in, much of it.

Wave Hill Walk-off leader Vincent Lingiari’s vision that the young would receive better education and learn the skills needed for their people to engage with the wider world has not yet been fulfilled.

Without literacy and technological skills there are few real prospects of work in the community, and despite the leaders’ vehement opposition to accepting welfare at the time of the Walk-off, dependence on pensions and often tokenistic work-for-the-dole schemes are entrenched. A malaise of powerlessness and purposelessness grips much of the community, and alcohol abuse and domestic violence are rife.

There is another sad irony to this celebration of the birth of Australian land rights. Just days earlier, the Government’s widely opposed amendments to the Land Rights Act had passed through Parliament, extinguishing some proven land claims outright, diminishing the power and independence of the Land Councils, and enabling the lease of land in Aboriginal townships to the NT Government (to sublease at their discretion), with rent to be paid back to the freeholders through the Aboriginal Benefit Account.

In its submission to the Senate Inquiry on the Amendment Bill, ANTaR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation) notes ominously: ‘Former Liberal Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Howson has suggested that œthe prospect of the resurgence of the world’s nuclear power industry  is one of the developments driving reform of the Act.’

Whether or not many Aboriginal people on remote communities aspire to owning their own homes (the encouragement of which is the apparent aim of the 99-year lease provision in the amended Act) is unclear because nobody asked them. The Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination, which was set up to be the Minister for Indigenous Affairs’ primary source of advice on Indigenous issues, claim that they didn’t think that informing and consulting Aboriginal people about the Bill’s contents was their responsibility.

From dismantling ATSIC which, for all its real and imagined sins, was a national Aboriginal representative body to using its Senate majority to rush through controversial, far-reaching and possibly sinister amendments to a Land Rights Act that has enjoyed bipartisan support for 30 years, the Howard Government’s approach to Aboriginal issues has consistently been to bypass the people they affect.

Kalkaringi kids bring tears to many eyes singing From Little Things Big Things Grow, off-key and
with accompanying hand movements. Photo by the author

‘Not only is there no dialogue [with Aboriginal people],’ says Patrick Dodson when I approach him in the barbecue queue, ‘the people who are having the dialogue are totally inexperienced of what has been tried or not tried by previous governments and are constructing strategies and approaches based on their best prejudices.’

‘If there’s one lesson that Australian political leaders should’ve learnt, it’s that you’ve got to involve the Aboriginal people in the process of finding solutions to whatever the crises are that they’re involved in.’

‘We have an effort in front of us,’ intones local Federal Member Warren Snowdon, through the late-morning heat.

We collectively have to understand that this battle is not finished, we collectively have to understand that while we have a responsibility to ensure those rights that Aboriginal people should demand as citizens of this country education, health, housing that we need to work in partnership with Aboriginal people, not tell them what they should be doing. We should be working with people as partners in negotiating outcomes as equals. That’s not what is happening currently.

The locals give Snowdon, who holds the seat of Lingiari, the biggest round of applause.

The old people at Kalkaringi and Daguragu are proud so many visitors have come to their festival. They’re angry with those who made aggressive political speeches they feel disrupted the harmony of the event and made them look inhospitable.

The young ones are not so clear on the significance of the celebration, but are pleased by the importance of so many gardiya (whitefellas) descending on their community. They’re happier still about the bands playing at big concerts over the two nights, where little girls gyrate under coloured lights on the bulldust dancefloor.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.