Among Our Prime Ministers, Whitlam Stood Tall On Land Rights


I believe in the annals of history, Australian Prime Ministers will be remembered ultimately for what they did or didn’t do for First Nations people. The development of this country came after the unjust deaths of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people. We can’t mature as a country until we fix the injustices perpetrated as a result of colonisation.

Above all, Aboriginal people remember the failure of governments to deliver national land rights. Land has spiritual, economic and social significance to Aboriginal nations, and the absence of true land justice has compounded the deep disadvantage felt in Aboriginal communities.

Out of our recent Prime Ministers, there is only one who will be remembered favourably in regards to land rights. That man passed away today at age 98. His name was Gough Whitlam.

Whitlam was one of the first politicians to visit the Aboriginal Tent Embassy when he crossed the thin strip of bitumen separating Parliament House from the site of the longest running Aboriginal protest in modern history.

The tent embassy was erected in part as a response to Prime Minister Billy McMahon, who on the eve of Australia Day (or Invasion Day) in 1972, announced his government would never grant Aboriginal land rights.

It angered, mobilised and helped politicise Aboriginal youth to the extent that on that very night four young Aboriginal men drove down to Canberra and camped themselves under an umbrella outside Parliament House. Over ensuing days, that umbrella grew to a sea of tents, and the tent embassy still stands strong as a reminder of broken promises on land rights.

In early February 1972 the tent embassy drew up a petition to present to the McMahon government calling for full control of the Northern Territory, including mineral rights, to be given back to Aboriginal people, ownership of all reserves and settlements in Australia including mineral and mining rights, preservation of sacred sites, legal title and mining rights to areas in ‘certain cities’ and compensation for dispossession of land.

Within days, as Labor Opposition leader, Gough Whitlam visited the embassy to talk with protestors.

Chair of the Aboriginal Medical Service Sol Bellear remembers him as a commanding presence, a tall man with a bellowing voice who promised to deliver land rights to his Aborigianl brothers and sisters.

“Gough Whitlam was the first to visit the embassy. He sort of legitimised it for other politicians,” Bellear says.

It was a time when there was growing public concern for delivering Aboriginal justice on the back of the 1967 referendum, and when Aboriginal people were able to exercise more political agency.

By sitting at the tent embassy, MPs and Senators demonstrated that there was a willingness to discuss Aboriginal affairs on Black terms, and not the other way around. Fast forward to Australia Day protests in 2012, where then Opposition leader Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard reacted with almost comical ferocity to Aboriginal protestors.

It was on the lawns of the tent embassy that Whitlam promised Aboriginal people national land rights after being challenged by Wiradjuri lawyer Paul Coe, who claimed the Labor government’s policy on land rights differed little from McMahon.

The result was a reversal in ALP policy.

Aboriginal journalist John Newfong said that moment could not be underestimated.

“The tent conference with Mr Whitlam turned out to be one of the greatest coups ever for the Aboriginal advancement movement. Very much to the embassy, credit is the fact that it managed to get such a heavy commitment from a party seemingly so close to power.”

Koori historian Gary Foley would later write: “This was a significant moment in history and would later result in 1976 in the NT Land Rights Act.”

Whitlam’s short time in government was significant for Aboriginal Australia because it lead to the establishment of the first Aboriginal representative organisation — The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), and the drafting of land rights legislation in the NT.

It’s the latter that Whitlam will be known for. The iconic image of Whitlam pouring a handful of sand into the fingers of Gurindji stockman and land rights warrior Vincent Lingiari, immortalised by Aboriginal photographer Mervyn Bishop, is one of the most important in our history.

From 1966-1975, Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari led nearly 200 workers on a strike for equal wages against the Wave Hill pastoral station run by the British Vesteys.

But the movement was about more than wages. It was about the fight that is core to Aboriginal being: land.

Gough Whitlam will be remembered as the “tall stranger” who appeared in the land, in Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s iconic protest song From Little Things Big Things Grow, which charts the Wave Hill walk-off.

Whitlam’s impact on the fight for land rights was the framing of the NT Land Rights Act following the Woodward commission into Land Rights in the Territory.

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act NT was later passed by the Liberal Fraser government following Whitlam’s dismissal.

Whitlam ultimately failed to deliver on his promise for national land rights. But he was rare among prime ministers for his willingness to discuss the true aspirations of Aboriginal people on their own terms.

It contrasts directly on the current Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who once advocated for a “new paternalism”, Julia Gillard, who was largely apathetic, and Kevin Rudd who said sorry but did nothing else.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke kowtowed to big miners and broke his promise for national land rights and treaty; Paul Keating, while acknowledging it was “we who did the dispossessing” would help push national land rights off the table with the Native Title Act in the wake of the Mabo decision.

John Howard was the Prime Minister who oversaw ATSIC’s abolition, the Shared Responsibility Agreements, the Ten Point Plan to water down Native Title, and the horrendous NT intervention, among a host of other racist polices.

So in the annals of history, Whitlam stands tall – both metaphorically and literally.

Perhaps his impact is best summed up by Gary Foley in a widely shared Facebook status: “Even though he failed to deliver on his February 1972 promise of Land Rights for Aboriginal peoples, the late Gough Whitlam was still the only decent Australian Minister in my lifetime.

RIP Gough Whitlam.

Readers react: how will you remember Gough?

A Darumbul woman from central Queensland, Amy McQuire is the former editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine.