Noonkanbah 30 years on — WA still a racist state

September 24, 2010
Women from Noonkanbah station, near Fitzroy Crossing, WA.

Nineteen seventy nine was a very good year for the Western Australian ruling class. The corporate puppet masters had the ideal puppet in Premier Charles Court, and the most right wing, racist Liberal Party in Australia.

With a heavily gerrymandered parliament, Court rode roughshod over union rights, civil liberties, Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal land.

Enter the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) who had recently formed to represent the Aboriginal communities in the far north of WA. The KLC was determined to take a stand against the mining land grab.

The stand came when a small remote Aboriginal community at the Noonkanbah station, near Fitzroy Crossing, objected to oil exploration on a sacred site planned by transnational mining corporation AMAX, with a drilling rig owned by one of Australia’s biggest corporations, CSR.

The KLC set about mobilising a coalition of Aboriginal, trade union, church, student, community and international support to mount a strong campaign in support of the Noonkanbah community.

Court dismissed this opposition and pushed ahead. In 1980, the oil rig was brought to the site in a 2000km convoy of over 50 trucks with specially issued numberplates and many of the drivers wearing face masks to hide their identities. It was escorted by a large contingent of police with logistic support provided by the State Emergency Service. On the way, police broke up union pickets and Aboriginal blockades trying to stop the convoy.

The oil drilling took place on the sacred site but no oil was found.

However at Noonkanbah, Court overplayed his crash-through style. The massive police operation against a defenceless, small Aboriginal community at Noonkanbah looked like a scene from Apartheid South Africa and there was a huge outcry in WA, nationally and internationally. In early 1983, Court’s government was defeated at the ballot box.

Fast forward to 2010 and nothing much has changed in WA. Mining capital helped defeat the WA Labor Government in 2008 by pouring funds into the Liberal and National parties. Their puppet of choice, Troy Buswell, had to be removed because of well-publicised sexist indiscretions and was replaced by the more electable Colin Barnett.

But trampling over Aboriginal rights still remains part of the WA Liberal-National coalition’s core business.

WA Aboriginal people are being imprisoned at ever increasing rates — the highest in Australia. Aboriginal deaths in custody continue; evicting Aboriginal families from housing has been made easier and welfare support has been stripped back.

Now the Barnett Government is preparing for a Noonkanbah-style land grab on behalf of fossil fuel giant Woodside at James Price Point in the Kimberley.

Barnett has called off negotiations with the Kimberley Land Council and has announced his intention to compulsorily acquire the land for the Woodside gas project.

The battle is now on and the Kimberley Land Council is once again on the front line. We must be there too.


Dear Paul, I remember the attempt by the Charles Court government in Western Australia to break the Noonkanbah community in 1979, and I wrote some articles for the newspaper 'Direct Action' about this issue at the time. There clearly are parallels with the Noonkanbah struggle and the current attacks on Aboriginal rights in the Kimberley. Your usage of the phrase 'Western Australian ruling class' is not accurate in my opinion. WA - based capital might have its particular interests vis-a-vis the rest of the country, but the State of WA is part of the Australian Federation and business and mining interests in WA are well aware that they are a component of the larger whole. Some years ago, during the second Keating government, the Australian Prime Minister announced his intention to visit WA, and the then Premier of WA, Richard Court, objected to the Prime Minister's plan to visit his State. Paul Keating described Court's attitude as 'novel'. Particularism and secessionism have been features of WA political attitudes since the lead-up to Federation in the 1890s. The colony of WA might well have stayed out of the Federation had it not been for 't'othersiders' from the Eastern colonies - workers on the goldfields in WA - who tipped the balance in the vote on participation in the Australian Federation. In the 1930s a strong movement for the secession of WA from the Australian Commonwealth resulted in two successive referenda results supporting secession. The Australian High Court overruled these referendum results, and the WA State government then appealed the High Court's ruling to the Privy Council in London, without success. WA secession was revived in the 1970s by iron-ore mining magnate Lang Hancock. The enemy class facing working people and their allies in this country is the Australian bourgeoisie, a class that is no doubt divided in many ways, including along regional lines. The nature and the interests of the Australian ruling class require that regional and sectoral divisions within it are subordinated to its overall strategic, class requirements. In this sense the powerful mining lobby in WA, while promoting its sectoral interests, recognises that the strategic interests of Australian capital as a whole are primary. Fraternally, Graham Milner
you mob rock .

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