Fifty years ago this week, 200 Aboriginal stockmen and domestic servants walked off the job at Lord Vestey's Wave Hill cattle station, 600 kilometres south of Darwin. Most of them were members of the Gurindji people, with small numbers of Walpiri and other indigenous people. They were to stay out on strike for ten years.
Although white observers first saw the strike as a conventional dispute over wages and conditions, the main issue was the desire of the Gurindji people to regain their traditional lands, which they called Kalkarindji, from Vestey's. In August 1975, a portion of their land was returned by the Gough Whitlam Labor government in what was Aboriginal Australia's first successful land rights claim.
While this historic victory was primarily due to the guts and determination of the strikers themselves, they did find important allies in the labour movement and in particular in the ranks of the proudly “colour-blind” Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
The Gurindjis' first contact with Europeans was with explorers in the 1850s. After that, white hunters made sporadic incursions and in 1863 the South Australian parliament decided that Aboriginal lands in the Northern Territory could be leased to white pastoralists. Vast herds of cattle were driven onto the Gurindjis' land.
In keeping with European law and ideology, which did not recognise prior Aboriginal ownership of the land, the Gurindjis' permission was not sought. On paper, the NT Aboriginal peoples kept the right to use the land for their traditional purposes, but this right was swamped by the pastoralists' drive for profit.
Enormous herds of exotic bovines disrupted the delicate ecological balance on which the Gurindjis' livelihood depended. The cattle polluted waterholes and creeks and trampled and overgrazed the grasses and other plants. Kangaroos and other animals on which the Gurindjis depended for their food supplies were hunted to the verge of extinction.
None of this concerned European settlers who generally regarded Aboriginal peoples as barriers to “Progress”: their extermination was regarded as perhaps regrettable, but necessary and inevitable. The Aboriginal population declined from around 750,000 in 1788 to under 50,000 in 1921.
The cattle stations did, however, need labour power. Europeans were reluctant to live and work in such remote locations, so the station owners recruited — or more accurately impressed — the local Aboriginal people as stockmen and domestic servants. Given that their traditional livelihoods had largely been destroyed, they had little choice but to work for the pastoralists. Any resistance was put down with extreme violence, even murder, without fear of retribution.
By the time Vestey's took over the Wave Hill station in 1914, a system of super-exploitation of the Gurindji people's labour had been established.
Dr Cecil Cook, who was appointed Chief Protector of NT Aborigines in 1927, opposed the payment of cash wages to Aboriginal workers because he realised that it would make the cattle stations unprofitable. The system of payment in rations of tea, flour, sugar, tobacco and salt beef had been legalised in the NT Aborigines Act of 1910.
Vestey's made handsome profits as a result. They had earned the reputation even in a ruthless industry as an exceptionally pitiless employer. They invested very little capital in plant or machinery in the lease and gouged every penny of possible surplus value from a workforce they treated as serfs. The unpunished massacre of Walpiri people at nearby Coniston in 1928 served as a warning of the consequences of revolt or disobedience.
Nor could the Gurindji hope for support from the white labour movement. The North Australian Workers' Union (NAWU) noted that conditions amounted to “slavery without the advantage of slavery”; that is, the Aboriginal workers were a free source of expendable labour. However, far from fighting for equal pay and conditions, they saw Aboriginal workers as a threat to whites' employment conditions and sought to bar them from employment.
As Frank Hardy notes in his book The Unlucky Australians, “the very policy of White Australianism originated in the labour movement”. Indeed, until Communist militants won control of the NAWU in 1946, “non-whites” were not admitted to the union.
It was only in 1963, as a result of intense agitation by Communist officials, that the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) finally adopted a policy of equal pay for Aboriginal workers. By that time, however, the CPA had lost control of the NAWU to conservative Labor Party types.
Hardy painted a grim picture of life on the Wave Hill station and others like it: "Main diet — salt beef and bread; housing — tin humpies; women molested as a way of life (a lubra chucked in with your pay [for white employees that is]); social service payments paid direct to station managers and owners … They can neither leave the property nor have visitors without their employers' permission; wages £2.8.0 a week spent in trifles at the Company store."
Female domestic servants were paid £1.5.3 a week. Aboriginal wage rates had been set in 1945. In contrast, the white male basic wage in 1966 was set at $36.55, or £18 per week.
Asked if Aboriginal workers ever received extra rations, strike activist Lupgna Giari quipped that maybe they sometimes got extra salt on the beef! The meat ration in any case consisted of scraps the whites would not eat. Some stations paid only in scrip, redeemable at the company store.
Overtime pay was unheard of and in busy periods the stockmen were expected to work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Living conditions were horrible, with no running water, electricity or sewerage for the corrugated iron sheds that passed as houses. The Gurindji Elder Vincent Lingiari lived in “a rusty humpy no more than four feet high, eight feet deep, by perhaps five feet wide”, Hardy tells us. Vincent had to crawl into this structure on his hands and knees “often after working from daylight to dark”.
In 1965, the Arbitration Commission agreed in principle to equal pay, but negated this by inserting a “slow worker” clause into the award. This allowed the bosses to continue paying substandard wages to almost all Aboriginal stockmen because the managers and owners determined who was a slow worker. This was doubly galling to skilled Aboriginal stockmen who often trained whites to do the job — and then saw them paid much more.
The NAWU responded by lodging a claim for a general wage increase but the legal wheels moved at Dickensian, “Bleak House” speed, and in any case the claim was not for equal pay.
On the cattle stations, unrest simmered. In 1965, to the surprise of white observers, Aboriginal stockmen spontaneously walked off the job at the small Newcastle Waters station.
The NAWU's Aboriginal organiser Dexter Daniels demanded the extension of the strike to the larger stations, but union secretary Paddy Carroll insisted that the workers should wait until the Arbitration Commission handed down its decision — a process that could take several years.
Equal pay in any case would only be achieved in seven years and even then only for a small minority of Aboriginal workers deemed competent enough to receive it. In usual fashion, no Aboriginal workers were called upon to give evidence to the Commission: white union officials would speak for them.
This was the situation when Frank Hardy arrived in Darwin in 1966. Author of the controversial novel Power Without Glory, avuncular raconteur and dedicated beer drinker, he had been stationed two decades earlier as a young soldier at Mataranka barracks.
By his own account, involvement in political struggle was the last thing on his mind. Afflicted with writer's block and in the depths of a personal crisis, he had returned to the Territory to escape his demons and perhaps find the solitude in which to write.
Hardy, however, had been a member of the Communist Party since early adulthood. He was not one to duck a fight when the cause was just, and there was no cause more just than the struggle of the Aboriginal people who, Hardy argued, “are treated worse than any minority on earth.”
Shaking off despondency, Hardy immersed himself in their struggle. He made contact with Daniels and other Aboriginal activists, badgered Carroll, and prodded the local Communists into action.
Hardy was aware, as a Marxist, that the Aboriginal people had to emancipate themselves. His stance conflicted with white paternalism, which even infected the Left.
“How can you explain”, Hardy asked, “that white Australians Left, Right and centre believe that the Aborigines cannot help themselves, that white men must make their decisions, decide their fate?”
One of the strengths of Hardy's book about the struggle is that he allows the Aboriginal activists to speak for themselves. Lupgna Giari was one of them: "I said to [Hardy]: 'What do you think of this Aborigines' strike at Newcastle Waters?' and he said 'All right, that strike,' and I said to him: 'That strike not big enough. Those people know how to wait, but they are not enough ... And I told him the Aboriginal stockmen were waiting for me everywhere ... Paddy [Carroll] doesn't understand about the Aborigines waiting for me."
The white union officials, however well-meaning, urged reliance on a white court sitting thousands of kilometres away that would make decisions based exclusively on what white men had to say. To a man such as Carroll, who saw Aboriginal people as children incapable of making decisions for themselves, the unfolding process of struggle must have been inexplicable.
Other white observers blamed it all on Red interference: Aboriginal people were backward innocents led astray by sinister “commos” flush with Moscow Gold.
On August 23 1966, the Gurindjis, fed up with waiting, took matters into their own hands and walked off the job. They set up a strike camp at Wattie Creek — Daguragu in their own language — and resisted all threats and blandishments by welfare officers, police and Vestey's management for them to return to work.
The strikers, however, needed outside support if they were to succeed.
Vestey's was a hard-boiled outfit and would starve the strikers back to work and bring in scabs if they could get them. Wave Hill, too, was remote from Australia's major population centres; hundreds of miles even from Darwin. In addition, almost all adult Gurindjis were illiterate, the result of a century of neglect.
Union officialdom was, in the main, anxious to get them back to work so that they could get on with business as usual in the Arbitration Commission.
Vital support came from the CPA when it was needed because, for all of its history of Stalinism, the party had maintained a commitment to working class struggle and, in a time of pervasive racism, had never wavered in its support for Aboriginal emancipation.
While the CPA had not been entirely immune to paternalist influences, it could point to its involvement in the historic Pilbara strike of 1946-49, in which Aboriginal stockmen across a vast area of northern Western Australia had waged an epic struggle for wage justice. The CPA had also played an important role in the 1936 strike of Torres Strait Islander pearl divers and in strikes in Darwin in the 1950s.
Such a stance often brought them into sharp conflict with state and federal Labor governments, which resisted the demand for equal pay, sought to break Aboriginal strikes and perpetuated the system of racist laws and institutions.
Frank Hardy enlisted Darwin Communists such as George Gibbs, Esta and Jack Meaney and Brian Manning to support the Wave Hill strikers. They worked to resuscitate the moribund NT Aboriginal Rights Council and to ensure that it was controlled by the Aboriginal people themselves.
Hardy went south to organise financial support for the strikers and was gratified when CPA national secretary Laurie Aarons threw his weight behind the campaign. Daniels and Giari went on national speaking tours, gaining confidence to speak on behalf of their people in environments very strange to them.
Left unions such as the Seamen, Waterside Workers and building workers donated substantial sums towards the Wave Hill strike fund and even levied themselves for it. Students and workers took to the streets to demonstrate their support and prominent church leaders spoke out in support.
Even The Australian newspaper, in its pre-Murdoch incarnation, carried articles sympathetic to the strikers. Naturally, the CPA's weekly paper, the Tribune, followed the struggle closely.
In 1968, Hardy published The Unlucky Australians, based on his diaries and interviews with the strikers. Six years later, John Goldschmidt's British documentary of the same name took the Gurindji's long struggle to an international audience. The disgrace of what had happened in the remote outback could no longer be ignored by the white public.
Reclaiming stolen lands
The white Communist activists also realised something absolutely central to the dispute that was not at first understood by most white observers. Because Hardy and his comrades listened to the strikers, they realised that for the Gurindjis, the strike was first and foremost a struggle to reclaim their stolen lands and to reclaim their human dignity.
They were outraged by the actions of whites who preyed on their women and children. They were employed in atrocious conditions for substandard wages on 6000 square miles of land for which Vestey's paid a derisory rent of a shilling a square mile a year — a rent, it should be said, that went to the government, not the Traditional Owners of the land.
Hardy explained that “the lease is legal, although neither Vestey's nor the federal Government signed any treaty with the Gurindji or made any payment to them for the land”. Even so, he admits that Lingiari “made a remark that I did not take enough note of at the time”, namely that “I bin thinkin' this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Bestey mob”. [There is no “v” sound in the Gurindji tongue.]
Lingiari was illiterate, but he had articulated an idea that cut straight to the core of injustice that formed the heart of relations between White and Black Australia. He had reminded even the Gurindjis' closest white supporters of the obscured truth that the white invaders had taken their lands by force.
The white establishment was incredulous when the matter was raised. The Gurindjis' petition to the governor-general for the return of some of their lands was rejected out of hand. Conservative Minister Peter Nixon advised the Gurindji to save up and buy land from Vestey's, prompting Ted Egan and Lingiari to demand in their song “Gurindji Blues”:
What you reckon proper fee?
Might be flour, sugar and tea
From Gurindji to Lord Vestey?
In 1972, the Labor Party won the federal election, ending 23 years of unbroken Liberal rule. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appointed Justice Edward Woodward to head a royal commission into the question of Aboriginal land rights in the NT.
Deliberations were slow, but in 1974, Woodward submitted his report. On August 16, 1975, Whitlam travelled to Wave Hill and poured a handful of earth into the hands of the Gurindji strike leader and Elder, declaring: "Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever."
It was the solemn culmination of a 10-year struggle. Although the Gurindjis only won back a portion of their lands, it was nevertheless an historic victory that pointed the way forward to further land rights claims.
Across the country, Aboriginal people were inspired to step up their fight for justice. Hovering in the background, too, was the idea of Aboriginal sovereignty.
Today, when white politicians talk of constitutional recognition of the Aboriginal people, Aboriginal people raise the demand for a treaty. Lingiari, Daniels, Giari, Tudawali, and the Gurindji people as a whole were pioneers in that process.
It was their victory won by their own strength and determination.
We must also acknowledge, however, the part played by their allies on the Left, including Marxists such as Frank Hardy who believed in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity and were prepared to act on that belief.
Paraphrasing Marx, Hardy declared that “while black men are in chains, no white man can be free”. It is a tradition the Left can be proud of.