The Gurindji strike and land claim


In the 1960s and '70s, the Gurindji tribe of the Northern Territory, employed on the Wave Hill cattle station owned by Britain's Lord Vestey, staged a landmark struggle for Aboriginal justice. The campaign, Australia's first successful Aboriginal land claim, began as an industrial dispute. This had the immediate effect of challenging the Australian labour movement to address its attitudes on the rights and conditions of Aborigines, attitudes which until then had been often indifferent and sometimes openly hostile. Members of the Communist Party of Australia played a critical role, particularly in efforts to mobilise trade union support and build a solidarity movement. This feature by CHRIS MARTIN on the role of the CPA is excerpted from a longer article on the history of the struggle.

The last recorded massacre of Aborigines took place in the Northern Territory in the 1920s, in living memory.

In Hidden Histories — Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations, Deborah Bird Rose records Riley Young Winpilin on the massacres: "Old people got shot. Why? By land. Just stealing the land. The white man been coming here stealing the land from blackfellows ... Just from land. Wasting blackfellows, shooting blackfellows from land."

The colonial attitude to Aborigines, expressed in government policy of the time, was based on the European experience of slave trading. In her book But Now We Want The Land Back, Hannah Middleton argues that this policy continued as long as the pastoralists' main concern was acquiring Aboriginal land, not their labour power. Having secured the land, and lost cheap convict labour, they turned to the newly landless Aborigines for labour as colonisation spread north.

On stations like Wave Hill, Aborigines laboured for minimal sustenance under the practice, threat and memory of terror. According to Bird Rose, "Death, servitude, flogging and banishment were all means of exercising power". It was considered a waste of money to pay more than bare sustenance to Aborigines, as there was an almost unlimited supply of replacements in the bush.

In the mid-1930s a Northern Territory government inquiry, the Brackenregg-Sheperd Committee, investigated conditions on cattle leases. It reported: "... it was obvious that they [Vestey's] had been irresponsible in their management of the country, impractical in their development of station infrastructure and quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights".

Early strikes

World War II and advances in communication broke the isolation of the north. Aborigines entered a range of occupations left open by whites joining the armed forces, with a consequent improvement in cultural understanding. Wartime construction projects also linked black and white labour.

A strike for improved wages and conditions erupted amongst Aborigines employed in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, a district in the far north of the wool growing area. Much to the pastoralists' amazement, by May 5, 1946, 20 of the 22 Pilbara station properties were on strike. Though unsuccessful, the strike remains a model of organisation, solidarity and determination for black and white unionists.

Similar actions were attempted in the Victoria River Downs region, including abortive strikes in 1946-47 and 1951. In Darwin

Aborigines employed by the Northern Territory Administration and Department of Native Affairs struck in December 1950 and again in January 1951.

Bird Rose records Riley Young Winpilin on Aboriginal efforts to build links with unionists: "And old Sandy Moray used to come out from Wave Hill ... 'Ah', he told us, 'ah, you gotta change the law now' ... He used to go down to Canberra, talk with them Waterside Union. Talking with them. Telling them. Sneaking without no permit ... He used to come out telling us: 'We gotta get this land back'."

Though still well below white award rates, wages were finally introduced for Aboriginal workers in the late 1940s and, with greater public exposure, some of the worst abuses of Aboriginal labour ended.

In the late 1950s a new nationwide organisation came together to campaign for Aboriginal rights, calling itself the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (later changing its name to FCAATSI to incorporate Torres Strait Islanders). It began to pressure the labour movement, lobbying the Australian Council of Trade Unions congresses of 1959, 1961 and 1963. In 1963, the ACTU finally adopted a policy calling for an end to all discrimination against Aboriginal labour.

This in turn spurred the Australian and North Australian Workers' Unions to act, and an application for an award wage for Aborigines in the pastoral industry was presented to the Arbitration commission in 1965. The commission decided that "there must be one industrial law, similarly applied to all Australians, Aboriginal or not".

However, arguing for the pastoralists, John Kerr (later Sir John) convinced the commissioners to accept a "slow worker" clause under which pastoralists could seek to classify certain Aboriginal workers inefficient and gain an exemption from the award.

A further limitation gave pastoralists until 1968 for the new rates to be introduced. Unwilling to wait three years for an indefinite outcome, Aborigines of the Victoria River Downs stations walked off the job and away from a century of white domination.

A detailed account of the strike is contained in Frank Hardy's

book The Unlucky Australians. Hardy achieves a formal history of the strike through a personal journal of his experiences working with the Gurindji and organising support. Of particular importance are Hardy's recordings of oral histories provided by the strikers.

Bird Rose offers her views on the roots of the strike: "Most studies emphasise the issue of wages. This is the chronology of European perceptions, but it seems to miss the underlying logic ... The desire to find powerful allies was based on the desire to regain control — of lives and of land ... wages were a language which Europeans could understand, and constituted an issue which trade unions were known to support."

The start

The first strike action of the campaign took place not at Wave Hill but at the smaller Newcastle Waters station, in June 1966. Newcastle Waters also employed a number of Gurindji, among them Lupgna Giari — called "Captain Major" by his white employers — who was a key figure throughout the campaign. Hardy recorded Giari's feelings at the outset:

"I bin thinkin' longa time about my people not having proper money or proper conditions. I bin thinkin' we got no one to help us, no one behind us ..."

Dexter Daniels, an Aboriginal NAWU organiser, convinced Giari otherwise, and a strike was declared. Daniels was also to play a pivotal role, coordinating support for the Gurindji from Darwin. In a chapter titled "How the Wave Hill strike started", Hardy records Daniels:

"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."

Daniels' reference to NAWU secretary Paddy Carroll indicates the limited support at this point. While Gurindji at Wave Hill joined the action immediately, efforts to broaden the strike to other stations were thwarted until much later.

Also in Hardy's book, Vincent Lingiari recounts a discussion with Daniels: "And Dexter said: 'Well, what you Wave Hill mob going to do if you don't get proper money?' 'Well, I don't know.' I said, 'We sick and tired of [Wave Hill Station manager] Tom Pisher and that Bestey mob living in Gurindji country."

This makes it clear that from the outset leaders such as Lingiari were preparing for a struggle around much bigger issues than simply wages and conditions.

On August 22, 1966, against the explicit instructions of the NAWU, the Gurindji employed at Wave Hill and their families, together more than 200 people, collected their few belongings and left the squalid humpies the station called accommodation. They walked several kilometres to the local Welfare settlement, where they made a camp on the banks of the Victoria River and began a strike which was to last nine years.

Welfare, the Commonwealth government agency responsible for Aboriginal welfare at this time, was still enacting the policy of assimilation. The Welfare officer stationed at Wave Hill, however, was known to be sympathetic. Bill Jeffrey, together with his wife Anne and daughter Sue, provided crucial material and moral support throughout the campaign.

The strike had initially taken pastoralists by surprise, but they soon rallied. A steady stream of direct and indirect intimidation followed. Senior staff of Vesteys, Welfare officials and police all made visits to the camp. Jeffrey reported:

"We had visits from all sorts of important Welfare people. Quite a lot of offers to the Aborigines. They tried to tell them that Vestey's were good people ..."

Support was being organised in Darwin by the reconvened Aboriginal Rights Council and nationally by the FCAATSI. The NAWU, initially opposed, came behind the strike as it became clear the action would go ahead regardless.

Broader union support was being steadily mobilised. In October of 1966, Giari and Daniels travelled through the southern capitals raising funds and support. This tour was organised principally by the Communist Party with funding from Actors Equity. Further tours followed.

Sensing a crisis, the NT government pushed through a new award in late 1966. This offer amounted to an immediate increase of 125%, certainly an unprecedented breakthrough, but it was rejected by the strikers, the NAWU and the Rights Council. Frank Hardy reported a statement to the press by Davis Daniels, Dexter Daniels' brother and a leader of the Rights Council:

"... the minimum rates for stockmen had been raised by $8 a week, but this was far below the award rates ... the Government itself was employing many Aborigines, particularly in the services, 'on starvation wages' ... this is a terrible situation ... We are waiting for the end of the wet season next March, then there'll be some action."

Other stations had begun offering higher wages in an effort to hold their Aboriginal stockmen. Lupgna Giari recounts a meeting with stockmen from Banka Banka station:

"... they told me they was getting plenty of money ... That don't look like proper money to me; better than before but not equal money ... Ebrything better for Aboriginal people now since this strike. They get better living, better treatment, better condition, better house. Better money, too, maybe not proper equal money but better than before."

Move to Daguragu

Despite mounting intimidation, the Gurindji held firm through the long wet season. In March 1967, they took their historic decision to raise the stakes. In two groups, they packed up their camp at the Welfare settlement and moved to the centre of their dreaming, Wattie Creek, naming the new settlement Daguragu.

With the help of Hardy and the Jeffreys, the Gurindji drafted a petition to the governor general seeking the excision of 600-700 square miles comprising most of the Wave Hill lease and the remainder of Victoria River Downs. The petition included a map of sacred places on the land claimed, and detailed the evolution of Gurindji cultural myths and dreaming associated with these sites.

Minister-in-charge of Aboriginal Affairs W.C. Wentworth travelled to Wattie Creek in April 1968 and returned with a proposal to excise eight square miles for a settlement. Even this token effort was opposed by the Liberal cabinet. Instead, it approved an alternative proposal for a township development at a site called Drovers Common, a dry and desolate area of no use to Vesteys. In his book Kulinma, H.C. Coombs refers to the site as a "pound".

In 1968 Coombs was called on, as chair of the recently formed Council for Aboriginal Affairs, to investigate options for resolving the dispute. His frustration with government intransigence is obvious in Kulinma, where he reflects on the official response to the Gurindji petition:

"Any concession, even one designed merely to give the Gurindji rebels the opportunity to prove their capacity for economic independence, was strongly opposed by pastoralists ... Cabinet feared that to provide land from an area already under lease would lead to a succession of similar claims which would be the more embarrassing if any acknowledgment of traditional rights

were implied."


As the strike entered its third year in 1969, a stalemate had been reached. Hardy reported that the campaign in support of the Gurindji had dwindled and the press and the public were losing interest.

The Gurindji were standing firm, however, with the young stockmen working on the other stations at the new award rates and the elders and some women and children maintaining the settlement at Wattie Creek.

It was becoming obvious that protest actions in Australia and elsewhere were affecting Vesteys. Coombs comments, "They were willing to collaborate in any government policy directed to meeting Aboriginal demands for land, even if this meant surrendering substantial areas from their Wave Hill lease". This view was confirmed, Coombs adds, in a conversation he had with Lord Vestey in 1972. Hardy, on the other hand, contends that it was more a case of Vesteys and Australian governments "hiding behind each other's skirts".

In a last ditch attempt to quell the protests, the Liberals legislated for "general purpose leases", under which Aborigines who could prove a "long association" with an area of land might apply for an excision. At the time of the Labor government taking office in December 1972, not one of these leases had been granted.

This poor effort was received with predictable anger by Aborigines. Immediately following its announcement, a group established the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawn of Parliament House, which was to attract international attention.

White support

Throughout the strike, white support — financial, material and political — was critical to protecting the Gurindji from isolation and physical intimidation. Without the exposure and public attention white supporters were able to mobilise, more ruthless efforts to break the strike would undoubtedly have been used, as they were in earlier strikes.

The Gurindji action broke through the racist barriers in the

labour movement. The success of fundraising and protest actions around the country, led by workers alongside students, was a victory for class-conscious unionism.

This dramatic shift in opinions would not have been possible without the efforts of a highly motivated and organised group. The Communist Party of Australia used its considerable influence to mobilise and educate a broad and active support base for the Gurindji.

CPA members had been active around Aboriginal issues since the party's inception. Denouncing the White Australia Policy, which had deep support in the labour movement, the CPA established a firm platform of opposition to all forms of racism.

An early policy statement, a pamphlet published in 1939, A New Deal for Aborigines by Tom Wright, marked a big step forward in progressive attitudes. It reflected the thinking of the time, however, and was criticised in later material as paternalistic, concentrating on tribal societies. Attention to the issue was maintained through regular articles in the party's press, leaflets and further pamphlets such as the 1947 study of Torres Strait Islanders by a CPA organiser, Gerald Peel.

Further ground was broken by the leadership role of CPA member Don McLeod in the 1946 Pilbara strike, the only white to hold such a position. Along with the black leadership, Dooley and Clancy McKenna, McLeod was imprisoned during the strike, his charge being "inciting Aborigines to leave their place of lawful employment".

The militancy of this celebrated strike inspired more political action as Aborigines employed by the Northern Territory administration and Department of Native Affairs struck in December 1950 and January 1951. The leadership this time was all Aboriginal, and community-wide meetings were a feature of the action.

Among the savage efforts to break these strikes, the Northern Territory government banished one of the leaders, Fred Waters, to Haasts Bluff, a thousand miles from Darwin. This led to the most vigorous protests from the white community yet seen, particularly the now actively involved union movement, with the Darwin CPA branch at the forefront.

Middleton comments: "The North Australian Workers' Union in Darwin, and particularly a group of communists including George Gibbs who were active and influential in the Union, organised financial and other support from throughout the continent for the striking Aborigines and their families and for the legal costs of their defence".

Unions shift

Aboriginal rights organisations were springing up around the country. These groups were no longer predominantly middle class, increasingly drawing members from the working class through union participation.

After years of hedging, the 1963 congress of the ACTU was finally forced to adopt a basic policy on Aboriginal rights. The policy was strengthened at subsequent congresses, in large part through the sustained efforts of Communist union officials. This opened the way for stronger union action, and CPA members in the north used the policy to push through an about-face on Aboriginal

rights in the AWU and NAWU. Under the heading "Red and Black" in her book Power and Protest, Verity Burgmann comments:

"... there are very good reasons for Koories to believe ill of unions, as the right-wing dominated Australian Workers Union (AWU), which covers much rural work in the areas where most Aborigines live and was therefore the union relevant to most Aboriginal workers, was undoubtedly a racist organisation for most of this century. Though it did not specifically exclude Aborigines from membership, it did insist they were inherently inferior to white workers ... However, it was finally won round on this issue, mainly by Aboriginal activists within its own ranks and Communists within the wider union movement."

The development of the CPA's thinking on Aboriginal issues can be seen in the policy document prepared for its 21st national congress of June 1967, at the height of the Gurindji action.

Analysing the links between Aborigines and the working class, the document says: "But the basic condition of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders remains that of oppressed national minorities. This is emphasised, not contradicted, by the fact that the great majority of them are poverty-ridden labourers."

On the question of how to achieve a just reconciliation: "The Communist Party therefore upholds the right of the Aborigines and Islanders to exist and develop as peoples, to live on their own lands or in the general community, according to individual desires, to social equality with other Australians and to full citizen rights.

"Their minimum immediate needs are equal citizen rights, equal opportunity of employment, with full trade union rates and conditions and large-scale Government grants to enable them rapidly to overcome the handicap imposed on them by more than a century of savage exploitation."

And on the role of the CPA and the working class: "The task of communists and others really desirous of assisting the Aboriginal and Islander peoples is to give them fraternal aid in their struggle for emancipation, not to act as paternal 'benefactors'.

"The working class, especially its industrial section, is the main social force in Australia in the struggle for reforms within capitalism and for decisive social change. It has a major responsibility towards the Aborigines and Islanders."

In The Unlucky Australians, Hardy makes regular reference to the Darwin CPA members active in the Gurindji campaign, especially Brian Manning and George Gibbs. He mentions his visits to the Darwin Workers' Club to meet with local communists, drinking at the "red table" and discussing the trade union support for the strike.

Hardy also mentions Hannah Middleton's visit to Wattie Creek. Middleton, a CPA member at the time and an anthropologist, lived with the Gurindji for six months to study their social and cultural organisations, the basis of her book But now we want the land back. Hardy reports that her visit "had great value apart from her anthropological work: the Gurindji, especially the women, idolized her".


Hardy makes a considerable effort to detail the concern he, Jeffrey and other white sympathisers felt through the early part of the strike about whether they were pushing the Aborigines' actions, particularly the move from a strike to a land claim. Hardy remarks: "A great worrier at any time, I began again to be plagued by doubt. The Gurindji were on strike for wages ... The land tenure idea was a pipe dream in which I had no right to encourage them."

Coombs refers to Hardy and the question of white influence in Kulinma: "While there can be little doubt that the shift of emphasis in the Aborigines' demands was stimulated and given coherent expression for English-speaking audiences by the help and ideas of Frank Hardy ... and other white advisers, it seems likely that the idea of basing the claim on 'traditional rights' emerged naturally from discussions with the group themselves who certainly would have made clear to their advisers what territory they considered to be 'theirs'."

Hardy quotes an editorial of the time in the Australian: "There is talk in Government circles of the Aborigines being encouraged to tackle their inferior status more militantly by the communists ... we have only ourselves to blame if the vacuum we have left in Aboriginal welfare and education is capitalised upon by the communists."

Throughout the strike, the CPA newspaper Tribune carried regular reports of solidarity actions around the country. From the July 17, 1968, issue are some examples:

"In an outstanding example of trade unionists' support, workers at Oxley (Brisbane) meatworks voted from their Welfare Fund a

donation of $800 for the Wave Hill Aborigines."

"A Melbourne march of over 1000 students, unionists and others and an Adelaide march of a hundred students last week protested the Government's rejection of the Gurindjis' land claim."

In another campaign, the Communist Party raised funds to send Dexter Daniels as a delegate to the 9th World Youth Festival in Bulgaria.


The new Labor government elected in December 1972 moved slowly. The Northern Territory Land Board was instructed to grant no more development leases on reserves which might impair Aboriginal rights. Mining exploration licences were suspended pending an inquiry and, at long last, a small grant of land at Wattie Creek was made as a step towards a complete hand-over.

Whitlam appointed Justice Woodward to head a royal commission on the legal establishment of land rights. The main recommendations were for the creation of reserves and incorporated land trusts, administered by either traditional owners or the land councils, financed by the government.

While legislation enacting these recommendations as law remained unpassed at the time of the Whitlam government's dismissal, the incoming Fraser government enacted substantially similar legislation.

The success of the Gurindji land claim, however limited, was a real victory against a powerful industry and a hostile government. Without their courage and determination, the ongoing struggle for land rights would be far less advanced.

Their struggle was a turning point for Australian society. From overwhelming paternalism and indifference emerged a readiness amongst a significant section of the white community to stand alongside Aborigines in demanding a just reconciliation.

This group of people, workers and students, speaking out in their unions and workplaces, schools and universities, in the streets and in the press, were brought together and given leadership by the Communist Party. Without their collective efforts, the Gurindji might still be a landless people, separated from their dreaming.