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The Forgotten Struggle of Australia's Aboriginal People

The Issue of Aboriginal people gaining recognition for their full rights on land held under pastoral lease in the Northern Territory of Australia will become a major battleground for human rights in the 1990s and beyond.

When considering the relocation and resettlement of the Aboriginal people of Australia, any pattern of movement away from their country can only be seen as part of a boomerang movement of return. To accept any invitation to contemplate the separation of people from country is pointless. Likewise, it is equally pointless to contemplate the separation of the country from the people.

The Aboriginal people of Australia are not merely "simple hunter-gatherers" wandering the face of the earth in search of daily food. They are a people with a highly developed "non-material" culture that integrates individual and collective subjectivity into the structures of the environment. They are not so much part of nature as they are its intelligence, playing a vital role in the self-government of the interactions between species and environment.

When a wedge is driven between the Australian people and the Australian country, both suffer traumatic changes and go into decline. The land has a great a longing for there turn of the Aboriginal people as the Aboriginal people have for their return to their country. No government policy and no "whitefella" (Anglo-Australian) ploy has yet proven stronger than this longing.

White Cattlemen/Aboriginal Country

In the Northern Territory of Australia, the white pastoralists (cattle and beef barons) presently stand poised to drive even deeper the hundred-year-old wedge that separates the Aboriginal people from their country. In many cases they have succeeded in forcing a temporary retreat by Aboriginal people from land under pastoral lease.

The Northern Territory, an administrative division of the colonizing Anglo-Australian government, was granted self-governing status in 1978. It was formerly administered by the Commonwealth Government of Australia, which acquired it from the South Australia, which acquired it from the South Australian government in 1911. South Australia, then a colony of Great Britain, acquired it from New South Wales in 1863. Neither New South Wales nor the British government, however, took the trouble to acquire it from the Aboriginal people. Probably for this reason, Aborigines do not concede that the white claim to their lands is well found.

Immediately upon achieving self-government in 1978, the white interests that had underwritten the Country-Liberal Party government set about consolidating the hold they had acquired on Aboriginal countries. The "locked-gate" strategy of the pastoralists, combined with bluff and intimidation, was directed to ensure that once the "property" had been rid of Aboriginal inhabitants, it remained so.

Aboriginal people on some pastoral leases refuse to accept that they may only remain on their country if they are "workers" (and, as such, liable to dismissal); their continued presence has been a thorn in the side of the whites. The other thorn is the reservation in the pastoral lease that guarantees the legal right for Aboriginal people to live on their land. Although this has long been abused, with N.T. Aboriginal people being shot and otherwise mistreated during the last hundred years without the forfeiture of the lease, the continued presence of the reservation serves to complement the on-the-ground efforts of the Aboriginal people to maintain their relationship with their country.

Although the Crown did not acquire the land from Aboriginal people in the first instance, it made provision in the pastoral leases which, if adhered to, would have produced a very different history of human rights in Australia. The genesis of the reservation in the lease is found in the instructions from the British secretary of state for the colonies to the governor of New South Wales in 1848 (Earl Grey to Fitzroy, 11 February 1848). (At this time, the whole of the Northern Territory was still part of New South Wales.) Grey wrote:

I think it essential that it should be generally understood that leases granted for this purpose give the grantees only exclusive rights of pasturage for their cattle and of cultivating such land as they may require within the large limits thus assigned to them but that these leases are not intended to deprive the natives of their former right to hunt over these districts, or to wander over them in search of subsistence in the manner to which they have been accustomed, from the spontaneous produce of the soil, except over land actually cultivated or fenced in for that purpose.

Clearly, the white interests are to be protected by fences; the Aboriginal interests are to continue to range over the country. The history of the Northern Territory has been such that the inverse is the result.

Casting for Lots

The lands of N.T. Aboriginal people were not subject to pastoral lease until after 1863 when South Australia undertook to exploit, by way of speculation and settlement, the carefully nurtured Aboriginal inheritance. As the lands of other people were taken up in Queensland (1840-1870), pressure mounted for the discovery of fresh fields of interest for speculative capital. The Crown's issuance of new leases in the Northern Territory during the 1870s created a trading frenzy, in which the lives of Aboriginal people were placed in the hands of gamblers in distant cities. This activity was followed by the actual invasion of cattle into the life-sustaining ecosystems. Tens of thousands of water-guzzling bullocks were driven into the arid N.T. lands. Their monopolization of the grasslands, under the careful supervision of their owners' rifles, was the beginning of a social and ecological disaster.

British eyes might have perceived the Australian outback as a land of vast open spaces in which large scale cattle production could peacefully coexist with the traditional life of Aboriginal people. The reality, however, was entirely different. The ecosystem was fully elaborated with life forms interrelating in a dynamic balance. Large-scale cattle production was incompatible with the preservation of the indigenous life forms.

The Reservation in Favor

The leases issued by the South Australian government contained in them, as instructed, the reservation in favor of Aboriginal people. It allowed the Aboriginal people full and free right of ingress, egress and regress into, upon and over the said Waste Land and of the Crown...and in and to the Springs and surface water thereon and to make and erect such wurlies and other dwellings as the said Aboriginals have been heretofore accustomed to make and to take and use for food birds and such a manner as they would have been entitled to if this demise had not been made.

Aboriginal peoples expressed widespread resistance to the invasion of their country. They made it clear that a fundamental conflict existed between the cattle industry and the interests of the Aboriginal people.

The dilemma facing the whites was that, if they respected the rights of Aboriginal people as required by the terms of the lease, they would have to greatly modify their social and agricultural practices of cattle rearing. On the other hand, if they wanted to reap profits and repay loans and mortgages, cattle production had to be maximized.

Social Structural Choice

The emergent whitefella social structure in the Northern Territory in the latter part of the nineteenth century chose to replicate that of other parts of Australia: to consign the lives and rights of Aboriginal people to the scrap heap and to promote economic viability as the sole criterion for the application of justice. This choice ran through all levels of the frontier society. Getting away with black murder came to be regarded as the right of the frontiersman.

The Commonwealth government, formed in 1901, acquired the Northern Territory from a disillusioned South Australia ten years later. The reservation in favor of Aboriginal people continued to be written into the pastoral leases; it also continued to be ignored. Aboriginal people were either pressed into unpaid labor in return for rations, forced to move to government ration stations and reservations or sought refuge on the few cattle stations on which they were permitted to form communities. Aboriginal people were classified not as citizens but as wards of the state. They were expected to die off. They did not.

Equal with Whom?

With the change in the international climate in the 1960s and with the judgment of the electoral body that the surviving Aboriginal people were showing signs of promise in terms of adopting white ways, Aboriginal people were made citizens of Australia. This was accompanied by a campaign for equal pay for black workers on cattle stations.

The response of the pastoralists was to move rapidly toward employing white stockmen exclusively, replacing droving with trucking and men on horseback with helicopter mustering. The Aboriginal labor requirement was reduced to a minimum. Peak seasonal demands were met with short-term "contract" labor. The Aboriginal community's only value to the pastoralist was now reduced to the fringe benefits incurred by cashing their welfare checks for them. As government supervision of this practice increased, to ensure the money was going where it was intended, their value was further reduced.

In 1970 the Commonwealth government established a committee of inquiry to investigate conditions on pastoral properties in the Northern Territory. Despite the fact that the recognition of Aboriginal rights was about to undergo a quantum leap in 1972 with the election of the Whitlam Labor government, the Gibb Committee produced an abysmal report that was silent on the abuse of the reservation protecting Aboriginal interest (just as it was silent on the abuse of reservation concerning environmental degradation). The committee recommended in effect that Aboriginal culture be declared dead and Aboriginal people be fenced in:

that in appropriate areas land be obtained by excision, or by sub-lease from the pastoralists for Aboriginal communities for limited village, economic and recreational purposes to enable Aborigines to preserve traditional cultural ties and obligations and to provide the community with a measure of autonomy; such land naturally needs access to adequate water supplies but in addition it should be of such an area and such a quality that some supplementary activities may be encouraged upon it, e.g. pig, poultry and fishing, gardening and artifact making, etc..

Gibb excisions, as they are known, entered the political debate as part of the diffuse negotiation process occurring at several levels between the Aboriginal and Anglo-Australian social formation. The power play of the Country-Liberal Party is directed to keeping the discussion within the bounds of the granting or not granting of such excisions. The party refuses to contemplate other alternatives, such as the marriage of interests which would result from the joint ownership and joint management of cattle stations on Aboriginal land.

Rights to the Scraps

In 1976 the Commonwealth government passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (N.T.) Act, which allowed Aboriginal people to lodge traditional land claims to areas of unalienated (vacant) Crown land and to the few cattle stations for which they held the whitefella title. This act also established the Northern, Central and Tiwi Land Councils. Under the Land Rights Act, traditional land claims cannot be brought to unalienated (vacant) Crown land within a town boundary or to rural land alienated by way of a pastoral lease held by other interests. Most of the good country in the Northern Territory falls into this category.

In 1978 the Commonwealth Act was passed granting self-government to the Northern Territory. This enabled the white interests, which predominate in the N.T. electorate, to enact legislation. As a self-governing territory, the N.T. does not have the powers of a state and cannot do exactly as it pleases with respect to legislation such as the Land Rights act, which remains in force. There is presently a drive, fueled by white pastoralists and large-scale mining company heads, for the Northern territory to achieve statehood and unfettered "development."

One of the first actions of the Country-Liberal Party on attaining office in 1978 was to amend the Crown Lands Act in respect to the rights of Aboriginal people resident on cattle stations. The amendment restricted access to educational, medical or other facilities located at the homestead to those aboriginal people residing within 2 km of the homestead - restricted aces which was to cease should the Aboriginal people relocate permanently at a place more than 2 km from the homestead or when similar facilities were provided on a "suitable" site.

This is an attempt to isolate the Aboriginal community from the central point in the system of brokerage established between the resources of the country and the provision of services. In the eyes of the Country-Liberal Party, the direct proceeds flowing from the wealth of the country are reserved for the commercial operators. The last decade has seen increasing pressure placed on Aboriginal communities resident within 2 km to live elsewhere.

Life on these outback cattle stations is extremely remote. The white bosses run "their" property as feudal empires. The struggle of Aboriginal people to remain, on their own terms, within 2 km of the homestead goes on unseen. The effort of the Wambaya community at Brunette Downs is one outstanding example.

At Lake Nash, on the other hand, lack of support from outside organizations has resulted in the community being relocated to a "flash" (in-the-pan) government-sponsored settlement complete with houses, a school, a store and an electrical power supply. What these Alyawarra people have lost, however, is the ground which states that the wealth produced from the countryside is theirs by right and not by government largess. When the cost of upkeep of this settlement becomes prohibitive, the residents will find that they are legally excluded from the services at the homestead, which represent the contemporary form of their human inheritance.

Although it is comparatively easy for an Aboriginal community to negotiate an excision from a pastoral lease when it will take the community 2 km away from the homestead. Aboriginal communities already off the pastoral lease find it exceedingly difficult to obtain a similar concession. Attempts to establish communities on pastoral leases and without whitefella title have been literally bulldozed back into the ground.

Taking the Stock Route

It was discovered that the right to lay a traditional land claim to unalienated Crown land enabled Aboriginal people to claim stock routes and stock reserves, areas of land excluded from pastoral leases but not alienated to another body. For many Aboriginal people, claims of this type constitute the only chance they have of obtaining whitefella title to their own country.

The response of the Country-Liberal Party government was to form a land holding corporation and to vest the title of stock routes and reserves in that body. In most cases these stock routes have not been used for genuine stock movement for more than 20 years; the problems of disease control in stock suggest that they will remain so. The move, then, appears to be designed to alienate the land and remove it from the scope of the Land Rights Act.

The issue of the claimability of stock routes and reserves has gone thorough the courts and has been resolved against the N.T. government. The High Court of Australia refused the N.T. government further leave to appeal in May 1988. This places those Aboriginal people who have made claims to the stock routes and reserves prior to the purported alienation in a position to negotiate with pastoralists for other areas of land under lease. It is rumored that the cattle industry establishment has threatened economic sanctions against any pastoralist who moves in this direction.

Talking about Excisions

Prior to the resolution of the court cases concerning the stock-route issue, the Country-Liberal Party had set up, in 1984-1985, a process of consultation with the Central and Northern Land Councils regarding excisions on land held under pastoral lease. These talks paralleled the actual introduction of a new form of title for pastoral lands.

The new perpetual lease title stopped short of freehold title, as freehold is universally acknowledged in Australia to run contrary to the interests of the pastoral industry itself. Freehold lacks the covenants that not only ensure that the land will be used for pastoral purposes but also represent the wider interests of society regarding the use of the land. The perpetual lease, however, as opposed to the term lease, placed title firmly in the hands of a small number of companies and families.

The talks about excisions have dragged on with little result. The Country-Liberal Party government made the commitment of the existing lessee to the eradication of tuberculosis and brucellosis a factor to be considered in assessing the application to convert a 50-year lease into a perpetual lease. It said nothing about cleaning up the social and environmental diseases that taint Australian beef.

This point is not lost on the Central and Northern Land Councils, which stated:

The government could have made willingness to negotiate an excision a criterion for conversion to perpetual leasehold, but it chose not to do so. Those pastoralists who have been granted perpetual leasehold status are characterized by an appalling excision's record. Of the 34 leases which had been granted perpetual status by the end of 1987, only two have registered excisions within those boundaries.

The Country-Liberal Party also produced guidelines for considering excision applications. Those groups eligible to apply for a five-year Crown lease are (1) groups that are lawfully residents on pastoral properties or that have been residents within the past 10 years, (2) groups that can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the minister that they were forcibly removed from the land even though it may have been more than 10 years ago and (3) any group with the consent of the lessee. Those groups ineligible to apply are (1) groups that based their request on traditional or historical links with the land, (2) groups that left the pastoral property more than 10 years ago, other than groups which can demonstrate that they were forcibly removed from the land, (3) groups that based their request on past residence by relatives, (4) groups that moved on to the pastoral lease recently, not for purposes of employment but to establish a presence on the land and (5) groups that own or have an interest in land elsewhere, or who lease or rent land or housing in a town (unless they fall into the category of those forcibly removed in the past).

Although a clear lack of political will and action has come from the Country-Liberal Party government with respect to negotiating living areas for Aboriginal people on cattle stations, it has been inhibited in passing legislative amendments that further restrict the rights of Aboriginal people. In 1985 the Crown Lands Act was again amended by restricting the right to reside on land held under pastoral lease to those Aborigines who "ordinarily" reside there. Furthermore, they can only reside at their ordinary place of residence.

This amendment constituted a restriction on movement and residence compatible with the culture of Aboriginal people. By tradition they move over and reside at different places on their country in keeping with seasonal and cultural dictates. Earl Grey's instructions have been inverted.

Statehood! Freehold!

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that the Country-Liberal Party government is presently undergoing a major functional brawl over the issue of freehold title to pastoralists. Were the pastoral establishment to win - and that is the likely outcome - the final blow would be delivered to the wedge driven between Aboriginal people and the land which ancient traditional demands that they manage.

At least one of the leading pastoralists in the drive for freehold title has been identified, in the courtroom context of a land claim hearing, as being involved in the use of political patronage to bypass the agricultural inspection process similarly required by reservations in the lease.

As things stand, the well-being of Aboriginal people and their countries in the Northern Territory has been severely abused for more than 100 years. The treasure of the Dreamtime, which contains the accumulated wisdom of humanity, is coded in the landscape and is presently being ground under the hard hoof of the white man's cattle. It looks as though our inheritance is to be lost so that a few hamburger chains around the world, and a few magnates, can make a fleeting profit.

Aborigines Today: Land and Justice

1988 marks the bicentennial of the founding of white Australia. For the first inhabitants of that continent, the Aborigines, this is a cause for mourning. It is a reminder that their lands were taken from them by the superior force of the Europeans and that even now no peace treaty between the two peoples exists.

For 50,000 or so years the Aborigines have inhabited Australia. For the last 200 years they have been oppressed to the point where they are now outcasts in their own land, unemployed, uneducated, unhealthy, impoverished and possibly the most imprisoned people on earth.

In 1986, at the request of Aboriginal groups, the Anti-Slavery Society visited Australia to report on the conditions of contemporary Aborigines in the bush and in the town. Among other human rights abuses, it found that the police, almost systematically, maltreat Aborigine children physically and psychologically.

Paperback 5 3/4" x 8 1/4". 120 pages. $6 (add $1.50 for postage and handling). Published by the Anti-Slavery Society. Available from Publications, Cultural Survival, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.

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