This is a guest post by Warren Snowdon MP, Member for Lingiari in the Northern Territory. This article was originally posted in the Northern Territory May Day Magazine, 2012.
With the 46th anniversary of the Wave Hill “walk-off” just over a week away it is timely to remember some of the other events and brave leaders involved in that and related events that form such an important part of the Territory’s history and deserve to be told again …
Forgotten Heroes of the Northern Territory
This year is the forty-sixth anniversary of the famous Wave Hill ‘walk-off’ by Aboriginal stockmen in the Northern Territory.
The Gurindji people who made up the majority of those who walked off Wave Hill Station in 1966 celebrate that event every August 23, a day they call Gurindji Freedom Day.
The stockmen and their families who participated in the walk-off and the subsequent nine year strike under the charismatic leadership of Vincent Lingiari originally withdrew their labour because of the meagre wages and appalling conditions they were subjected to by the powerful British pastoral company, Vesteys.
Subsequently the ambitions of the strikers broadened to a demand for the return to Gurindji ownership of their traditional lands. Their efforts and previous demands made in the famous ‘Bark Petition’ by Yolngu people of north-east ArnhemLand led directly to the drafting of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (1976) by the Whitlam Government, which was passed in a bi-partisan manner during Malcolm Fraser’s first year as Prime Minister.
However without meaning to belittle the important efforts of the Yolngu and the Gurindji peoples in these historic struggles a number of other Indigenous groups and their unionist allies and supporters also made stands that influenced the battle for Indigenous rights in the Territory at that time.
In December 1961 an important meeting took place in the sand hills at Lee Point in Darwin that led to the formation of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights. Its first President was Jacob Roberts and first Secretary Davis Daniels, two Roper River (now Ngukurr) men. Two well known Darwin members of the Communist Party Brian Manning and Terry Robertson were also elected as Assistant Secretary and Vice President respectively.
Brian has always maintained that the Council was not a front for the Communist Party and always had a seventy-five per cent majority membership of Aborigines. As he recounts in his excellent Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture of 2011,
“The NT Council for Aboriginal Rights had been formed…as an Aboriginal pressure group with a majority membership of traditional Aboriginal people in addition to sympathetic non-Aboriginal supporters. The organisation became active supporting Aboriginal struggles for equality and actions against discrimination wherever it occurred.”
The Council, especially under the leadership of its President, Phillip Roberts, also a Roper man, urged the North Australian Worker’s Union (NAWU) through its Secretary Paddy Carroll to take up the case of indigenous workers’ wages and conditions on pastoral properties across the Territory.
In 1965 NAWU had appointed Dexter Daniels, also from Roper, as an Aboriginal organiser. He reported on the poor wages and shocking conditions existing at that time on such properties especially Victoria River Downs and Wave Hill. For example, Newcastle Waters Station near Elliott on the Barkly Tableland, which was considered to be one of the more humanely run properties paid its Aboriginal stockmen $6.33 per week. The Gurindji on Wave Hill were paid even less! Non-Indigenous stockmen employed on Newcastle Waters were paid around $46 per week.
A Welfare Officer employed by the Commonwealth Government’s powerful Administrator’s Office reported that:
“…an Aboriginal employee of Newcastle Waters was until recently at a wage of $8.33 per week (as Head Stockmen he received an ‘efficiency’ dividend of $2 per week!). This man was sufficiently capable to attract the attention of the Department of Works and he has now been employed on bore maintenance at a wage of $106 per week.”
At that time Newcastle Waters Station turned off approximately 5000 head of cattle per year returning around $400 000 to its owner!
In 1965 NAWU made application to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to vary the Cattle Industry Award to grant Aboriginal Stockmen wage parity and to remove laws which denied them equal value for equal work.
In March 1966 the Commission handed down a decision that Aborigines should be paid equal wages but not for three years so as to allow pastoralists time to prepare for the change.
The Council for Aboriginal Rights and Dexter Daniels were shocked and angered by the decision to delay the implementation of the Commission’s findings. Daniels had made strenuous commitments to Aboriginal stockmen to win their case with immediate impact.
Daniels had met an Aboriginal stockman Lupnagiari, also known as Captain Major who had been to Darwin visiting relatives who were leprosy patients at Darwin Hospital. Lupnagiari was at that time working at Newcastle Waters Station. He urged Dexter Daniels to visit Newcastle Waters with him to explain the Commission’s decision to the 12-15 Aboriginal stockmen working there.
In April 1966 the two met with the stockmen and their families at the station and stockmen from other nearby properties at the Renner Springs Races. He also circulated handwritten notes to be given to stockmen not there that day that said,
“Please tell the boys to stop work soon as they come home from mustering camp. My address is care NAWU Box 132 Darwin, Dexter.”
On April 28, 1966 fifteen stockmen and their families, eighty people in all including women and children walked off Newcastle Waters Station and camped on the Newcastle Waters Township Common, an area of land known to this day as ‘Union Paddock’. The strikers included Pompey Raymond, Johnny Devil(in), Shannon and Bernie Dixon, all still living in Elliott today. The group included Lupnagiari, Phar Lap Dixon and Bandy Jones who have all passed on.
H. C. Giese, the Director of Welfare in the NT Administration immediately sent J. A. Cooke, the District Welfare Officer from Tennant Creek to meet with the strikers. He reported back to Giese that:
“I spoke to the strikers and upon asking them the reason for their action, they advised that they wanted more money….it appears to me that Dexter Daniels has cast a messianic spell over these people.”
He went on:
“Dexter Daniels is reported to be getting quite fanatical over his success at Newcastle Waters and is claiming that he is going to call out every Aboriginal on every property in the NT. He is being assisted by a ‘part-Aboriginal’ (sic) who is not known to me.”
It was Lupnagiari.
According to Brian Manning, Paddy Carroll was not confident that NAWU could sustain a general strike of pastoral properties and instructed Dexter that he was not to initiate any strike action without his approval. But Dexter and the Council for Aboriginal Rights were determined to extend the industrial action wherever possible.
Dexter arranged for the strikers and their families to be transported 24 kilometres south to a site just north of Elliott, now known as Gurungu Camp, where they could be more easily supplied with rations.
Over the next few weeks Dexter and other unionists ferried supplies from Darwin to the strikers camp at Elliott. They also bought ‘killers’ or slaughtered bullocks from the nearby Gurungu Camp. This was ironic as at least eight stockmen from Helen Springs had walked off and joined their countrymen at the Elliott striker’s camp. Interestingly a further twenty-five Helen Springs strikers joined them later in September 1966.
The Council for Aboriginal Rights sent George Gibbs and Clancy Roberts, also from Roper River, to visit stations near and far and by this time they had made arrangements for Beetaloo, OT Downs, Tanumbirini, Rockhampton Downs and Alroy Downs stockmen to go out on strike if transport and food could be provided.
Meanwhile arrangements were made through Frank Hardy for Dexter Daniels and Robert Tudawali, a Tiwi Islander who was Vice President of the Council and star of Charles Chauvel’s hit movie “Jedda”, to visit workplaces in the south and east of Australia to talk to unionists and the public about the strike. These tours were organised by the Building Workers Industrial Union and Actor’s Equity, of which Tudawali was a member.
At the last minute the NT Administration stopped Tudawali from going as he had been recently diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was replaced at Hardy and Brian Manning’s urging by Lupnagiari.
Those who heard them speak were unaware of the meagre wages paid to Aboriginal stockmen and gave generously to the strike fund. Lupnagiari especially won over journalists with his marvellous sense of humour. When asked if the workers got any ‘extra’ rations apart from salt beef and bread, he replied quick as a flash:
“Oh yes, that’s true, sometime we bin get extra, they put extra salt on the beef.”
Meanwhile the Newcastle Waters strikers continued to hold out. Welfare Officers regularly visited them to pass on the latest offer to return to work by the Newcastle Waters Station manager Roy Edwards or, often his threats to bulldoze their old station housing and his stated desires never to employ Aboriginal stockmen again.
But every time the offers were refused and the threats ignored. As EC Evans, Chief Welfare Officer reported to Giese:
“They appear to be determined in their refusal to accept re-employment at Newcastle Waters Station at less than award rates.”
By the beginning of June 1966 the strikers had returned to Union Paddock at Newcastle Waters Township as NAWU had made arrangements for them to be supplied by the storekeeper there. They organised corroborees to keep their spirits up. They built toilets, windbreaks and slept beneath tent flies through a very cold winter.
Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee in Melbourne organised an airlift, flown free of charge by Trans Australia Airlines (TAA), of blankets, warm clothing, tinned meat and $400. Unions down south continued to contribute NAWU’s strike fund.
The strikers were repeatedly urged to return to work by Welfare Officers but were steadfast in their refusal to negotiate with the Station Manager until informed to do so by Paddy Carroll and Dexter Daniels.
By the 23rd August 1966 the industrial unrest had spread to Wave Hill and Vincent Lingiari led his people off the station. Lingiari had met Dexter Daniels at Darwin Hospital where he had been receiving treatment for a medical condition.
Walter Rodgers, yet another Roper River man had joined the Council for Aboriginal Rights as a seventeen year old in 1965. He accompanied Dexter Daniels to Wave Hill before the walk-off and remembers meeting Mick Rangiari, also known as Hoppy Mick:
“He was a strong leader and a very good spokesman.”
In the weeks and months that followed stockmen and their families from Mt. Sanford, Pigeon Hole and Victoria River Downs had joined the action.
In November 1966 Phar Lap Dixon and Bandy Jones, speaking on behalf of their fellow strikers at Newcastle Waters told Welfare Officers they would not accept re-employment even at award rates of pay unless cleared by NAWU.
As late as June 1967 there were still nine strikers at Union Paddock at Newcastle Waters. Only one of them ever worked on Newcastle Waters again, and even then only intermittently.
Of course the Wave Hill strike had well and truly captured the national attention well before then. The sterling efforts of Brian Manning, George Gibbs, and Darwin wharfies like Paul Patten, Nick Pagonis, and Barry Reed kept the Gurindji supplied with basic rations.
It is well known that the Wave Hill industrial action quickly became something quite different. As Pincher Manguri, Lingiari’s close confidant and comrade, told Frank Hardy:
“It’s not about the money, it’s about the land.”
Perhaps for the Jingili and Mudburra strikers at Newcastle Waters it was too.
However it was to be another twenty-five years before those strikers including Phar Lap Dixon, Pompey Raymond, Johnny Devlin, Bandy Jones, Shannon and Bernie Dixon received title from the Hawke Government under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (1976) to 214 hectares of the Newcastle Waters public reserve, adjacent to Union Paddock and the station complex they had walked off so long before.
In 2007 the traditional owners received a determination of native title to seven separate applications including the historic Newcastle Waters township and Union Paddock.
On days like today May Day 2012 it behoves all of us, unionists and supporters of organised labour, to remember our past and commit to continue the struggle begun by such largely forgotten heroes of the Northern Territory so long ago.