Forty or so years ago William Bartlett (Bill) Day had a pretty good idea that he and his associates were “persons of interest” to local and national security agencies.

Just how interested those agencies were in the activities of Bill, the Darwin-based Gwalwa Daraniki Association and the Aboriginal Development Foundation in the early seventies wasn’t clear until a year or so ago, when he gained access to his ASIO files through the National Archives of Australia.

Bill, now a consultant anthropologist, was browsing through the National Australian Archives website one day when he saw his name. He promptly ordered the digitisation of his records and soon was delivered of several hundred pages of typewritten and mimeographed sheets scribbled with notations and file references to others involved in the nascent struggle for Land Rights by Darwin’s original traditional owners.

I spoke to Bill from his home in Perth and asked him if he was aware of the interest that the secret police and ASIO had in the activities of he and his friends.

I was always assumed that they would have some interest in what we were up to. I know that the Special Branch of the NT Police was following us around, because I would come up behind them sometimes when they were sitting in their car talking to some Aboriginals, asking questions about me.

I suspected they took my rubbish bin once or twice.

It wasn’t until later in the Land Rights era that I got a bit suspicious that there might be dirty tricks …

I asked Bill about those “dirty tricks,” particularly because the ASIO records show several comprehensive reports of ADF meetings that could only have been recorded by someone ‘on the inside’.

Was he aware of a rat in the ranks?

Was he surprised by some of the names that appear as informants on the ASIO and Special Branch material?

I not even sure that we kept Minutes of our meetings. It isn’t like they got a copy, they seem to have made their own.

I do remember Bill Ryan. But if he was an agent they would’ve blacked his name out to protect him.

He was certainly saying things behind our back but he might have been trying to put them off.

Fish Camp at Kulaluk

There are numerous references in the files that are less than complementary of Bill Day.

Bill Day, early '70s Darwin

One quote by an agent quoted Bill Ryan as saying that he “wouldn’t have a bar of Bill Day, [who is] a militant spiteful type who is out to see blood.” Another report had Bill Day telling Aboriginal people at the Knuckeys Lagoon camp (on Darwin’s outskirts) that they should “shoot any whitefellas that come in chasing women.”

One ASIO report described Bill as an “Odd character who was very timid looking.” Another said he was “quite intelligent.”

An early report on the file has Darwin local, Bill Donnelly (who Bill Day says was “the reddest of the red”) describing Bill Day as  “very right wing” and “most likely an ASIO spy.”

I believe that they were not aware that they were talking to an agent from ASIO.

They thought they were just talking to someone that they trusted. I knew that they were following us and when we were planning a protest we tried to keep it as secret as possible.

At first they weren’t very thorough and then later they got onto us.

I suspect that they may have fed people grog at some times – the night before a protest.

In the files it shows that they recorded when I left for Indonesia and when I came back – my departure & arrival cards are both on file.

When I came back the Aboriginal group at Knuckeys Lagoon said that “someone in an office” had a meeting with them while I was away. They said the Police told them that “I’d gone to Indonesia and was going to get them to come and bomb Darwin.”

I said “You don’t believe that do you?” and they said “This is what we were told. We don’t want to work with you anymore.”

Meeting at Knuckeys Lagoon

Notwithstanding all the attention from the Special Branch, in inimitable Darwin style Bill established reasonably good relationships with the watchers.

Well, Syd Chase, the Special Branch detective, we became almost on friendly terms. I saw him so much. Tailing me in his car and all.

If you are looking at the files we saw it all as a bit of a joke and looking at the files now maybe it was.

We were probably a bit self-destructive in our own ways anyway.

I met an ex-NT Sergeant of Police down here in Perth and he asked me “Where did you get the money to do all those things, all those demonstrations?”

I said to him “We just did it with our own funds.” He seemed to think that we’d have to have a lot of money coming in from somewhere.

Knuckeys Lagoon mob. ASIO photo.

While Bill may have been able to laugh off the close attention by the Special Branch it may have been more difficult for local Aboriginal people.

The main thing was that the Police gave a lot of Aboriginal people the impression that – and this is a story I heard so often – “You are causing trouble. You are troublemakers. You are getting us all into trouble.”

And there were a few stories in the NT News ofAboriginal people complaining about the secret police coming to the camps all the time.

I suppose that was the main effect, the harassment.

It didn’t necessarily bother me but I suppose Aboriginal people felt a lot more vulnerable in their camps.

The upside of that was that they made the Aboriginal people think “Wow, no-one’s ever taken so much notice of us. We must be doing something right.” (laughs).

Bunji - how to make a Molotov cocktail

The Bunji newsletter of April/May 1974 featured a picture of a Molotov cocktail under the heading “No Turning Back.”

This edition caused no end of controversy, not least because of accusations that a contractor’s truck had been damaged by a similar device in the course of a demonstration known as the “Battle of Alamanda Estate” in July 1973. That resulted in Fred Fogarty facing a Supreme Court trial and serving time in Darwin’s notorious Fannie Bay goal.

Fred Fogarty was facing a big court case so in solidarity with him we got the recipe for the bomb out of a student magazine and re-printed it. Just to be controversial really.

Fannie Bay goal was just cages. Fred Fogarty was able to look after himself in there. To him it was a very easy jail. Anyway, the goal was smashed up by Cyclone Tracy and he was released.

It would have been an interesting case if Fred had continued his defence that he was fighting for Aboriginal land.

Somebody arranged for him to be represented by Frank Galbally – that remains a mystery as to why they sent this senior lawyer up to defend Fred – I suspect he was sent to do what he did, which was to persuade Fred to say he wasn’t even there. That took the steam out of the idea [of the trial being about] land rights.

Fred Fogarty, Kulaluk, 1979.

I asked Bill how it was that a few blackfellas and hangers-on (at one point described by ASIO as “Yippies”) managed to prevail against all the most powerful agencies of state of the time.

Well, we worked outside the union movement, the student movement and even the Aboriginal movement in many ways.

It was hard to infiltrate us – mostly because of the type of the people who joined our movement were difficult people.

It was informal resistance. All we had was a newsletter written by myself – you can’t infiltrate one man.

We caught everyone by surprise.

They were so shocked to see these people from all the camps around Darwin to suddenly come out onto the street and doing all these things.

It took a lot of people by surprise.

Surprise indeed. In time I will turn my eye to some of the other players in the struggle for Land Rights in the Darwin region.

If you have any information to add or want to say your piece please register and leave a comment below.

All photos from the Bill Day collection.

You can read more about the story of the Gwalwa Daraniki movement in Bill Day’s book Bunji, published by Aboriginal Studies Press (out of print).

You can also see more at Bill’s Facebook page and at Bill’s website here.

You can access the William Bartlett Day files at the National Archives of Australia.