This article first appeared in the July 2015 edition of Land Rights News, published by the Northern Land Council and edited by Murray McLaughlin.
JACK DOOLAN (14 June 1927–29 January 1995), a Patrol Officer with the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs, was a friend and champion of the Aboriginal workers at Victoria River Downs station who walked off in April 1972 and returned to what is now the community of Yarralin 18 months later.
Doolan’s popularity among Aboriginal people was confirmed when he stood for the ALP in the 1977 NT general election and, against all odds, won the seat of Victoria River from the CLP’s leader, Goff Letts – even though the CLP was returned with a big majority. Letts had prepared the Territory for self-government, which would be granted in 1978; his defeat allowed Paul Everingham to become the NT’s first Chief Minister.
Jon Isaacs, now a management consultant in Sydney, was ALP Opposition leader after the 1977 election and remembers Jack Doolan’s offer to stand against Letts: “I was running the ‘Miscos’ (Miscellaneous Workers Union) at the time, and Jack walked in and said, ‘I want to run; I reckon I can beat him (Letts)’. With no real support from the party, he got a huge swing in the ’77 election,” Isaacs told Land Rights News.
“Jack was rock solid with Aboriginal people. He gave some of the most moving speeches in the Parliament. He held us spellbound. He had little education, but had a great mind – fascinating stuff.”
Doolan kept his seat at the next election and retired in 1983.
His empathy with the Aboriginal workers and their families at VRD station was obvious from his departmental reports.
He visited the station in November 1971, when it was owned by Hooker Pastoral Company and managed by Mr Ian Michael. He reported to his superiors:
“…Mr Michael appeared to be a man of few words. He was obviously busy, and even more obviously not anxious to talk to us. The most vivid impression which … the writer received was the appalling conditions under which VRD Aboriginals are forced to exist. Apart from the houses in the Aboriginal camp, the immediate environs were filthy and littered with rubbish. Considering the resources of the Hooker Pastoral Co., the only appropriate word to describe the camp area we saw was shocking.
“Numerous complaints were received mainly from the elderly people, that they were receiving insufficient money from their pensions. King Brumby, Old Charlie and Jabiru were the chief complainants, each alleging that they received only $10 per month cash payment.
“Other allegations were made that although consumption of alcohol is prohibited on the station,excessive drinking by European employees still takes place, and that liquor is used as an inducement for procuring young Aboriginal women.
“These allegations were not investigated during our brief stay on VRD, but there are a good number of part-coloured children in the area, and it is a local joke that the name of the place should be changed to V.D. Station. Katherine records substantiate the high incidence of venereal disease prevalent on the property, and this could no doubt be verified with the Department of Health,” Jack Doolan reported.
He also contributed a chapter to a book, ‘Aborigines and Change: Australia in the 70s’, published by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1977, in which he wrote about the walk-off and later return of Aboriginal groups from cattle stations.
The events in the Victoria River District during 1972-73, he wrote, showed that Aboriginal people “have probably done more through their own efforts to secure for themselves a better way of life, as they see it, than during any other period since occupation by whites in the early 1880s.”
He pointed out that “Aboriginal priorities in many cases are quite different from white priorities, and that perhaps in some cases we may, in our ignorance, be trying to impose on them a way of life and a sense of values which are essentially ‘ours’ but not ‘theirs’.”
Aboriginal people, he wrote, “wish to preserve their own traditional socio-economic structure rather than be influenced by, and eventually succumb to, European ideas and values.”
The walk-off from VRD and its outstations (Moolooloo, Pigeon Hole and Mt Sandford) happened in March 1972 when the stock season was in full swing, leaving pastoralists desperately short of labour.
Doolan identified six reasons given for the walk-off:
• Dissatisfaction over the failure to provide adequate housing for Aborigines, although houses for European employees were being constructed.
• A firm belief that Aborigines were not receiving the level of wage to which they were entitled.
• A belief that Social Services cheques were not being seen by people who were entitled to them.
• That the VRD manager was unapproachable.
• A feeling of antipathy between Europeans and Aborigines which was not discouraged by the European management.
• A resentment that, although both Aboriginal men and women were ‘treated like dogs’ in daylight hours, Aboriginal women were considered good enough to sleep with European employees at night.
About a month after they had left VRD, some of the men told Jack Doolan that they would like to return to work, provided it was not on that station.
“Apart from the fact that they had shown initiative in leaving the pastoral properties where conditions had become intolerable, they had now created a labour pool which was the only source available in the district from which pastoralists and mustering contractors were able to obtain men for the cattle industry,” Doolan recorded.
“Pastoralists obviously resented this situation, but they were left with no alternative if they wanted employees. Some were prepared to offer higher than award wages to obtain labour, and no doubt their wives were missing the almost unlimited supply of domestic help they had had in the immediate past, the quality of which was often complained of when it had been available. Employers constantly visited Wattie Creek/Dagaragu to obtain labour.
“The really fascinating part of this was that those who were regarded as ‘hard men’ sometimes offered above award wages and better conditions than men who were often only ‘battlers’ and could offer little in the way of extra remuneration (and, in the case of mustering contractors, no accommodation at all) – yet the latter usually obtained unlimited labour because they were ‘good blokes’, while the others obtained nothing at all.”
Jack Doolan also helped the VRD mob move back to Yarralin, after the Hooker Pastoral Company agreed to relinquish 230sq/km of land. He identified people from nine tribes among those who moved back.
“We commenced the move in mid-October 1973. The Aborigines Benefits Trust Fund had provided a small truck and the Wave Hill settlement (Libanangu) loaned a five-ton truck. In a week, 84 people with their dogs and belongings had moved from Dagaragu to Yarralin. Gangs of men were sent out to cut coolibah for posts, others began digging a deep-pit toilet, some commenced repairing the old (Gordon Downs) homestead – all of this being organised by themselves. I paid visits to Yarralin almost every week until late December. By that time the old homestead had been waterproofed and nine small houses constructed. As the stock season had finished, the number of residents had increased to about 140.
“It has been most rewarding to see the change which has taken place in this group. I saw them in late 1971 before they left Victoria River Downs and they were a most apathetic and dejected group. When I visited them again in April 1972, following the walk-off, they were quite elated over the direct action which they had taken. Between then and October 1973, the mood of elation had left them and they were once again beginning to look and act in a dejected way. Now that they are back again and full of hope for their future, they are again a happy people, making all sorts of plans for the cattle station which they hope one day soon to be operating by themselves.
“They boast about how they will have a better station than ‘that Gurindji mob’. Dagaragu is referred to as a ‘proper hungry place’ and Yarralin praised as a good place for bush tucker, fish and hunting – which in fact it is. In all the years that I visited Dagaragu I seldom heard a corroboree, but at Yarralin they are an almost nightly occurrence.”
Photo of Jack Doolan: NT Government Photographic Collection