Stylo Katherine for Whites Dean cartoon 1982 - 1

John Lesley (“Les”) Stuart MacFarlane was born in Sydney in 1919 and educated at the Kings School at Parramatta. Little is known of the intervening years but in 1951 he and his family took up the pastoral leasehold at Moroak Station, recently carved out of its massive neighbour, Elsey Station.

It isn’t known how many cattle, if any, MacFarlane moved onto Moroak when he bought the lease but in April 1952 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that MacFarlane hoped to drive 1,000 head of cattle to Kajabbi in western Queensland along a stock-route unused for 60 years and that followed the track–in reverse order–originally cut by Ludwig Leichhardt 100 years before.

MacFarlane would be accompanied by “five native stockmen” and a 45-strong horse plant. Ten years later–in what would be one of the last of the great overland droving trips, he commissioned a young Joe Groves to move more that 1,000 head of Moroak cattle to the Dajarra railhead in western Queensland.

In her 2011 book An Outback Life Mary Groves describes her first meeting with future husband Joe Groves, then working as a stockman and horse breaker at the nearby Mataranka Station. Joe and the local stock and station agent had tied one on the night before at the Mataranka Pub with the help of a quite a few bottles of rum. The sting in Joe’s tail was that between yarns of feats of endurance and derring-do Joe had committed to move 1,000 head of Les MacFarlane’s cattle from Moroak to Dajarra. With a throbbing head Joe drove out to meet MacFarlane and his new charges. MacFarlane, spotting how ragged Joe Groves looked, greeted him with an offer of “a hair of the dog that bit ya”–a huge slug of OP rum with a dash of water.

MacFarlane admitted his cattle were ‘pretty rough’ and that there was no local market for his stock but there was good money for them in Queensland. MacFarlane was apparently in financial strife, telling Joe that “If I can just get them there, I’ll get these bloody banks off me back.”

None of this prepared Joe Groves for the quality and composition of the stock he had committed to spend the next three months taking across country. Mary Groves says that Joe:

… baulked at the poor condition of the stock. It would take more than a stiff rum to have him find these stock acceptable under any circumstances. They were of all ages, mixed sex and some were quite obviously in calf. All in all, this group was a drover’s worst nightmare. ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking mate,’ Joe said incredulously. ‘How the hell do you expect me to get these scrubbers through to Queensland in their condition?’

I can find no records of how many Moroak cattle–and in what condition–made it to Dajarra with Joe Groves.

Why do the life and works of Les MacFarlane matter? He was a small-time pastoralist, a modestly successful politician–MacFarlane never had a ministry for all of his fifteen years as a member of the Territory Parliament–and a racial ideologue and rabble-rouser. But for all this I believe it useful to examine at least some parts of McFarlane’s life and words–particularly in the context of this examination of the politics of land and water in the Mataranka region–because he spanned two important periods in Northern Territory history.

The first of these was a time of remote Territory rule (from Canberra) when a decadent pastoral industry controlled most of the (productive) land outside of the bigger townships and when Aboriginal people were viewed either as savages or as little more than slaves. The second period saw the rise of a local political class, exemplified in the curious but phenomenally successful marriage between the rural-based NT Country Party and the more urbane, though nascent, Liberal Party. The fusion of these two conservative forces spawned the Country Liberal Party that ruled the NT, sometimes as a virtual one-party state, from 1974 through 2001.

During this latter period Canberra remained the convenient villain of choice, particularly after 1972 when Gough Whitlam’s Federal Labor government introduced a range of social reforms, not least the promise of a fair(er) deal for the Territory’s Aboriginal people. Like many in his party MacFarlane, always on the look-out for threats to the pastoral industry, viewed the rise of Aboriginal rights–particularly the reclamation of land through the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976–as an existential threat to the interests of both himself and his (non-Aboriginal) constituents. And at a time and place where the politics of race were being played harder and more overtly than anywhere else in the nation, MacFarlane stood out not only because of the length of his tenure as a local member and his role as Speaker of the Parliament, but also because, unlike any other of his colleagues in the Country Liberal Party, he was the leader of a race-based movement in his electorate.

It is useful at this point to take a brief look at the history of the pastoral industry in the Northern Territory. The title of Edward Ling’s authoritative 2010 PhD thesis–“Blame and Martyrs: The Commonwealth Government’s Administration of the Northern Territory’s Pastoral Industry, 1911-1978” is self-explanatory. In his introduction, Ling says that:

For the Territory’s pastoral mythology to evolve and prosper there needed to be a villain, someone to blame for the perceived woes and hardships of pastoralists. It was a convenient way for them to abrogate their responsibilities. The Commonwealth admirably fitted the occasion, being variously described as parsimonious, apathetic, unsympathetic and weak, however the term ‘failure’ was most commonly used to describe its administration of the industry.

Chief among the local boosters of the NT pastoral industry were the various pastoral associations and later, Northern Territory politicians in the Legislative Council (prior to self-government) and the Legislative Assembly (following the grant of self-government in 1978). Of the pastoralist’s associations Ling notes the claim, made on numerous occasions, “that the Territory (and thus pastoralists), produced high quality cattle”. The reality was very different: “[O]n the whole, the Territory produced very poor quality cattle.”

World War II was a boon for Northern Territory pastoralists, with massively increased demand and prices due to the influx of armed services personnel, exemption from Northern Territory and Commonwealth income tax and added industry support provided by the Commonwealth during the war years.

Ling quotes Angus McKay, the Australian Army’s Chief Veterinary Officer, in response to the claims by the pastoral associations. McKay said that the Territory could–but seldom did–produce prime fat cattle, due to the influence of vested interests–particularly the absentee landlords of the larger cattle stations–that sought to strip the maximum return from hard country in the shortest possible time, a scenario that resonates in some aspects of the massive growth of the south-east asian live cattle trade of recent years.

Citing a 1999 book by Glen McLaren and William Cooper, Ling notes that:

Long after the [Second World] War the quality of meat produced on many stations did not improve, and most of the beef shipped to the USA from the 1950s onwards was low-grade intended primarily for the American hamburger market.

J. H. Kelly, in his 1966 book “Struggle for the North” characterised the northern beef cattle industry–after almost a century of development–as one of:

… primitive animal husbandry; of inefficient, low-investment production on low-rental, inadequately improved leaseholds; of an outmoded open-range system of cattle grazing in some parts to the lasting detriment of the native pasturage and vegetation through overgrazing.

In 1965, while complaining about the hardships faced by Territory pastoralists, Les MacFarlane admitted that he was sending his five sons to his alma mater, the Kings School at Sydney, described by Ling as “one of the most expensive and exclusive schools in the nation.” Others complaining about the supposed incompetent management of the pastoral industry by the Commonwealth included Goff Letts, later majority leader in the NT Legislative Assembly, and George Manuell, a representative in the NT Legislative Assembly from Alice Springs. Of these critics and others Ling says that their claims:

… merely demonstrated a disingenuous desire to ignore the Commonwealth’s achievements or a complete ignorance of the facts … a convenient way for pastoralists and their associations (and supportive politicians) to deflect criticisms against them for their own failures.

In October 1968 Les MacFarlane was elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Council to represent the electoral division of Elsey.

Before we examine his career as a politician, it is useful to note that MacFarlane had close relationships with local Aboriginal stockmen, a significant number of whom moved across from Elsey Station to Moroak, a few miles downriver. In their 2012 study of Indigenous water management and planning along the upper Roper River, Marcus Barber and Sue Jackson interviewed Les MacFarlane’s son Hamish, who told them that relationships between his family and their Aboriginal workers were mutually beneficial.

The workforce that went to Moroak in ’51, they were doing these things [weirs and fishtraps] on Elsey … Aboriginal people … had always blocked and maintained flows into lagoons. As a child we saw them, my father saw them as soon as we got there and we maintained that practice.

Hamish MacFarlane told Barber and Jackson that prior to the 1970’s “good station owners” made major land management decisions on a 50/50 partnership basis with their experienced local workers. Both Aboriginals and pastoralists were content to turn a blind eye to the 1946 NT Supreme Court decision by Justice Wells that banned the use of Aboriginal dams on Elsey Station just upriver.

It is unlikely that Aboriginal workers on Moroak, as was the case on many other pastoral stations in the NT, were paid much more than the minimum cash payments and rations of salt beef, tea, tobacco, flour and sugar.

The Northern Territory Cattle Station Industry Award Case of 1965, in which John Kerr (later Sir John and Governor-General) was lead counsel for the respondent pastoralists, would change life on NT pastoral stations forever. Speaking to the conservative H. R. Nicholls Society in 1986, Sir John reflected on the outcome of the case, which saw Aboriginal pastoral workers entitled to the same wages as their non-Aboriginal co-workers:

There was, inter alia, a mass of evidence to show that the Northern Territory aborigines’ attitude to work, their lack of education and inability to read, write and count, and their cultural background affected their capacity to work in other callings in addition to those in the pastoral industry … The pastoral industry was the only industry which had been able to make a balanced relationship with aborigines who lived on the cattle stations but whose work was in general not as valuable as white workers.

The Whitlam Labor government was elected in December 1972 and its ambitious program to “improve the lot” of Aboriginal people was soon in the sights of pastoralists and the forthright citizens of Katherine and beyond.

As anthropologist and linguist Francesca Merlan notes in her perceptive analysis of Katherine cultural and political history, Caging the Rainbow, government policies towards Aboriginal people had shifted since the early 1970s, from a more coercive and directive project of “assimilation” to one of “self-determination.” She notes the formation of several groups that sought to challenge the emerging push of rights for Aboriginal people. One, initially named Equal Rights for Whites, later changed it’s name to Rights for Territorians, apparently at the behest of the crusading editor of the NT News, Jim Bowditch.

The Little Darwin blog reports that:

Leading figures in the group were Bill and June Tapp of Killarney Station. Mrs Tapp, who was president of the organisation, maintained that government handouts were encouraging Aboriginal people towards crime, drunkenness and laziness. Bowditch took a personal interest in the issue , sensing that it could split the Territory and create racial tension.

[Bowditch] … attended a lively Rights for Whites meeting in Katherine. One of the few Aborigines there was the Gurindji Captain Major. When a white person said that the people of Katherine had experienced tough times during the Depression, Captain Major said Aborigines had been in a depression ever since the arrival of white people in Australia.

In March 1973 Michelle Grattan reported for The Age on a rally in Katherine’s main street that she characterised as but one example of a Australia-wide “white backlash” against the Whitlam government’s policies to get a better deal for Aboriginals.

Recently 600 people from all parts of the Northern Territory packed the hall of the outback town of Katherine to protest against what they saw as discrimination against whites in education, welfare and other services.

The new Government’s rethink on Aboriginal policy–including its policy to grant land rights and its plans for new schemes of “positive discrimination” in favour of Aborigines, such as free legal aid–has crystallised old discontents into public action.

The chairman of the new Rights for Territorians Committee, Northern Territory pastoralist and member of the Legislative Council Mr Les MacFarlane says the movement has no axe to grind with the Aborigines, but is concerned with the policy of the Aboriginal Affairs Department … “The policy of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs has turned the Aborigines into a race of bludgers. It is not their fault–they are being given handouts.”

Grattan editorialised on the “bitter irony” of “NT whites complaining of basic benefits going to a group which they exploited for year by low wages and often appalling conditions.”

These “movements” would morph over the coming years in response to changing circumstances, first into a Land Rights Action Group in 1977 following the introduction of the Commonwealth’s Land Rights legislation, then re-emerging as One Nation, One Law and later the Committee for Community Ownership of the Katherine Gorge National Park during the early 1980s while the court hearings into the Katherine Land Claim were being held in Katherine and nearby Barunga.

During the late 1970s the Northern Territory suffered under a drought that MacFarlane described as “worse than Cyclone Tracy” that demolished Darwin on Christmas Eve, 1974.

In the Queens Birthday awards in June 1979 MacFarlane was appointed a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (C.M.G.) for parliamentary service and service to primary industry.

Later that year MacFarlane’s inflammatory speeches again attracted the attention of the southern press. In December–by which time MacFarlane had been the member for Elsey for eleven years and Speaker of the NT Parliament for four–the National Times published a selection of Macfarlane’s speeches on race relations in the Legislative Assembly under the title “White mans burden.”

Also in 1979–echoing the views promoted by John Kerr on behalf of the pastoralists in the Northern Territory Cattle Station Industry Award Case 14 years earlier–MacFarlane, as recorded by the late ABC journalist Paul Lyneham, spoke to supporters of a “Rights For Whites” rally in the main street of Katherine of the capacity of Aboriginal people to contribute to the NT economy.

It is well to remember ladies and gentlemen that thirty years ago the total Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory was completely unsophisticated. There were few schools and little contact with the outside world.

Macfarlane, who chaired the meeting, told the crowd that the “main trouble today” was caused by:

… politicians in the populous states who having exterminated Aboriginals down there are making the Northern Territory the collective conscience for the rest of Australia.

One women told the crowd that “I will repeat, ladies and gentlemen, I am not a racist!” Another speaker–unidentified but most likely MacFarlane–told the crowd that racism:

… is the direct result of discriminatory policies adopted by politicians and professional black fellows aided and abetted by the media, and not excluding the ABC.

By early 1980 MacFarlane, who had ignited further Aboriginal ire when he called for the damming of the Katherine Gorge, was again in hot water over a letter he had written to his Aboriginal constituents at Hodgson Downs station, who apparently had exercised their democratic rights and decided not to vote for MacFarlane to his satisfaction at the June 1980 NT general election.

I don’t have a copy of MacFarlane’s letter but the tenor of the outrage it provoked among his constituents is clear from a letter written to then NT Chief Minister Paul Everingham by Les Stonham, Executive Officer of the Yulngu Association, which provided services to many small outstations around Katherine and the hinterland.

Mr MacFarlane could not have found a more pitiful community pick on. The Hodgson Downs Community is one of the most depressed in this area … There has been next to no progress on the matter for a land excision for them, they have the worst water supply of any Community in this area, the worst access roads during the wet season and genuinely believe that the Government has no interest in them whatsoever. Mr MacFarlane has now confirmed this belief … Mr MacFarlane’s response which is intimidatory, arrogant, overbearing and in no way becoming a Member of Parliament. We do not believe that such a man should hold the office of Speaker of Parliament, an office to which the qualities of an unbiased and fairminded character are normally attributed.

Everingham’s response could best be described as polite but dismissive of the concerns raised by Stonham.

By 1982 the ground was shifting under those railing against the rise of Aboriginal rights. In late September that year MacFarlane doffed his Speaker’s wig and took to the floor of the chamber as the Member for Elsey. Priming his parish pump, MacFarlane told the Parliament that “the Aboriginal Land Rights Act is the greatest piece of divisive legislation ever seen and ought to be rammed down [Prime Minister] Mr Fraser’s throat,” a statement that Labor Senator and Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Susan Ryan described as “outrageous” and “an extreme version of the NT Government’s total and absolute hostility to land rights.”

The next week more than 400 locals marched down the main street of Katherine “carrying placards and babies” as Lindsay Murdoch reported in The Age. MacFarlane, a WWII veteran and perhaps unaware of Samuel Johnson’s quip that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, told the crowd that “I fought for a sunburnt country, not six States and a piebald Territory.”

MacFarlane asked the crowd if they thought he was “a racist because I care?” Later in his office, which Lindsay Murdoch noted had recently had a cartoon displayed in its front window depicting a white man on all fours being ridden by a black man wielding a whip, MacFarlane told Murdoch “I hope you don’t think I’m a racist, but oh well, if you do … “

Around this time two senior Jawoyn claimants had shots fired at them in Katherine and We of the Never Never, Jeannie Gunn’s fantasy about life on Elsey Station at the turn of the 20th century, was being turned into a film 100 kilometres south of Katherine at Mataranka. The film was later described by executive Producer Phillip Adams as “a dud.”

Aboriginal actor Tommy Lewis, already a star after his role in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, played a stockman in We of the Never Never and described one of his interactions with local ringers in the pub to ABC Radio’s Lorena Allam for a Background Briefing program in 1999.

Tom Lewis: Well, look at this nigger, who does he think he is, why are all these white people treating him like this? One day I came out of the restaurant and this idiot walked up to me … and punched me right in the stomach … he came back and hit me a second time, and [fellow actor] John Jarratt had come around the restaurant and picked him up and chucked him against the wall … I knew if I turned around and hit this bloke, I would have gone to jail and the local cop and his little rookies would have got stuck into me

John Jarratt told Lorena Allam that the locals were:

… jealous of Tommy … this uppity black fellow who got too good for himself, a half-caste, you know … The black part totally despised, the white part totally ignored.

Jarratt was dancing with “a lovely Aboriginal girl” when:

This guy walked up to me and said, “You black loving arsehole” … You either hit, or get hit and he was a lot tougher than me so I hit him as hard as I could and just kept hitting him. The locals … got a posse and came back and the film cast and crew had an all-in brawl at Mataranka.

By the time preselection for the 1983 NT general election came around the Country Liberal Party had turned its back on Les MacFarlane after 15 years as the Member for Elsey and, following a bitter pre-selection battle, a new CLP candidate was chosen for the seat. Les MacFarlane sold Moroak Station to his son, Tim and wife, Judy in 1985. Les MacFarlane passed away in early 1986 and was buried at his beloved Moroak Station.

In 1990 the absentee lessee of Elsey Station sold out to the Mangarrayi people. They soon lodged a land claim over the station, an action that had, as the ABC’s Lorena Allam reported in 1999, “the NT Parliament in uproar.”

Four hundred “locals”–no mean feat in the township of Mataranka where the local non-Aboriginal population numbered in the dozens at best–signed a petition to the NT Parliament. The CLP government said the Mangarrayi and Yangman owners of Elsey Station would ruin it as a cattle enterprise, damage the Territory economy and that this “terrifying” escalation of Aboriginal ownership of land would ring the death knell of the pastoral industry.

None of those dire warnings came to pass. The traditional Aboriginal owners won their land claim and Elsey Station was handed back in 2000. Today most of Elsey Station continues to operate as a successful pastoral operation.

Les McFarlane’s legacy lives on in the region and in the Country Liberal Party. While inter-racial politics are far less overt that in McFarlane’s heyday as a politician, Aboriginal people, particularly in small NT towns like Mataranka and Katherine, face less obvious but nonetheless pervasive and persistent racism on a daily basis.


This is the third of a series of articles on the battles for control of land and water along the Northern Territory’s Roper River from the time of first incursion by non-Aboriginal settlers to the current day. You can see the first two parts here and here.


Further reading


Whose ‘Never Never’? Produced by Lorena Allam. Background Briefing, ABC Radio National, Sunday 12 September 1999.

‘Making People Quiet’ in the Pastoral North: Reminiscences of Elsey Station.’ Francesca Merlan. Aboriginal History, 2: 70. ANU 1978.

Blocks, runs and claims: Mataranka and the Daly, two studies in the history of settlement in the Northern Territory. Jane Gleeson. North Australian Research Unit, in Mataranka and the Daly, Two Studies of the history of settlement in the Northern Territory, 1985.

Indigenous Water Management and Water Planning in the Upper Roper River, Northern Territory: History and Implications for Contemporary Water Planning. Marcus Barber and Sue Jackson, 2012. Report to the National Water Commission and the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Nigger Hunts’ in the never never. The battles for land and water on the Roper River, 1870-1945. The Northern Myth, 13 January 2016.

From time immemorial.” The Mangarrayi law for water and their struggle for land. The Northern Myth, 21 January 2016.

Struggle For The North. Kelly, J. H., Australasian Book Society, 1966.

Caging the Rainbow: Places, Politics, and Aborigines in a North Australian Town. Francesca Merlan. University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Distance, Drought and Dispossession: A History of the Northern Territory Pastoral Industry. Cooper, W and McLaren, G. Charles Darwin University Press (CDU Press), 2001.

An Outback Life. Mary Groves, Allen & Unwin, 2011.

Blame and Martyrs: The Commonwealth Government’s Administration of the Northern Territory’s Pastoral Industry, 1911–1978. Edward Ling, Charles Darwin University, 2010.