Kenbi map

The relationship between journalists and politicians can often be confrontational, not least in the Northern Territory when it comes to reporting Aboriginal land rights. One such confrontation in the early days of the long saga of the Kenbi Claim sparked an early Territory election.  Land rights (the Kenbi claim in particular) were a winning issue for the then CLP government.

This article was first published in the April 2016 edition of Land Rights News, published by the Northern Land Council as part of series that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

By Murray McLaughlin

My first visit to the Northern Territory helped to precipitate an early general election.  But there was no gratitude from the incumbent Country Liberal Party government for my having delivered them an issue which ignited the premature election campaign and underpinned the CLP’s victorious re-election.  Rather, the government attacked my work and vigorously pursued a complaint to my employer, the ABC.

I was working in Brisbane where I had rejoined the ABC in early 1979 as a reporter on a new television current affairs program, Nationwide, which was launched that year to succeed This Day TonightNationwide was a hybrid program which aired at 8.30pm, Monday-Thursday.  Each State had its own presenter; the first half of the program’s 40 minute duration was a national story, the second half had state-based content.

Before Cyclone Tracy in 1974, the ABC in Darwin broadcast a local television service.  Tapes and film reels were flown in and put to air; there was a local news bulletin.  After Tracy’s destruction, the Darwin service emanated from Brisbane, wending its way via a chain of microwave transmitters, placed every 30 kilometres or so apart, on a path through Mt Isa into the Northern Territory.

So it was that ABC viewers in Darwin received the Queensland edition of Nationwide.  That made the Northern Territory part of the big beat covered by the Nationwide office in Brisbane from where we made occasional forays over the border to gather stories.

The Kenbi land claim story brought me to Darwin in early 1980.  The NT government led by Chief Minister Paul Everingham had reached beyond its powers (although a final court determination about that was still more than nine years off) by hugely extending the town boundaries of Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs to put the extensions beyond claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 by their rightful Aboriginal owners.

Many land claims had been lodged by early 1980, but Kenbi was already shaping up to be the doozey of them all.  The possibility that the Kenbi claim might succeed, as it ultimately would, rattled the Everingham government.  Bad enough that vast areas of the outback were already under claim or earmarked for future claim; but the exercise of land rights so close to civilisation as the Kenbi claim, just across the harbor from Darwin, raised the spectre of backyards being under threat – even though the Land Rights Act specifically excluded land in towns from claim.

The possibility that the Kenbi claim might succeed, as it ultimately would, rattled the Everingham government.

By regulations under the Town Planning Act, the NT government on 22 December 1978 proclaimed that the city of Darwin would be expanded from 142 square kilometres to 4350 square kilometres (about three times the size of greater London) to include Cox Peninsula.  The government knew full well that the NLC was intending to lodge a claim to land on Cox Peninsula under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act – as indeed the NLC did on 20 March 1979.

The Town Planning regulations were an extraordinary administrative artifice.  Never mind that back in the late 1970s it took hours over unsealed roads to get to Cox Peninsula; never mind that immediately adjacent to the then-existing boundaries of Darwin there was ample property available for urban expansion: the NT Government was thinking big.  In 1978 the population of Darwin was about 50,000; the government envisioned that Darwin would spread to Cox Peninsula by the time the population reached about 500,000.

High Court Justice Lionel Murphy would later muse that the area prescribed by Everingham’s government for Darwin’s expansion was appropriate not to a town but to a megalopolis:  “It is extravagantly beyond what could reasonably described as a town.”

Around March 1980 I flew with a film crew by small plane from Darwin to Belyuen to record the agitation of traditional Aboriginal owners about the government’s attempt to stymie their aspirations.  Flying was more reliable because wet season rains persisted and the journey by road was problematic.  I have one enduring memory of that trip:  some filming happened on the beach and I stupidly got about in bare feet.  I was savagely sunburnt and had to seek treatment at the Belyuen medical clinic.  My feet were bound in bandages; I was hobbled for weeks, unable to wear shoes.

The other half of the story required comment from the NT Government.  I don’t remember the details of negotiations that preceded the interview, but I do remember that a bruising stoush developed during my on-camera interview with CLP Chief Minister Everingham, as he defended with goading hostility his government’s decision to enlarge the boundaries of Darwin as an exemplar of prescient and prudent town planning.  I have just reviewed a copy of the broadcast story, and there is a mutual disdain apparent between us.

The Kenbi land claim story, 18 minutes long, did not go to air on Nationwide until Monday 5 May 1980.  I was then back in Brisbane, and unable to monitor directly the reaction in Darwin.  According to newspaper accounts of the time, it was inflammatory.  Radio talkback callers the next morning attacked the Labor Party because the program had disclosed a written undertaking to Aboriginal people at Belyuen by Opposition Leader Jon Isaacs that Labor, if it won government, would disallow the CLP’s town planning regulations, to allow the land claim to proceed.

The government went on immediate attack after the story was broadcast: “Perron lashes out over ABC report” was a six-column-wide headline in the Northern Territory News on Wednesday 7 May (Marshall Perron was Treasurer and Lands Minister); “Anger over southern reporters” was the second deck of the headline.  “Territory people are heartily sick of non-Territory ABC journalists making fleeting visits to the Territory, then retreating to their bases to prepare biased reports which reflect poorly on the Territory,” Perron fulminated.

He sent a 30cm-long telex of complaint to John Norgard, who was then chairman of the (then titled) Australian Broadcasting Commission.  I retain a copy.

The telex opened:

A.B.C. Nationwide emanating from Brisbane carried a story on trying to make a case that the Northern Territory Government had deliberately impeded the intention of local Aboriginal people to make a land claim to the area.  It was both implied and asserted that I as Minister for Lands and Housing had failed to consult with local people prior to the extension of town planning boundaries to cover Cox Peninsula.

Perron whined on for several paragraphs that he had not been given an opportunity to respond to that charge – ignoring the fact that it had been adequately put to Everingham, who claimed in the story which went to air that Aboriginal residents of Belyuen had been consulted about the regulations.

Balance, fairness and impartiality were once the proud mottos of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.  The Cox Peninsula incident, and others which precede it, indicate that so far as the Territory is concerned your visiting reporters have a confirmed bias towards sensationalism,” Perron wrote.

I have no record of how Mr Norgard responded to Perron’s request for a “remedy”, but Perron’s protests were a sham.  The story was a godsend to Everingham because the local backlash was harshly and predictably against Labor because it backed the cause of the Kenbi claimants:  Labor could not be trusted; it was accused of squandering a bold and farsighted vision of Darwin as a great sprawling capital city; title to land in towns was not secure; Labor was in league with the Northern Land Council.

The NT Parliament had risen just a week before the broadcast, and the government’s performance had been lacklustre.  All expectations were that Parliament would sit again in June and that the government would run its course – as Everingham had always said it would – with an election in August.

But the Nationwide Kenbi story delivered Everingham a ready-made issue and an excuse to attack the Opposition by portraying Labor as a champion of land rights, a party prepared to cede to Aboriginal interests at the expense of city voters.  The unspoken subtext was that your backyard was not safe.

The resonance was irresistible for Everingham. On Wednesday 7 May, two days after the Nationwide program, he called a press conference, ostensibly to announce a spending spree to attract tourists to the Territory.  What happened next was aptly described by the Northern Territory News as the most off-hand announcement in the history of Australian politics.

Under the headline, “Before you all go …”, the paper reported that after the tourism announcement, questions were asked about the Territory government’s campaign to have the railway line extended from Alice Springs to Darwin.  Everingham then talked about a federal election year being a good opportunity to pressure the Federal government.

A journalist asked:  “Talking of elections, are Territory election dates foremost in your mind, Paul?

Everingham replied:  “Well, not foremost in my mind, actually.  I was thinking of my trip to Bathurst Island this afternoon when you asked.  But, yes, a Territory election will be held on June 7.  That’s a formal announcement.

Later, from a journalist:  “If we hadn’t asked you, would we have found out today when the election was on?

Yes, you would have,” Everingham replied.  “I would have told you when you were leaving.  It’s something that most people in the street want done and over with, rather than pages and pages of political punditry.”

With writs to close only two days after the press conference, an election was called for 7 June 1980.  Everingham brushed aside criticisms that his ambush would disenfranchise many voters, especially isolated Aboriginal voters who could not enrol in time.  Everingham had had the perfect issue presented to him and he was not going to pass it up.

Until recently I have wondered if my memory was correct that the Nationwide story had brought on an early election, but research has confirmed that outcome.  The Darwin Star reporter John Loizou reported at the time that the story was “the decisive factor” in Everingham’s decision to go early to the polls, because it had made land rights the issue; and the late CLP historian and Northern Territory University academic Alistair Heatley, in an on-camera interview, confirmed Loizou’s judgement.

In the midst of the post-program brouhaha, I was sent back to the Territory to report for Nationwide on the election campaign.  It was a near-impossible assignment.  My movements were flagged far and wide, and Everingham imposed a boycott: “PAUL GAGS NATIONWIDE – Top reporter vilified” was the front page headline of the Darwin Star of 22 May.

Again the telex machine would clatter between Darwin and southern ports, and I have kept a copy of the message.  Everingham had got wind of my return and wrote to my Executive Producer, copied to Mr Norgard and to Talbot Duckmanton, the ABC boss, on 16 May:

“I cannot see the need for Nationwide to come to the Territory in light of the fact that the ABC has expended considerable resources, money, equipment and personnel in upgrading its Territory situation to the extent that the half-hour national bulletin will be compiled and broadcast from Monday May 19 (although Nationwide would continue to emanate from Brisbane).

“The Territory community has unhappy memories of visits by Nationwide to this area.  On two occasions the visits have introduced the sort of racial tension which obviously excites Queensland-based journalists and television producers, but is detrimental to the Territory community and foreign to the usual political process as practised by my government.

“The most recent contribution to racial tension in the Northern Territory was made by a Mr. Murray McLaughlin.  An independent check of talkback programmes on Darwin commercial radio and the letters columns of the Northern Territory News in the last two weeks verify (sic) reading of the unfortunate legacy which that incursion caused.

“Furthermore, I believe the team Nationwide plans to send to the Territory to cover the election will again be led by Mr. McLaughlin.  Because of his lack of professionalism as a journalist, I feel I would be wasting my time talking to him.”

The Darwin Star’s John Loizou tried at the time to extract the telex from Everingham’s press secretary, Peter Murphy without success, because “it was likely that the message was libelous” – and so it was as it rambled on for 25cm.

The CLP romped home, increasing its vote by 10 per cent.

Land rights was a sleeper issue in the 1980 campaign. The CLP knew that its reason for going early had filtered through to the electorate – it had only to leave the Kenbi issue hanging out there.  Labor was not prepared to run it at all.

The CLP romped home, increasing its vote by 10 per cent.

As for the CLP’s town planning regulations designed to defeat the Kenbi land claim, it would not be until June 1989 that the Federal Court found there was “no doubt that the relevant (NT) public servants thought that the purpose of the regulations was to frustrate Aboriginal land claims.

The Court accepted that “the subject regulations were not made for the purpose of carrying out or giving effect to the Town Planning Act.”  Therefore, the extensions of the boundaries of the city of Darwin into Cox Peninsula were not legal, because they had been made for an improper purpose. On 16 September 1989, the High Court refused leave for the Northern Territory to appeal.

So the Kenbi land claim survived. But it would face more challenges from CLP governments until a newly-elected Labor government decided in 2001 to call a halt to legal shenanigans and accept the December 2000 recommendations of Aboriginal Land Commissioner Peter Gray.

Even then it would take until this year for the claim to be finally settled.