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The Northern Myth

Oct 31, 2017

A short tribute to Sir Ninian Stephen

When Sir Ninian Stephen found that lands around Uluru-Kata Tjuta [Ayers Rock] were to be returned to their traditional owners he put his hand up to be the official representative of the Crown in handing over the title deeds.

This is a guest post by Chips Mackinolty, a journalist and artists based in Darwin and Palermo

Under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, successful land claims—always after a fair bit of argy-bargy—result in the grant of title to at least some of the lands claimed. Usually it involves a bit of a ceremony on or near the land claimed, and it is usually presided over by whoever the current minister for Aboriginal/Indigenous affairs is sitting in the seat at the time.

The grant of land is in the name of the Commonwealth of Australia–indeed the Crown–and a title document is issued. The Traditional Owners get a nice framed copy, and the title deeds get kept in land council safe places. And so they should.

But there was one, very beautiful, exception to the usual practice of a “handback” being in the domain of a federal minister, and that was in the case of the then-Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephen, who died a few days ago.

When, presumably as the paperwork crossed his desk, he found that lands around Uluru-Kata Tjuta [Ayers Rock] were to be returned to their traditional owners he put his hand up to be the official representative of the Crown in handing over the title deeds. As far as I know, the first, perhaps only, time a GG had done so. He was accompanied by Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Environment Barry Cohen and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding.

In any case it was a good move, and one that involved potential bravery at the time. The NT’s Country Liberal Party government was running a rabid campaign against the Anangu Traditional Owners, which included taxpayer funded interstate trips trying to drum up support. On the day itself, a light plane traversed the area of the handback ceremony carrying a banner with the slogan “Ayers Rock for all Australians”.

But as the late Yami Lester noted on the day, the Traditional Owners had not “removed” the Rock. It was still there. The unresolved issue of climbing the Rock is yet to be resolved in favour of the views of the Traditional Owners. A battle for another day.

But all power to Sir Ninian Stephen. He knew bloody well what he was doing as he would be walking into the bearpit of racist attitudes to land rights. Traditional owners of Uluru presented this poster to Governor General Sir Ninian Stephen during the handback ceremony.

None of this was mentioned in the recent tributes to the man. Let alone a commentary about the action of a former GG, contrasted to the contemporary rejection by a federal government that has specifically ruled out any notion of accepting notion of supporting the Uluru Statement from the heart. And that within hours of contemplating a change to the Constitution to protect so-called dual citizens from not being able to fill out a few forms correctly and honestly.

Vale Sir Ninian.

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Photo: Mr Cassidy Uluru, Barry Cohen, Professor Derek Ovington, Sir Ninian Stephen and Clyde Holding at the handback ceremony.

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One thought on “A short tribute to Sir Ninian Stephen

  1. Chips Mackinolty

    … and to prove me wrong, within days of this piece being written the board of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park has decided to ban climbing of Uluru from 2019!