Interview: The Wet One
Bad Boss: Like A Bastard
Unions: Demolition Derby
Corporate: The Bush Doctrine
Politics: American Jihad
Health: Secret Country
Review: Walking On Water
Poetry: The UQ Stonewall
Month In Review
The Locker Room
The Legacy of 11/9
The CFMEU Race Debate #2
Keeping it Clean
Sue the Leaders?
Wrong Way, Go Back
Shame on Murray
Use or Abuse of Long Term Casuals
Speaking in Tongues
Frank Hardy's The Unlucky Australians was partly responsible attracting worldwide attention to Aboriginal land rights issues. The book was tells the story of a campaign that started as a demand for equal pay for Aboriginal workers. Bill Bunbury from Radio Nationals' Oral History Unit has recently published a book about what he sees as the devastating impact of the equal pay decision by the Arbitration Commission on Aboriginal communities on stations. Bunbury seems to accept the oral histories narrated to him by station owners who say they felt sad to have to kick Aboriginal people off, the publishers advertising saying the decision" destroyed "the relationships between pastoralists and pastoral workers and forcing the Aboriginal workers off the land and into fringe dwellings on the edge of towns.
It is a story that goes to the heart of the relationship between black and white Australians and one that makes us think about how we implement seemingly 'good' decisions, and who we should include when we make them."
It is an approach that denies any agency for Aboriginal people in the process. Hardy's book is marvelous because he tells us about the Aboriginal people involved, the disagreements between them but also about their determination to get equal pay. Its not an imposed decision but one fought for by Aboriginal people who knew very well what they wanted. Its like arguing that women shouldn't demand equal pay because it will reduce the number of jobs or that men will lose theirs. One never knows the full consequences of actions but that doesn't mean that they should stop fighting for social justice just because you can't see all the outcomes of the battle. Perhaps Bunbury and those who praise his viewpoint would be happier if they hadn't walked off because what happened was of course that the equal pay demand also revitalised the land rights movement that eventually led to Whitlam and Fraser taking real steps in this area.
The starting point for the push for decent pay and conditions was earlier than the walk off of the 1960s. A big protest and campaign began in earnest after the Second World War, as Bunbury's informants tell us. There was a large scale walk-off in the Kimberleys in 1946, on 1st May. Pay at the time was different for "half-castes", who received less than whites, and for "full bloods" who generally received no money at all but got rations. Sam Coppin said to Bunbury "That's all we used to get, boots. We paid for boots with that same money, and trousers. Got to pay for woman's dress - tobacco. We in debt all year round. Never get off the debt. That's the way they keep us there all the time. If a man wants to go away, he'd [the manager] get the police, fetch him back because you owe too much in the station."
This is not about the money?
Bunbury gets close to what seems to be the right answer, in contradiction to his book title, in the next paragraph. "But their actions were not just about money. They were also about human dignity and personal freedom, which is why, in the aftermath of the strike, so many refused to o back, even when they were offered the minimum wage."
Frank Hardy's reportage of the Wave Hill walk-off and equal pay demands makes the same point very clearly. The workers and people were not forced into the fight for equal pay by evil communists or do-gooding white unionists but drove it themselves. Dexter Daniels, Vincent Lingiari and all the others are shown wrestling with all the issues Bunbury and his informants talk about. Hardy shows the conflict between the white dominated groups who wanted to help Aborigines and the demands by Aborigines that they be the ones who run the advocacy groups and make the demands. The NAWU was also caught up in this process and
Bunbury discusses the history of violence in the Kimberley and other places in his book, when the station leases were being established. The leaseholders don't show much inclination to ask the Aboriginal people if they liked the idea of their land being taken over by others or if they would like to stay on with the new people. He also doesn't mention this in the context of his interviews with station leaseholders and owners who felt so saddened to have to kick the Aboriginal people off when they got three years to phase in the equal pay decision.
Other differences in the status of station owners and lessees are passed over too, which show that there were differences between owners as there are through most rural industry. Crucially it's the difference between corporate landholders and smaller owner operators (Small is a relative term when these grazing lease areas were off course all huge relative to farming country). Resources varied greatly between these classes of owners and pressure to pay off debts applies more of a burden to some than others (large financial institutions were big owners, as were large groups such as Vesteys, the attitude to whom is well represented in Xavier Herbert's astonishing Poor Fellow My Country). Bernie Brian, in his Labour History conference paper, points out that the Vestey's regarded a 1914 award decision by Justice Power in the Northern Territory a "ruinous award". Aborigines were excluded from the arbitration system until the 1965 decision but we see the same attitude of employers (as we do with every wage decision).
The other issue is whether the equal pay decision was actually the reason for the Aboriginal people leaving the stations. Tim Rowse raised this issue in his review of Bunbury's book.
Bunbury and Geoffrey Bolton (who wrote the forward) claim that wage justice was the devastating factor for Aboriginal society in North Australia, which had managed to survive earlier depredations (ie mass killing). This has become the familiar refrain. Liberalism and good intentions doing harm. Usually the harm is done because the people who are having things done for them are not asked what they actually want. This is the line of Paddy McGuinness et al anyway. Bunbury falls into the trap and his book has been trumpeted by the resurgent Right as they seek bash those who they see as the left elite.
In the Top End the Aboriginal Ordinance was replaced by the Welfare Ordinance in 1953 and it was complemented by the Ward's Employment Ordinance which determined (along with the regulations attached to it) the wages and conditions of Aborigines named in the Register (or Stud Book as it was charmingly known)). The Protector could bank the wages of Aboriginal employees in their names and release them on approval. The money was banked into a Pastoralists Fund that subsidised the stations for the dependents. The equal pay decision threatened this fund as the pay was now direct to the workers, rather than a general fund payment. So the pastoralists handy subsidy was removed from their control and proper wages went to those who really owned the land. Given the evidence of the way the Queensland system operated, as documented so well by Ros Kidd in "The Way We Civilise", why should Aboriginal people have been prepared to sit back and accept this and why wouldn't the stations have wanted the groups to stay when they had this money rolling in.
Another reason that is not mentioned by Bunbury is the changes that were happening in mustering and management of station in northern Australia. New technology made a huge difference. This is explored by Rob Castle and Jim Hagan in a paper they gave to the 2001 Labour History Conference in Canberra, and reproduced in the conference papers.
They look at the consequences of the equal pay case by looking at the records of the Northern Australian Workers' Union (NAWU), the Commonwealth Employment Service, government department records and the Report of the Gibb Enquiry of 1971. As far as I can tell, none of these sources were consulted by Bunbury, nor is Frank Hardy's book referred to.
The union could not even get the Aboriginal workers under the award, despite efforts in 1949 and 1951. The 1965 decision was the first time they managed this. Pastoralists regularly took advantage of the lack of coverage in the way they exploited Aboriginal people, and also white workers who may have been union members but, given the huge distances and the lack of resources of the union, found themselves without real protection.
But back to issue of employment and movement off station. Castle and Hagan note that is difficult, if not impossible to be precise about the effect that the payment of Award rates had on the employment of Aborigines in the cattle industry. Estimating the nuber of of Aborigines in any particular district at any one time is difficult, and a decrease does not necessarily point to unemployment as its cause. There had been some voluntary movement of Aborigines since the severe Central Australian drought of the early fifties, and regional differences in rainfall continued to complicate judgment about the cause of movement out of pastoral districts in the seventies." Then they come to the what is at the center of the changes, and it has been the driving imperative of capitalist development since the industrial revolution, and a factor not covered by Bunbury at all.
"Its cause lay not in the simple substitution of white for black labour but in a massive investment in improving the technology of the industry. This dated from about 1959, when the Administration raised the minimum rate payable under the Wards Employment Ordinance to two pounds per week with keep, or about one sixth of the basic wage for whites. But the investment program was not aimed only at reducing the need for Aboriginal labour. In giving evidence to the Arbitration Commission in 1965, Mr RT Schmidt, an executive committee member of the Northern territory Pastoral Lessees' Association, said "No, I would not say we were intending to switch in any way, but we were working towards a stage where we employ a minimum of any type of labour..."
Big employers led the way of course. Victoria River Downs, Brunette Downs and others spent massively on improvements. This involved more fencing, trap yards, more bores for water and easing the problems of mustering with more Land Rovers, motor bikes and helicopters. Also improving roads on stations and governments spending on roads to help transport to port.
Aborigines responded in different ways to the changes,. They also achieved more citizenship rights at the time and individual welfare payments helped them be able to choose where they wanted to be, and also helped the ongoing land rights movement that lead to the 1976 legislation. This enabled Aboriginal people to claim now more than 30% of the Territory as inalienably their country. To lament the equal pay case as forcing them off ignores the way governments have failed to act to allow Aboriginal people to have what has been stolen. Bunbury writes about Western Australia where the governments over many years have fiercely opposed Aboriginal land rights. Unions, the evil people who argued for equal pay, have a long history of arguing for land rights. Lets turn the focus back to the failure of government, rather than look at the actions of unions who supported something Aboriginal people wanted and achieved. Rowse also reviews a new book by Mary Anne Jebb that seems to adopt the more complex approach that Bunbury lacks (because of the nature of the oral history process he is restricted to) we need to properly consider the changes in the north of Australia that have come about with changes in the cattle industry.
Perhaps what Bunbury's work shows is the limitations of oral history when it is not backed by enough empirical work. The Castle and Hagan paper was available well before he went to press with his book (although it wasn't out at the time of the radio programs). It is a good narrative Bunbury presents, and he highlights real issues, but the lack of background means his emphasis and conclusions are inadequate.
Bill Bunbury (2002). It's Not About the Money It's The Land: Aboriginal Stockmen and the Equal Wages Case (North Freemantle: Freemantle Arts Centre Press)
Frank Hardy (1976). The Unlucky Australians (Adelaide: Rigby) (first published in 1968 by Nelson)
Tim Rowse (2002). Changing Bosses; in Australian Book Review, September, no. 244. pp20-1
Stan Pelczynski (1996) This Year's Special Anniversaries. The 1946 Aboriginal Stockmens Strike in Western Australia; The 1966 Gurindji Land Rights Strike.
Rob Castle and Jim Hagan (2001). The 'Freeing' of Unfree Labour: Aborigines in the Northern Territory Cattle Industry, 1948-1978; in; Work Organisation, Struggle: seventh National Labour History Conference, ANU, Canberra)
Bernie Brian (2001). Vesteys and the Single 'White' Man's Wage: the First Award in the Northern Territory; in; Work Organisation, Struggle: seventh National Labour History Conference, ANU, Canberra)
More generally on Aboriginal people and work see Aboriginal Workers edited by Ann McGrath and Kay Saunders. A special issue of Labour History no. 69, November 1995.
Also papers by Castle and Hagan, and one by Lyn A. Riddett in Labour History, no. 72, May 1997
Frank Stevens (1974) Aborigines In the Northern Territory Cattle Industry (ANUP)
Mary Anne Jebb (2002). Blood, Sweat and Welfare: A History of White Bosses and Aboriginal Pastoral Workers (UWA Press)
Ros Kidd (1997). The Way We Civilise: Aboriginal Affairs the Untold Story (St Lucia: UQP)
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