Interview: Public Defender
Legal: Craig's Story
Unions: Wrong Way, Go Back
Politics: Queue Jumping
History: Iron Heel
Economics: Waging War
International: Under Pressure
Poetry: Billy Negotiates An AWA
Review: A Pertinent Proposition
The Locker Room
Truth in Advertising
What a Woman!
It's Not Pretty
From Little Things
'From little things, big things grow,' sings Paul Kelly in his account of the Gurindji people's struggle for fair working conditions and land rights. Kelly is a master of his craft and he and co-writer Kev Carmody tell this epic tale with characteristic economy and power. But one key figure doesn't crack a mention: Dexter Daniels, an Aboriginal man from Roper River, and sometime organiser for the North Australian Workers Union.
It's 1966, and 300 clicks northwest of Tennant Creek, Vincent Lingiari is leading a strike among his Gurindji people at Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. The Aboriginal stockmen have had enough of being paid a pittance, if at all. With the annual monsoon rains soon to make the land unworkable, time is running out for cattle mustering. Dexter Daniels is visiting cattle stations to urge Aboriginal stockmen to stand up for their rights.
What begins as a 'pay and conditions' stoush quickly becomes a struggle for land rights. Daniels joins Gurindji man Lupgna Giari and heads south to the cities to tell the story of the walk-off. Actors Equity shells out for the plane tickets, and wharfies, builders labourers and other unionists turn out to offer moral and financial support.
Eight years later, the fight has been won. A tall stranger - Prime Minister Gough Whitlam - arrives at Wave Hill to present Lingiari with a title deed. The 'handful of sand' photo, featuring these two great leaders, is to become an icon in the battle for Indigenous land justice.
Seventeen years down the track, on a hot summers day at Sydney's Redfern Park, Prime Minister Keating transcends mere politics and speaks of simple truths. 'The problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians,' he says. 'It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.' These crisp sentences by speechwriter Don Watson leave no room for ambiguity.
Six months earlier, the High Court's landmark Mabo decision had swept away the myth of terra nullius - unoccupied land. On New Year's Day 1994, the Native Title Act comes into effect, promising to deliver land justice for Australia's first inhabitants.
Fast forward now to the new millennium and the 2002 High Court decision on the Miriuwung-Gajerrong claim in the Kimberly region of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Listen to Justice Michael McHugh intone that 'the deck is stacked against native-title holders, whose fragile rights must give way to the superior rights of the landholder whenever the two classes of rights conflict'. Black Australia misses out again.
The oldest living culture on the planet is entitled to a little respect; to recognition of a special relationship with the land, and to an apology for the wrongs of the past. Aboriginal Australians are entitled to decent health, housing and education as a matter of right. Grudging acts of charity that materialise through the smoke and mirrors of 'practical reconciliation' don't cut it.
But politicians must wait to see which way people are walking before they run to the front to provide 'leadership'. So Indigenous Australians will look to traditional allies like the trade union movement and the churches to help prosecute the case for Indigenous justice.
At the 2003 ACTU Congress, former chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Pat Dodson, expressed his appreciation for the support of non-Aboriginal people, 'especially those who - like the union movement - are dedicated to a just Australia.'
Flash back to Redfern as Keating implores us to 'make the most basic human response' and enter into Aboriginal hearts and minds; to ask, "How would I feel if this were done to me?'
Perhaps Australia's trade unionists could pause to ponder this question. Workers in this country have a pretty good track record of sticking together to look after the marginalised. After all, there is strength in unity.
On 1 July this year, Democrat Aden Ridgeway vacated his Senate seat, and federal parliament lost its only Indigenous voice. At the same time, the Howard Government gained a working majority in both houses and the ALP became largely irrelevant. However, the fight for Indigenous justice continues on other battlefields. The churches will again provide moral leadership and an acceptable public face. But social change requires a bit of grunt.
The trade union movement in this country was way ahead of the game in confronting apartheid in South Africa. Australian unionists were out on the street campaigning for a free, safe East Timor while state and federal governments dithered over an appropriate response.
ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) has been cut down. Indigenous Australia's much-maligned elected representatives have been replaced by the government-appointed National Indigenous Council - which has no mandate and only limited public support. There will never be a better time for the union movement to take up the cudgels on behalf of Australia's most disadvantaged people.
First published in 'The Big Issue' 4 July 2005
Graham Ring is a Melbourne-based writer who specialises in issues of Indigenous justice. He produces the 'Ringy's Ramblings' column for the National Indigenous Times on a fortnightly basis, and is also an occasional contributor to New Matilda.
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