Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Address to the full council of the Central Land Council

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I begin by paying my respects to the traditional owners of this country, past and present, whose commitment, hard work, and respect for the law laid down in the ngarrangani, has meant that the true wealth of this country will be available to future generations of Gurindji; and to the Chairman and Members of the Central Land Council.

Gurindji country, especially the country here, and the Gurindji people, hold a special place in modern Australian history.

The story is easily summarised:

  • A strike and walk-off by Aboriginal stockmen and their families, mainly Gurindji, but also Mudbara, Bilinara, and Ngarinman, working on Wave Hill station
  • They were protesting against the appalling conditions they were forced to live and work under – conditions set by Lord Vestey, one of the wealthiest men in the British Empire
  • More fundamentally, they were protesting against the lack of recognition of their rights and responsibilities for country – rights and responsibilities which had been upheld by their ancestors over thousands of years.

The strike and walk off gained national attention for the Gurindji and their leaders – men such as Vincent Lingiari, Billy Bunter Jampijina and Pincher Manguari.

The Gurindji were supported by the churches, by the unions, by Aboriginal unionists such as Dexter Daniels, by writers such as Frank Hardy. They were supported by Australians of all stripes – from conservatives to communists – by Australians of good will who stepped up to the mark.

The Gurindji leaders were path breakers. They cleared the way for others, pushing through what was often thick scrub, crossing deep gullies and breakaways, always looking to stay on the ridges:

  • They stood up to powerful people and interests
  • They worked hard to explain their position and their point of view, and to argue for their rights – to land, to a fair wage, and for the right to leave their children and grandchildren a better future.

The Gurindji took responsibility. They acted, they acted to secure their future, and their children’s future. They stayed the course.

The Gurindji people changed Australia.

They helped white Australians to look into the mirror, and to see who they – we – really were. To see our true nature. To confront how we treated Aboriginal people.

Gurindji people worked hard to present their arguments – they travelled the breadth of Australia explaining their situation.

They worked hard to build relationships and networks with supporters.

They worked hard to persuade white Australians that Aboriginal rights to country, that Aboriginal desires to work for a fair wage, that Aboriginal concerns for their children are legitimate aspirations and dreams for all Australians, even the most marginalised and dispossessed.

They worked hard to persuade white Australians that by acknowledging and respecting Aboriginal aspirations, all our lives will be enlarged and enlivened. The whole nation will be a better place, able to hold its head high.

Eventually, after many years, Vincent Lingiari and his supporters, black and white, forced Lord Vestey to give back a portion – a quite small portion – of Gurindji country.

It was extremely important for Gurindji.

It was hugely important for Australia.

The image of Gough Whitlam, pouring the sacred red soil of this Gurindji land into Vincent Lingiari’s hands is seared into our nations collective consciousness, like a brand on a bullock.

It symbolises acknowledgement and respect for Aboriginal rights – to land, to work, and to a stronger and secure future.

It resonates with white Australians because it provides tangible proof of how we would like to be – how we would like to see ourselves, or as Abraham Lincoln once said, the better angels of our nature.

Ten long years after the walk off, the momentum created by the Gurindji, built on the earlier work of activists in NSW, along with the Strelley mob in WA, and the Yolgnu of north east Arnhem land, led to the bipartisan support for and passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the NT by the Australian Parliament.

The legislation was drafted by the Whitlam Government, and enacted by the Fraser Government.

It is tangible proof of the capacity of our nation to do the right thing by Aboriginal people; to accept the better angels of our nature.

Unfortunately, in the years since, there have been too many instances of that national capacity going unfulfilled, too many lost opportunities, too many resorts to opportunism or the more insidious and dangerous malady – neglect, disinterest, lack of ambition, political cowardice, and blatantly discriminatory legislation.

Through those long years, the NT Land Councils have been at the forefront nationally of advancing Aboriginal interests and pushing back against that sickness. I wish to especially acknowledge the Central Land Council’s role in that long struggle, and the role of its visionary leaders – Charlie Perkins, Wenten Rubuntja, Pat Dodson, Lindsay Bookie and David Ross to name just a few.

More recently, the Apology has brought us together and enables us to confront and address the huge chasm between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in terms of most social indicators of well-being.

Both Indigenous and non Indigenous leaders recognise that as demographic pressures and rising expectations within Indigenous communities collide with the effects of rapid social and economic change across Australia and the world, the impact falls most heavily on the disadvantaged and most marginal in our community. This means we see:

  • the effects of massive and long-standing under-investment in infrastructure and housing;
  • third world health and education challenges in many remote communities and very poor outcomes nationally;
  • widespread endemic drug and alcohol abuse
  • appalling rates of imprisonment and
  • the breakdown of social norms amongst many young Aboriginal people who lack education, skills, motivation and hope.

Government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are re-engaging in finding a way forward – to openly and honestly talk through the issues we face as communities, and as a nation.

That’s why we are addressing the huge backlog in need for housing and other services. That’s why we reinstated the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory. It is also why we have significantly improved support for the CLC.

I understand the critical role of the Land Councils in advancing Aboriginal aspirations.

And because we understand the importance of Country to Aboriginal people I have been determined in my time as Minister to take every opportunity to support those aspirations.

I have approved 14 land hand backs to traditional owners in the last four years in the CLC region.

Today, I am also very pleased to announce $555,000 to the CLC for continued support for your community development unit.

And just yesterday in the Parliament the new carbon farming initiative was passed. It will give Indigenous people living on their land new economic opportunities, while protecting the land.

Australians of good will can engage with Indigenous Australians, to work together in partnership building safe and secure families and communities.

We can do this together.