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Australia Still Stiffing Their Aborigines

wave hill station-thumbnail.jpg
Stockman Billy Bunter at Wave Hill.
News this week that the wages owed to the aboriginal stockmen at Wave Hill cattle station in Australia's Northern Territory (The "Outback") have still not been paid - after forty years.

Wave Hill was first stocked with cattle in 1883. The Gurindji found their waterholes and soakages fenced off or fouled by cattle, which also ate or trampled fragile desert plant life, such as bush tomato. Dingo hunters regularly shot the people's invaluable hunting dogs, and kangaroo, a staple meat, was also routinely shot since it competed with cattle for water and grazing land. Gurindji suffered lethal "reprisals" for any attempt to eat the cattle – anything from a skirmish to a massacre. (The last recorded massacre in the area occurred at Coniston as late as 1928). There was little choice to stay alive but to move onto the cattle stations, receive rations, adopt a more sedentary life and work as stockmen and domestic help - on their own traditional land.

The aboriginal stockmen worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for basic rations of bread and beef and a small pouch of tea every Friday. No wages were paid - not a single cent. In fact it was illegal up until 1968 to pay Aboriginal workers more than a small token amount in goods and money. Wave Hill station's owners, the English aristocratic family, Vestey, was not even paying Aboriginal workers the 5 shillings a day minimum wage set up for Aborigines under a 1918 Ordinance. White stockmen were then receiving £2/8/- a week in 1945. Gurindji lived in corrugated iron humpies without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. Among the strategies used by the managers of Vestey-owned cattle stations to deny indigenous workers their wages was the practice of booking down. Instead of paying the workers in cash they would give them credits at the station store and then double or even triple the price of goods, rendering the credits useless for anything but the smallest purchases.

There had been complaints from aborigines about conditions over many years. A Northern Territory government inquiry held in the 1930s said of Vesteys - "It was obvious that they had been ... quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights."

The managers also exploited a provision in rules covering Aboriginal wages that exempted employers from paying if they fulfilled a duty of care by "maintaining relatives and dependants". A "duty of care". Huh.

The workers' families were being maintained by being kept as unofficial labourers and domestic servants for the station manager and the foremen - often being used as sex workers.

Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, who lived on Wave Hill Station at the time said:

We were treated just like dogs. We were lucky to get paid the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in tin humpies you had to crawl in and out on your knees. There was no running water. The food was bad – just flour, tea, sugar and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock. The Vesteys mob were hard men. They didn't care about blackfellas.

On August 23, 1966, the aboriginal stockmen finally had had enough - they and their families walked off.

The strike for wages and conditions became the first successful Aboriginal land rights claim, culminating in the new Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handing the cattle station back to its traditional owners.

1972 Woodward Royal Commission

The Whitlam government established the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, headed by Justice Woodward. The Inquiry's task was to examine the legal establishment of land rights. The Commission recommended government financial support for the creation of reserves and incorporated land trusts, administered by traditional owners or land councils.

As a result of the recommendations of the Woodward Inquiry, the Whitlam government drafted the Aboriginal Land Rights Bill. The legislation was not passed by parliament prior to the Whitlam government’s dismissal in 1975. The subsequent Liberal government passed effectively similar legislation – the Aboriginal Land Rights Act – on 9 December 1976.

Gough Whitlam addressed the Gurindji people, saying:

On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of all Australian people – all those who honour and love this land we live in. For them I want to say to you: I want this to acknowledge that we Australians have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians. Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.

Noble words and all well and good. The Gurindjis might have got some of their land back but they are still waiting for their back wages. Four decades on, forty of the surviving 200 station workers are once again fighting for what they are owed. With a law academic from the University of Sydney, Dr Thalia Anthony, the workers have launched a campaign to demand their money.

The campaign will include preparation of a test case against the heartless Vestey Group Ltd and the Australian Federal Government for more than $50 million in compensation.
Maybe the new Labor Government will finally redress this wrong.

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Reader Comments (1)

Sounds like America. It's a shame so many injustices still have yet to be addressed.
December 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMisinterpreted

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