50 years ago the Gurindji People started something that today would be called an industrial action – or simply a strike.

Professor Jon Altman from the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University said, “They were protesting against the appalling conditions that they were forced to endure including below award wages, inadequate housing, incomplete access to social security entitlements, an absence of any means of appeal via management and the sexual exploitation of women. That was 1966 and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory had not even been bestowed their proper Australian citizenship rights.“

While the walk-off was initially a fight for equal wages and better working conditions, it was also about previous injustices of invasion, of the massacres and the many losses that followed. As the people sat in the sand for eight long years it also became the public face of the birth of Aboriginal land rights. Others protested around the country. Jon Altman says,
“The Wave-Hill walk-off and establishment of the community of Daguragu at Wattie Creek by the Gurindji people is seen as one of the precursors for the passage of federal land rights law in the Northern Territory a decade later“  He questions,

“It would be fair to assume that today – 50 years after the walk-off and 40 years after the passage of the federal land rights act – the situation has massively improved and that the problems raised half a century ago have been fixed. But has the situation really improved?”

“After a period of thirty years of gradual improvement to 1996, things have gone backwards. In 1966 Aboriginal people could walk-off in protest, but today their choices are more limited, there is less freedom.

Back then it was the Vesteys Groups, a privately owned UK group of companies that was mistreating Aboriginal labour, today it is the Australian state. The inappropriately-named Community Development Programme is looking to disgracefully exploit Aboriginal workers in regional and remote Australia by paying them less than award wages for a mandatory 25 hours work a week with none of the usual contemporary benefits of work like holiday pay, superannuation or long service leave entitlements. And if people do not comply with draconian work-for-the-dole or train for training’s sake requirements they are breached, they lose their welfare entitlements at historically unprecedented rates and have to survive with no income for periods of up to eight weeks.”

Ian Viner AO QC (Aboriginal Affairs Minister 1975-78) recently reflected on the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the Northern Land Council Land Rights News (April 2016). “The 1976 Act was the high point, the Mt Everest of land rights”.  Since, it has been under attack. He says,

“I fear that Governments since 1976, Territory and Commonwealth, CLP, Liberal and Labor have never really come to terms with the Act, always wanting to amend it, restrict its operation, cut down freehold land ownership, diminish the traditional communal basis for recognition of Aboriginal land, restrict and reduce the role and responsibilities of the Land Councils, give miners, developers and Government easier access to Aboriginal land.

The Act has suffered review after review. It must be one of the most reviewed pieces of legislation ever: by Toohey (1983), Reeves (1998), House of Representatives Standing Committee (1999), Manning (1999), Gray (2006) and most recently, Mansfield in 2013 - as well as the infamous 2007 Intervention by the Howard Government. Always the Act has been amended to increase access to Aboriginal land, change tenure, remove permits, and weaken the veto power [of traditional owners], ...

So while the situation has not as much improved as it could (and should have), and there are even setbacks in some areas – what are the options for the future?

Yesterday, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM visiting Wave Hill said, “the main issues remain the lack of self-determination and the absence of treaties.” She joins calls for Aboriginal children from within the Juvenile protection system to be returned to the care of Aboriginal people.

Georgina Gartland of ‘concerned Australians’ adds, “how long must First Nations peoples wait for equality and recognition of their sovereignty? These and their calls for treaties have long been denied. The 2007 Intervention - rebadged in 2012 as the Stronger Futures legislation - saw more control removed from traditional owners /authorities over their land; in some areas there is now no onus to consult with them over lands and there is a push by Government for leases over Aboriginal lands in exchange for basic services.” 

Treaty has recently regained momentum in the political discussion; Treaties will incorporate negotiation, the establishment of self-determination and more as progressed by First Nations.
In regards to the future of the Land Rights Act Ian Viner expressed hope,

“I am sure land ownership under the Act can be used to the economic and social benefit of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and Territorians as a whole, without the destruction of traditional ownership of existing freehold title. That is the challenge for the future. It is not beyond the capacity of the Land Councils, Aboriginal leadership and Governments, with goodwill towards Aboriginal people, the right sense of values, understanding and determination to meet that challenge.

Jon Altman concluded, “It is time for a fundamental re-think by the Australian state and society that will see people like the Gurindji treated fairly like Australian citizens and empowered to pursue a vision that accords with their long-held aspirations.”