'What Do We Want?': A Political History of Aboriginal Land Rights in New South Wales

'What Do We Want?': A Political History of Aboriginal Land Rights in New South Wales

by Heidi Norman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781922059925
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 656 KB

About the Author

Heidi Norman is a senior lecturer in the communications program at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Read an Excerpt

What do we want?'

A Political History of Aboriginal Land Rights in New South Wales

By Heidi Norman

Aboriginal Studies Press

Copyright © 2015 Heidi Norman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-922059-92-5



'In order for change to happen, the time has to be right.' — Faith Bandler

'We're asking all students and all clubs, all unions and the workers to come out on July 14 [1972] to ask that Land Rights be recognised. Briefly Land Rights means: a claim that all Aboriginal reserves be immediately deeded in perpetuity to the Aboriginal people as a whole.' — Kevin Gilbert

'That "real" Land Rights means more than simply returning title to existing reserves. It involves the granting of title to substantial areas of land in NSW.' — NSW Aboriginal Land Council resolution, 1981

By 1978, the NSW government had been persuaded that Land Rights was the key to advancing the cause of justice for Aboriginal people in the state. The government's 'political will' was the culmination of a host of interconnecting forces, including a long and sustained concern for land security, the emergence from the mid-1970s of a new generation of effective and focused Aboriginal activists and the cultivation of supportive networks and alliances.

The 1978 Select Committee

The NSW Labor government's response to Aboriginal land demands formally began in November 1978 with the appointment of a cross-party Select Committee ('the 1978 Inquiry'). While the 1978 Inquiry was initially set up to report on the underlying causes of socio-economic disadvantage, Commonwealth–state relations and Land Rights, a welcome intervention by the skilful Aboriginal activist networks saw Land Rights elevated to a separate, top-order item and expanded to include 'sacred and significant sites'. The committee reported its findings in 1980.

The Land Rights movement from the mid-1970s and the processes of the 1978 Inquiry saw Aboriginal Land Rights demands gain momentum, with activists becoming more coherent, cogent and politically persuasive in their demands. Politician and 1978 Inquiry chair Maurie Keane reflected in an interview with the author that 'its time had come'. By 1980, the movement for Land Rights was filled with enormous optimism about every Aboriginal claim against the colonial state and society — whether it be 'a pedestrian crossing, drainage, housing, health services, self-respect, justice and "life"!!'

It is tempting to portray Aboriginal land activism in terms of a continuous primary political concern for Aboriginal people and a belated realisation by government of Aboriginal people's survival and resistance. However, this chapter teases out a more complex story: that the demands for land shifted and changed with changing ideas, political possibilities and local conditions, and continue to do so today. This is not to suggest the absence of a fundamental relationship to country as a system of belief, as well as rights in law. From the 1960s through to the 1978 Inquiry, new ideas, possibilities and self-awareness flourished among Aboriginal people and their supporters. This was particularly so for the young intellectuals organising around Redfern, who imbued the land demands — a constant in the conflicted space of Indigenous and settler governance — with a new momentum and focus. Defence of land, as Heather Goodall shows, was persistent and continuous from the moment Europeans approached Botany Bay to the new waves of land and civil rights assaults from the 1920s. But the expression of that defence and activism took different forms, and was shaped by different circumstances, conditions and possibilities.

Aboriginal land justice demands from the 1920s were initially narrower and more practical, concerned with preserving and recovering those lands set aside from the mid-1850s 'for the use of Aborigines'. From the early 1900s, and more intensively after the Second World War, reserve lands were revoked by government to meet the land needs of returning soldiers and expanding white townships. Such revocations were mostly enacted in the face of fierce resistance from Aboriginal residents, who (correctly, as we will later see) understood that the land had been deeded to them, and was rightfully theirs. The intensification of this defence of land partly reflected the immediacy of the new wave of land losses, and its impact on the security and the livelihoods of Aboriginal families in a setting where many Aboriginal people successfully engaged with the modernising expectations of European worlds.

Other events were afoot at the time that grafted the New South Wales land demands to wider movements for change. The Gurindji walk-off in the Northern Territory in 1966 and Land Rights litigation by the Yolgnu of Arnhem Land a few years later paralleled the NSW government's eviction of Aboriginal residents from their homes on reserve lands and likely moves to seize the meagre land security that continued mobilised a new generation of young, educated and increasingly urbanised Aboriginal activist leaders. Reflecting on the impact of these however spatially differentiated responses, one of those organic intellectuals, Paul Coe, recalled to the author how their minds were 'exploding with new ideas'.

As well as the emergence of an expanded and enriched Aboriginal cultural nationalism, and new skills and abilities to engage and negotiate in the political process, these ideas began to penetrate government. The land demand from 1978 was inhabited not only by a reawakened claim of cultural identity but also by political possibilities, many of which were drafted by the Commonwealth government after 1972. In this, there was an opening up of sorts of the once excluded and denied participation of Aboriginal people to a whole new level of inclusion in the political process at the Commonwealth level from 1972 and in more substantial terms by the NSW government from 1978. It was in this setting that Aboriginal land demands expanded and enriched in concert with the possibilities emerging through the government's 1978 Inquiry.

This chapter traces the way the changing shape of the land demands reflected Aboriginal leaders' complex interactions with the state, and how this in turn was understood and experienced across the Aboriginal community.

* * *

Political theorist Tim Rowse argues that the new political intelligibility of the Aboriginal demands to the colonial state emerged in the context of policy innovation after the election of the Whitlam government in late 1972, which brought

Indigenous Australians into 'political history' in its most orthodox sense. The new institutions facilitated the reformation of [Indigenous] leadership, and these leaders' activities were intelligible as 'politics': aggregating interests, negotiating with the government, addressing the wider public, cultivating support for their people and for specific policies.

Rowse uses the notion of intelligibility to explain that the Aboriginal constituency was so alien to governments that it had been dismissed as a citizenry that had to be taken into account. It was the role of the Commonwealth Council for Aboriginal Affairs (1968–76) to bring Aboriginal people into 'political life'. Social scientist Charles Rowley, who published his ground-breaking trilogy on Aboriginal society and politics in 1978, lauded the emerging Aboriginal leadership, enthusing that, 'At last Aboriginal man [sic] has begun to defend himself by acting like modern political man.' Rowley observed the willingness and ability of Aboriginal leaders to address governments with their concerns in ways that could be responded to by institutions of the state. Baring in mind Rowse and Rowley's discussion of the emerging political intelligibility related to the Commonwealth sphere, federal government policy extended to New South Wales, and NSW Kooris and Murris were key players in the national activism. However, the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights movement — especially in the years following the 1967 Referendum and iconic Tent Embassy protest, where new activists with expanded demands and strategies — has been overlooked in the story of Aboriginal political activism.

The two dominant spaces of Aboriginal political activism from the interwar period to the late 1960s — local land concerns and the national civil rights 'inclusion' agenda — were eclipsed by different strategies for change and political agenda, and the growing NSW Aboriginal Land Rights movement was pivotal to this shift. The new 'Aboriginal nationalism' that emerged after the 1967 Referendum saw 'culture' and 'politics' enmeshed, a process historian Russell McGregor describes as the 'politicisation of culture and the culturalisation of politics'. It was these emerging 'cultural-political' demands that were central to the success of the NSW Land Rights movement from 1978. In this new space, by 1981 the Land Rights demands transitioned from concerns about the recovery of 'reserve lands' to a call for a more substantial and conceptual land entitlement based on compensation, justice and cultural rights.

The formative past: dispossession and exclusion

Aboriginal people's enduring land justice claims and the post-1970s Land Rights movement were a response to a lack of any genuine attempt by the settler colonisers to either negotiate with or compensate the more than 250 Aboriginal nations across what became New South Wales for their loss of sovereignty over their lands. This next section canvasses how the colonial and settler state came to possess Aboriginal lands, and how it came to realise, some 200 years later, the injustice of these actions.

The arrival of the British in the lands of the Eora people in 1770 was not really British militarism or conquest, but rather a scientific journey with aspirations to map, classify and know Oceania in the spirit of European Enlightenment. The otherwise unknown coastline was mapped, and botanist Joseph Banks collected plant samples and made ill-informed observations about the animals he failed to comprehend. That initial seven-day encounter at Botany Bay was characterised by fear, hostility and a tense stand-off. Cook's expedition didn't murder any of the Dharawal-speaking people on their Gweagal lands (although a 'warning shot' struck flesh), but their continued presence gave cause for extreme precaution and distant but vigilant surveillance of the strange trespassers. The Europeans on board the Endeavour and their translator from Vanuatu continued northward, collecting plants, mapping, making observations and naming places, mostly from afar. Several years later, in entirely different circumstances, the British despatched several shiploads of human convict cargo and basic supplies to establish the colony of New South Wales on the foreshores of what is now Sydney. It is mostly through an imaginative reading of the colonial archive that we appreciate the impact the arrival of several ships full of miserable, shackled souls and their British commanders had on the Eora people.

An account of the complexity of the colonial encounter and the following centuries, while not the focus of this study, is critical to our understanding of the belated recognition of Aboriginal rights to land in 1983.

While it is poignant to describe Cook's 1770 voyage and the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 to establish a penal colony as 'invasion', studies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century NSW Aboriginal and settler history highlight the variable pace and intensity of the invasion, which moved beyond a violent frontier battle to become a long and complex interchange between the European colonisers and subjugated, colonised Indigenes.

Rowley, Reynolds, Goodall, Morris and Cowlishaw all show the relationships between the original landowners and British invaders as (at least to begin with) occasionally intimate with displays of genuine curiosity in the other. But mostly the invaders displayed a staggering level of ignorance of Aboriginal occupation and custom. As time went by, a refusal to revise assumptions about occupation and relationships to land in the light of new understandings would have become apparent. Aboriginal resistance took many forms. Maria Nugent develops this in her innovative study of the seven-day mooring at Botany Bay where, reading across the colonial archive, she tells a story of the studious ignoring of European approaches on the shores of Botany Bay — a strategy, she suggests, that is continuous with Aboriginal cultural modes of communicating disagreement and hostility. The encroachments were to become far more intense and destructive for the Eora people, whose traditional lands and resources were dramatically recast as Port Jackson was settled by Europeans and its plants and animals were destroyed and hunted. From 1790, along what was by then the Hawkesbury River, the impact of land clearing on scarce yam resources soon escalated into brutal retribution and retaliatory strikes by Aboriginal resistance leader Pemulwuy. This saw a new level of guerrilla warfare emerge in the following decade, with punitive military responses finally suppressing resistance. Outbreaks of disease — influenza, smallpox and measles — of epidemic proportions resulted in mass-scale depopulation of the Eora, extending through to the surrounding networked clans.

Beyond the Sydney basin, nineteenth-century colonisation saw an endless series of regional conflicts, interspersed with shared zones of contact over a lengthy 100 years. During this period, land possession and the treatment of its Aboriginal owners took place in the absence of formal administrative governmental control, negotiation or any clear legal basis for the expropriation of land.

The circumstances and means of Aboriginal peoples' dispossession reflect a host of forces, foremost among them colonial capitalism and what became a racialised ideology of progress. Whereas European Enlightenment ideals fuelled Cook's initial voyage and in some ways the early colonial encounter (for example, the Parramatta/Black Town Native Institute), these soon gave way to the emerging scientific racism and, when coupled with the conditions of the ever-expanding colonial industries, amounted to powerful forces that mitigated against Aboriginal rights to land.

In the absence of a need to establish trade relations or depend on Aboriginal labour, the expropriation of land — 'empty' land 'waiting' for productive development in the name of civilisation and progress — underpinned the march of industry and the associated assault across the New South Wales territory from the 1820s. The industries that developed in particular regions, and the associated level of intensity of land use required, shaped the impact and experience of colonisation. For example, the international demand for wool in the decades from the 1820s to the 1840s meant that the invasion of the central grasslands over the lands of the Gomeroi and Wiradjuri people in the north-west and west of the state was rapid and brutal. The massacring of the original landowners, coupled with the devastation of Aboriginal game and produce by the ever-expanding sheep numbers, brought about the rapid dispersal and depopulation of Aborigines. To illustrate the scale of the wool industry, by the 1830s and 1840s the booming colonial pastoral economy had claimed approximately half the total area of the colony occupied between 1830 and 1845; between 1830 and 1836, wool exports to Britain increased fourfold and by 1944 wool production quadrupled. The enormous expansion saw the appropriation of Aboriginal land at an unprecedented level, and conflict between Aboriginal owners and the invaders escalate to the point where, by 1842–43, it was at its highest point since white settlement. Goodall contends that, 'Aboriginal armed resistance was the most urgent on these grasslands in response to the scale and pace of the invasion'. As Morris explains, contemporaries feared an Aboriginal 'rising'. The rapidly expanding wool export industry from the 1820s was the basis of the European colonial economy, and by 1834 was the colony's most important export. The pastoral expansion into the major part of New South Wales occurred in a relatively compressed period of some fifteen to twenty years, and the alienation of some 12 million hectares by 1830 was further accelerated during the pastoral boom to 1848.

In contrast, the Dhan-gadi of the North Coast Macleay Valley, as Barry Morris shows, experienced a 'secondary elaboration of the pastoral economy'; however, the patterns of conflict were similar to those occurring on the pastoral frontier. Contact in the Macleay Valley was through the cedar trade from 1835, and by 1839 some 200 Europeans were engaged in the trade; however, as Morris argues, 'the incursions were brief and would appear to have had a limited impact on the aboriginal population'. Morris's study highlights the local specificity of Aboriginal/European contact: the valley country was not a particularly suitable environment for pastoral or beef production, and the hills and swamps offered limited pastoral expansion, so these same environmental conditions also meant that the Dhan-gadi were able to maintain some separation from Europeans. The marginality of the valley to the overall colonial economy of New South Wales meant that it 'retained the character of a new frontier for a longer period than other areas ... associated with specific economic, demographic and environmental factors differentiating it from other areas in which the pastoral advance had been much more rapid and decisive'.


Excerpted from What do we want?' by Heidi Norman. Copyright © 2015 Heidi Norman. Excerpted by permission of Aboriginal Studies Press.
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Table of Contents


Acronyms and abbreviations,
Introduction: from extrinsic to intrinsic,
Chapter 1: Aboriginal Land Rights: from 'reserves' to 'country',
Chapter 2: Government, Aborigines and power: the 1978 Land Rights Inquiry,
Chapter 3: The Aboriginal Land Rights Act: politics and the art of the possible,
Chapter 4: Working with the Act: self-determination and modern rule,
Chapter 5: Justice, tradition, progress: shifting land strategies under the Act,
Chapter 6: Defending the Act: Aboriginal civil society and the market,
Chapter 7: Aboriginal governmentality: technologies of the self,
Chapter 8: What do we want? Land Rights!,

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