Today Australians celebrated the life of Gough Whitlam (11 July 1916 – 21 October 2014). This towering figure for justice was the 21st Prime Minister of the nation (Dec 1972-Nov 1975), and during his brief time in office he and his party transformed Australian social life.
I first learned about Whitlam in depth from Aboriginal people in the Victoria River District where he was affectionately and respectfully known as Mister Whitlam. Both their affection and their respect recognised his strong commitment to human rights.
The iconic moment in land rights in Australia took place when the deed to a portion of the Wave Hill cattle station was returned to traditional owners. The ceremony took place in country. Mr Whitlam poured a handful of soil into the hands of Mr Tommy Vincent Lingiari. His words became a high water mark for social justice and inter-cultural respect in Australia:
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.
Gough Whitlam, 16 August 1975
It is probably well known that Mr Lingiari led the walk-off from Wave Hill station in 1966. As I wrote in an earlier essay, Aboriginal people in the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory had lived for several generations under the authoritarian rule of cattle property owners and managers. Settler Australians had taken over the traditional Aboriginal homelands, and placed a grid of cattle properties across Indigenous country. Those Aboriginal people who survived the early years of conquest became an unfree, unpaid labour force that kept the industry alive. They were not citizens of Australia, but rather ‘wards of the state’. In fact, Hobbles Danaiyarri, one of the men who taught me about the history of the region, said that during the long era from conquest to walk-off people had been ‘prisoners in their own country’. As one example, he showed us fence posts that Aboriginal workers had had to carry because the whitefellas didn’t want to waste the lives of horses in this hard work.
The walk-off was meant to change all this, and its impacts were far-reaching. Over the next few years the original mob was joined by Aboriginal people from most of the other properties in the region. Locally, albeit briefly, their actions brought the cattle business to a halt. The people I lived with and continue to learn from were part of that walk-off. They left Victoria River Downs and Humbert River stations, sojourning at a distance from their own traditional countries in order, they hoped, to achieve a life of freedom for their future generations.
From the walk-off camp at Daguragu people waited out the longer-term negotiations that would enable them to achieve citizenship, and to return home with the prospect of decent wages if they still had jobs. Underlying it all was the promise of land rights. The land rights issue was central to the meaning of freedom, as was citizenship in the Australian nation.
Mr Whitlam recognised all these justice issues when he returned part of Wave Hill station to the traditional owners. In respect and reciprocity, a group from Daguragu and Kalgaringi came to Sydney for the memorial event, bringing their participatory presence into the national ‘sorry business’.
Over the decades, the Australian nation has lost a lot of Mr Whitlam’s commitment to justice and freedom. The fact that many people are weeping today is testimony not only to their love for Mr Whitlam but also to the sad fate of his empowering vision of what Australia could be and could become.
The Aboriginal people with whom I have lived and learned told many long stories about Captain Cook, colonisation, injustice, and wrong turnings. In these stories Captain Cook is the figure of injustice; the stories are emblematic of the cruel history that has defaced Australia from the beginning of colonial encounters. I have published the main version of these stories a few times, and there’s no need to repeat it here.
The part of the story that comes to mind as I think today about Mr Whitlam’s legacy is the reflection that things can be different.
Old Jimmy Mangnayarri concluded the Captain Cook saga with the big question: why had it all been so hard? Why wasn’t mateship offered right from the start? That was what Jimmy Mangnayarri wanted to know: ‘Why Captain Cook never say: “Oh, come on mate, you and me live together. You and me living together, mates together. You and me can work for country all the same then.”’
I am revisiting his words today, and thinking about how Old Jimmy was shifting the dynamics from conflict and opposition to shared responsibilities. Further, he was transforming the dyad of coloniser vs. Indigenous into a triad that includes country. He put country at the heart of it all: we would be mates for a purpose, and that purpose was to take care of country.
This is the absolutely crucial issue of our time: how we may work together for country.
No one has stated our current challenge more succinctly and vigorously than Old Jimmy. And when he says that the whole purpose of living together is to work for country, we might think again about that great moment when Mr Whitlam and Mr Lingiari touched each other’s lives through an exchange of soil. For while it clearly was and will always be a moment of justice and reconciliation, it can still become something more. This exchange may yet become a moment in which country starts to take its rightful place as our focus of care and as the source and meaning of the lives of all.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
On Kalkaringi mob in Sydney: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-04/whitlam-to-be-given-farewell-from-aboriginal-friends/5865826
Hobbles Danaiyarri’s great Saga of Captain Cook is published under the title ‘The Saga of Captain Cook’, Hobbles Danaiyarri (as told to Deborah Bird Rose)’ in the prestigious volume Australia’s Empire, Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Deryck Schreuder & Stuart Ward, Oxford University Press (2008).
An article about Old Jimmy Mangnayarri is titled ‘Mates Together: Dancing with Difference’, and is published in a book edited by Vin D’Cruz, Bernie Neville, Devika Goonewardene and Phillip Darby: As Others see Us: The Values Debate in Australia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.
My 1991 book Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia follows the Saga of Captain Cook through the walk-off and on into the (then) contemporary land rights era. It works primarily with Aboriginal people’s own stories, and is published by Aboriginal Studies Press. I am proud to say that it won the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature.