Belonging, Sharing and the Wik Judgement

by Peter Read

© all rights reserved

Think of the ways in which land has been returned by governments to Aborigines. The Northern Territory Land Rights Act and the Native Title Act return land to certain claimants under criteria relating to present and traditional living. The Aboriginal Land Fund, established by Whitlam, bought land on behalf of Aboriginal groups for ostensibly economic purposes. The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act sets aside a certain proportion of the land sales tax annually for fifteen years, for which Land Councils may bid on the basis of occupation in the recent or ancient historic past.

Each model carries disadvantages. Some five times more land in the Northern Territory has been granted to Aboriginal owners than Fraser’s legislative drafters intended, while large tracts around the town areas has been rendered, by legislative fiat, unclaimable. Bjelke-Peterson refused to transfer title to several Queensland properties which the Aboriginal Land Fund had tried to buy on behalf of its would-be purchasers. The Native Title Act is so hedged about by legal difficulty that successful claims have scarcely begun.

The disadvantage common to all past models is that everyone, except the successful claimant is left unsatisfied. The principle ‘that is yours, this is mine’, an axiom of European land settlement for many centuries, in the end fails to address the legal and religious complexities of modern Australian principles of land settlement.

Nor does that principle satisfy shared emotional complexities. Aboriginal people have other connections to land than traditional association. Heather Goodall’sInvasion to Embassy, 1 describes how NSW Kooris laid upon their spiritual connections to land, new and experiential layers of meaning. They cleared the bush, farmed the land, built huts, fenced boundaries, bore children, nursed the sick and buried their dead on the treasured reserves, from almost all of which they were evicted, in the past ninety years, by one means or another. Thousands of cups of tea and damper consumed on the same iron bedsteads before the same billies combined in memory with the events of the life cycle on these sites of action and resistance. Land in our own century has for Aboriginal people grown ever richer in secular and social meaning.

And so it has for non-Aborigines, not least for those in the eye of the storm, the Queensland pastoralists. In my own recent book Returning to Nothing I coincidentally noted these very same mechanisms of deep belonging which have developed so strongly amongst non-indigenous Australians.2 Their feelings of belonging to the land developed analogously: through long association, from clearing and working the land, from walking on it, from shared social rituals like marriage, death and burial, from solitary musings, from supervising the same play areas shared by children and grandchildren. Feelings of belonging to the land emerges, amongst both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, from a thousand cups of tea shared on the same sites at the same table in the same kitchen sometimes for more than fifty years. Such expressions of belonging can become semi-mystical, as they have among some pastoralists and the mountain cattle men and women. Some Aboriginal people concede this:

“We Aboriginal people don’t believe that we have a monopoly on spirituality. But we believe that we’ve practised it a little longer. You can only have that if you’re connected to the land and you come from the position of belief in what it represents.”

But the government has decreed that leasehold pastoral land will not be emotionally or physically shared. What a tragedy, what a missed opportunity, that just at the moment when older methods of returning land to the indigenous people are failing, and just when, by a seeming miracle, the High Court found for ‘co-existence’ rather than excluding one side or the other – politics and rhetorical ideology have undone the most exciting and constructive development in accommodating disputed emotional attachment to land in the history of the commonwealth. What a blinding tragedy.

It is true that Australians do not have many models, here or elsewhere, for sharing country, but there are some. One of the best, and in a conceptually more difficult area than pastoral Queensland, are the individual agreements between government, pastoralist and Aborigines at the World Heritage listed Willandra Lakes National Park. Federal and state governments carry international obligations, many hundreds of burials and cremation sites need protection and Aboriginal access, farmers need to be able to continue farming. Though the NSW government has been blamed for rushing to decisions where compromise and negotiations would have proven more beneficial, relations between the three stakeholders have been fairly cordial. A negotiating team concluded separate agreements with each of the individual farmers about fencing, site protection, rights to permanent water, game and homestead sites. The agreements have been a success. Though at least one pastoralist has sold up, blaming the state government for delay, some fifteen pastoralists now have written statements of their rights and obligations. The state government is meeting its obligations, and the indigenous communities are, it appears, reasonably happy. Mary Pappin, a Muthi Muthi spokesperson, told a SBSInsight team,

“This place, it’s got a hold on the people out here. And when you’re out here, you’re one. We feel for the land owner like the landowner feels for us. We are a people that are trying to live out our time peacefully and be a part of making something for the future.” 4

No one, probably, is entirely happy with their agreement. But that is the point. If any one group is entirely happy then the other stakeholders will be entirely unhappy . Sharing the land between pastoralists and holders of Native Title in the manner implied by the Wik judgement means gain as well as some loss for all. The Willandra Lakes agreements show that if the state is content with an equal rather than dominating role, regional and local agreements can be reached. Stakeholders negotiate on the understanding that each will get most of what they want – without the community tearing itself apart.Ted Richardson, a pastoralist, explained:

“The relations between us and the Aboriginal people have always been good. Only yesterday we had people out in the scrub hunting emus, there’s no worry there, it’s just that over the years our frustration has been working with government. ”

His statement is doubly significant. First is the inference that local and regional agreements are best left to those who have an immediate interest in the matter. Second is the acceptance by the pastoralists that Aboriginals have a legitimate and continuing presence in the area.

Such recognition contrasts sharply with the Queensland pastoralists, some of whom have difficulty with Aboriginals “who have never been on the land”. 5 Some pastoralists may indeed have a longer social memory of the district: because the Aboriginals were forcibly driven from the stations in the early years of this century! A tour guide in his fifties told me in Longreach last week that when he was a boy ‘everyone knew’ that Aboriginals had never lived in the district, never. In reality it was not much more than a generation earlier, in the early 1900s, that the Longreach Aboriginals had been rounded up and trucked to Woorabinda and Palm Island. Modern pastoralists have a problem – a frightening ignorance of a history no older than their own grandparents. Enforced absence does not invalidate the rights of Aboriginals people to share (not take over) the land from which their grandparents were ejected.

The Wik Judgement should not – and of course it does not – invalidate the analogous affection, love and sense of belonging which many pastoralists undoubtedly possess. That was the monumental insight into how land which is already emotionally shared by many Australians could be physically shared between them. The Wik judgement offered an unexpectedly positive and constructive way forward in that all who feel for the land and express their belonging can partake of it. Sharing, not exclusive use for anybody, simply has be the future of accommodation. Mary Pappin’s wise words should especially be heeded by the federal government:

“I think people [in the Willandra Lakes region] are more knowledgeable now too. When they walk on the land they tread lightly. No matter who we are, this land is going to be claiming future people. So what we’ve got today is what we want to preserve for them. When it’s their time they’ll walk over it softly too and leave it for the next lot of people too, so that the cycle of mankind and their generations can keep going.”6
Peter Read is an Australian Research Fellow, Dept of History, the Faculties, ANU. He is currently writing a book on Reconciliation.


1. Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996

2. Peter Read, Returning to Nothing:The Meaning of Lost Places , Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 1996

3. ‘Pan, Panic and the Australian Bush’, Radio National, broadcast 5 October 1996.

4. ‘Land Lords’ on Insight, SBS television, broadcast 17 October 1996

5. Don McDonald, National Party Federal President, quoted in Australian, 18 June 1997

6. ‘Land Lords’ on Insight, SBS television, broadcast 17 October 1996

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