I was a teenager 50 years ago in Alice Springs, I’d just left school — trying to make my way in the world. I grew up in a political family though and I knew what was going on in 1967, and the right for equal wages. We were the next generation coming through.
Prior to that, there were other activities — the Yirrkala bark petition in Arnhem Land and the Lingiari mob going on strike and the walk off in Wave Hill and also the Macleod mob over the Kimberleys in 1946, and all the mob went on strike over there panning for gold and diamonds.
All the stock men were going to go on strike. I was a working boy. When award wages came in, a lot of the station mob lost their jobs on the station so they came into towns like Alice Springs and so the fringe camps came about. That was an upheaval and of course the backlash! It meant pastoralists used to get free labour and the government was propping up the cattle industry by supplementing our food. After '67 a lot of people lost their jobs and came into town.
But there were positives — when Whitlam came to power, the land rights movement had a bit of fire under it, and then that was getting somewhere. Whitlam promised us land rights but we know what happened to him.
Then the Racial Discrimination Act came about and from that came Mabo down the track. When Whitlam was sacked, he had in Parliament the Land Rights Bill but when Fraser got in he passed the NT Land Rights Bill because they could use the section that gave them powers. The Northern Territory had ambition for Statehood and it was given rights to self-government in 1978 — but land rights come two years prior. All the Federal Lands were given back, the former reserves — Arnhem Land and near Uluru.
As we come forward, we developed strategies in the territories to get people land rights who didn’t have access to land.
There was the campaign for the eradication of Brucellosis and Tuberculosis from the herd of cattle. The squattocracy up here went broke during that, but we’d predicted that so we done some creative planning using mining royalties and investment on the stock exchange and bought up those stations so that’s what we did. The Hawke Labor party put a sunset clause in the Lands Right Act to stop us — but we were building an economic base. We were starting to talk about things like Aboriginal self-government. The white people of Australia have made all of these mistakes on our behalf — we have to be able to make our own decisions.
After the Intervention
We’re a very small population, the Northern Territory. The government wouldn’t give us 12 senators. We were looking at having our own self-government. When the monies are distributed from the Grants Commission they are distributed to the States to manage on our behalf. Just putting in a tap would cost $10,000 because of the bureaucracy and how they administer the money! We must be able to develop our own policy and implement our own policy. When the intervention came they suspended the Racial Discrimination Act and stripped the communities of their councils and bulldozers and tip trucks, all very important to our economies. They stripped all the communities of their assets. They took everything. They took our economy away.
In the NT, we (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) are more than 30 per cent of the permanent population. When they took our business away, and all these draconian laws came in, it also took away our democratic rights — it made all the Aboriginal members of the NT parliament impotent, so effectively the government was just governing for white people.
They overrode the NT government and our votes, because we weren’t a State.
Statement from the Heart
We need to talk about the next steps now. Where do we go to in the future?
This debate for constitutional change — there must be a timeline. That timeline I believe must be 2020 — there was a little bloke called Captain Cook, they reckon he discovered Australia, so it would be 250 years since then. These questions must be answered now. We’re not asking for remuneration like some conservative politicans say — this has got to be really well thought out and we can’t rush this. It's been 246 years — we’ve got to take our time and get it right.
People are going to say it’s not possible, but I stood for the Greens in the NT with sovereignty as a word on my posters. There's a precedent in Canada — it has been proven that dual sovereignty is possible.
Makarrata means coming together after a disagreement — it's Language from the top end. We chose that name in the late 70s when we were trying to negotiate with Malcolm Fraser.
Australia has obligations from the United Nations. Australia failed to implement the charter of the Human Rights for us when they first formed the United Nations. Now there is a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Australia is a signatory to that. That must be implemented. We are looking for a treaty. What does that entail? That discussion is still to be had. We are talking about a voice, political rights, educational rights, the rights to have language in schools — it should be on the table now. Education where all Australians can learn the language of this land. Self-government is a must — our people must be able to make our own decisions. To me, that means we need a position in the Australian Grants Commission, and seats in parliament reserved for us like they have in New Zealand.
As a nation, this referendum is not about Liberals, or Labor, or the Nationals or One Nation or even the Greens — it’s about us as a nation of people. This question must be answered by the nation as a whole and give us a direction to go forward, black and white, hand in hand, into the future.
Vincent Forrester was the Greens Candidate for Namatjira in the Northern Territory elections. He is a Luritja/Arrernte activist, artist and community leader. During the 1980s, he served as an advisor on indigenous affairs to the governments of Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. Vincent was interviewed for this article by Rosanne Bersten.