Noonkanbah: when Aboriginal people and unionists united for land rights

Under the cover of the NT intervention, governments are once again trying to force Aboriginal people off their land. If history is a guide, they are in for a hard fight. Aboriginal people have always fought doggedly to live on and control their land. One such struggle was at Nookanbah in Western Australia in 1980.

It took the multinational mining exploration company, Amax—backed by the right wing Court Liberal state government—two years before they could drill for oil on sacred land.

While drilling eventually proceeded; the determined fight of the local Aboriginal people inspired broad community support, raised Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people on the international stage and helped undermine the legal fiction of terra nullius.

Rations

Noonkanbah was a former sheep station in the Kimberly district pegged out in 1880. Aboriginal people were massacred to make way for the pastoral industry; those that survived were forced to work on the stations for rations. As late as 1956, Aboriginal prisoners in the Kimberley were still being secured in neck chains.

Following the 1946 Pilbara strike and the 1966 Gunindji strike the pastoralists were forced to begin paying Aboriginal workers, but they still found ways to rip off them off.

Discontented, many Aborigines—including the Yungngora at Nookanbah—left the stations to live on the fringes of nearby towns, often in conditions of squalor. But they never gave up the hope of one day getting back their land.

Encouraged by the growing national land rights movement and the Whitlam government’s more sympathetic approach, the Yungngora began to organise politically. In 1976 Noonkanbah was advertised for sale and purchased on behalf of the Yungngora by the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission.

Things were looking up for the 200-strong community as they moved back to the station to begin repairs.

But in March 1978 a letter arrived from Amax informing the community of their intention to drill for oil on their land. WA was in the middle of a resources boom and by May 1978 there had been 497 mineral claims pegged out on Noonkanbah.

The community met and decided they would resist all attempts to drill. They had already had bad experiences with mining company CRA tramping across their property, disturbing gravesites and removing sacred ceremonial objects. One of their leaders, Dicky Skinner, went to Perth with a petition:

These people have already made the place no good with their bulldozers. Our sacred places they have made no good. They mess up our land. They expose our sacred objects…Today we beg you that you that you truly stop them.

Skinner’s visit to Perth received much media attention and while there he addressed the WA Trades and Labour Council, which passed a resolution in support.

Court, however, had built his career by championing the resources industry and was an ardent opponent of land rights. “The Aboriginal citizens of this state do not need land rights,” he declared, “they need the sort of assistance they are getting now”.

Court refused to acknowledge an anthropological report that found the whole area had spiritual significance for the Yungngora.

He also dismissed a letter written by the Yungngora demanding the government “recognised us…as the real owners of the land”, claiming it was the view of “interfering outsiders”.

Collision

Mining interests and Aboriginal interests were on a collision course. The first clash came in June 1979. About 40 Aboriginal people locked the gates and prevented personnel from Amax and the Mines Department from entering.

Meanwhile an interim court injunction prevented drilling from proceeding. This injunction was soon lifted, but for tactical reasons Amax and the government backed off.

Court was reelected in February 1980 and renewed his campaign to remove all barriers to the operations of mining companies. In March ministers began visiting the community trying to convince them—without success—to yield. Later that month Amax entered the property and began bulldozing a camp site. Another injunction delayed work but this injunction, too, was soon lifted.

While the legal system was failing the Yungngora, broad community support was growing. The relevant unions began threatening industrial action while support rallies of more than 500 people were held in Perth.

Bob Hawke—the then ACTU President—called on Amax to retreat, while the AWU suggested that nine oil rigs in WA could be hit by industrial action in retaliation.

These strong initiatives from supporters gave the campaign a sense of confidence and power. “We are very pleased that all these people are coming to help us, the Trade Union mob…” said a letter from the Yungngora.

Following the lifting of the injunction a confrontation loomed. In preparation the Yungngora held an all night law ceremony adjacent to the Amax camp. Steven Hawke, an advisor to the Yungngora and Bob Hawke’s son, described this ceremony as “a masterly piece of psychological warfare”. The next day the contractors retreated to a nearby town.

This was a tremendous victory that gave heart to land rights activists all around the country and put the struggle in the national and international spot light.

But Court was not finished. He issued a statement condemning the actions of the Aborigines and gave Amax an extension of time.

In April he personally visited the Yungngora trying to get them to make concessions. A victory for the Yungngora, he feared, would set a precedent against mining interests.

In July Amax moved a water drilling rig to the site while behind the scenes the government began working on prominent Aborigines to break ranks. Then at 1am on August 7 a convoy of 49 vehicles left Perth bound for Noonkanbah.

Farmers and owner-drivers—enticed with special pay rates and new numberplates to hide their identity—were employed to overcome a Transport Workers Union ban. The convoy was accompanied by police with a helicopter circling above.

All along their six day trek north they were confronted by pickets and protests. Six union officials were arrested in Karratha. Forty local Aboriginal people protested in Roebourne while two more union officials were arrested in Port Headland.

Just north of Port Headland about 160 Aborigines—the “Strelley mob”—blockaded a bridge and were the first to bring the convoy to a halt. Two hundred protesters greeted them in Broome.

The determination of Court, along with the failure of unions to get rank and file support for industrial action in the Pilbara, created a mood of despondency at Noonkanbah. But union leaders convinced the community not to give up the fight yet.

Blockade

The Yungngora decided to confront the convoy at Mickey’s Pool, just north of the station where there was no alternative route. Vehicles were parked across the road while six clergy joined the protest.

After an all night stand off the police moved in, using a bulldozer to remove the vehicles. The six clergy sat in the middle of the road surrounded by Yungngora men.

As the police tried to arrest the clergy the Yungngora men began a slow chant like song.

“The sight, and the sound, of these people singing for their country as they huddled together and the police began to wade in amongst them was indescribably moving” wrote Hawke, “I saw more than one hard-bitten journalist bitting his lips, or swallowing hard”.

Eventually the police cleared the road. It seemed like all was lost and sadness descended on the community. This mood changed rapidly, however, when word came through that the drilling crew, all union members, had voted not to operate the rig.

The company and the government organised their own meeting with the workers and put the heat on, but the workers stood their ground.

The drilling contractor, CSR, under pressure from the ACTU, announced that they would not operate the rig without the unionised crew.

But Court fought on. He secretly organised for the drilling rights to be transferred to a $2 shelf company. This removed CSR’s commitment to the ACTU.

On the same day, Ken Colbung, the chair of the WA Aboriginal Lands Trust, suddenly reversed his opposition to the drilling and called on the unions to lift their ban. Court organised a press conference to answer questions about Colbung’s defection, then suddenly announced that drilling on the site had begun.

While most of the Yungngora were at a rodeo in nearby Fitzroy Crossing, a scab drilling crew had been brought in. Fittingly, no oil was found.

Drilling may have gone ahead at Nookanbah, but the defiant stand taken by the Yungngora had inspired action from Aboriginal people across the state, as well as broader community activists and trade unionists, coming together in a powerful campaign that shook the state government.

Even the capitalist press were critical of Court for his “extreme tactics” while legal circles spoke of a “crisis of legitimacy”.

Nookanbah also inspired similar actions around the country and helped ensure the issue of land rights continued to simmer at the heart of national politics.

This created the conditions for the demise of the legal doctrine of terra nullius. The 1993 High Court recognition of Native Title was an attempt by the establishment to take some heat out of the land rights issue. In 2007 the Yungngora succeeded with a Native Title claim on Noonkanbah.

Steven Hawke summed up the Yungngora achievement: “The Noonkanbah mob were and are heroes of the fight. Whilst they lost that particular battle, in the end they took it to extraordinary lengths and that will be forever remembered.”

by Mark Gillespie

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