Solidarity was shocked to hear of the death of Gurindji man P. Inverway (PI) in Darwin in March. PI died of a heart attack at just 46 years of age.
Many of us became friends with PI during the campaign against the NT Intervention. He embarked on a national speaking tour in 2010 to build awareness about the shocking exploitation of Aboriginal workers under the Intervention.
He was a warm, humble and generous man who could instantly have strangers laughing along and listening intently to his stories about the struggles facing his people. He was also a strong leader who refused to be intimidated by the corrupt bosses and petty-dictator bureaucrats who try to rip off and control remote communities.
PI was proud of the history of the Gurindji and their famous walk-off from Wave Hill station in 1966, demanding equal wages, land rights and self-determination. His death comes as the community prepares to mark 50 years since the walk-off. His father, Mick Inverway, was a key leader of the struggle. PI followed in his footsteps, organising a strike of workers in the communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu on 20 October 2010 to protest against the Intervention.
PI was particularly outraged about the working conditions that had come with the Intervention. The Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) was abolished, throwing thousands of Aboriginal people onto the dole. In its place came a new scheme, which forces Aboriginal people to work for Centrelink payments, half of which are “quarantined” onto a BasicsCard which can only be spent on approved items at government approved shops.
Despite his years of experience working with heavy machinery in mines and on the Alice-Darwin railway project, PI was subject to these humiliating conditions. In 2010 he was working on a building site in Kalkaringi, constructing an Art Centre for the equivalent of $4.80 per hour.
In his speech to the striking workers and community members on 20 October, PI said:
“Back in 1966, Gurindji mob they walked off. What did they walk off for? [Being paid in] tea, sugar and flour. They had the longest strike in Aboriginal history. In 1975 Gough Whitlam came up here from the ‘cool room’, from Parliament House to Daguragu and put that soil [in Vincent Lingiari’s hands]. And now, we are going backwards now, because of that BasicsCard… I follow my father. We can’t go back, we need to stand up and fight for our rights”.
On his national speaking tour, PI worked with anti-Intervention campaigners in Darwin, Melbourne and Sydney to connect with the trade union movement. Just like the striking Gurindji back in the 1960s, he addressed smoko meetings on unionised building sites, stop work meetings on the wharves, spoke at the Trades Hall and did interviews in the national media.
Workers could hardly believe what they were hearing when he held up his BasicsCard and explained how he was being paid for doing work exactly the same as them.
The Construction Division of the CFMEU played a central role in organising the tour. Strong links were made between two of the Howard government’s most draconian attacks—the NT Intervention, which demonises Aboriginal people and singles them out for special controls, and the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) introduced to target building workers.
From the experience of the 1960s, PI recognised the potential strength of winning organised workers, the “union mob”, to the cause of his people and worked hard to build these links. He joined an NT delegation to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Indigenous workers conference in 2011.
PI secured properly paid work in 2011, traveling across remote communities in the NT to undertake housing maintenance. But he continued to blow the whistle on shortcuts taken by the multi-national companies awarded these contracts, leaving Aboriginal people living in squalid conditions while they pocketed millions in profits.
He was constantly advocating for his Aboriginal co-workers, many still being paid on the BasicsCard. His own pay supported countless family and community members.
When I last spoke to PI a few weeks before he died, he was angry about being recently sacked from his carpentry work, believing he had been targeted for speaking up. But he was looking forward to returning to Gurindji land, being back with his family and restarting the fight to win proper employment and self-determination.
Solidarity would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the family, the Gurindji and all community members suffering from the loss of PI. In the short time we knew him, he enriched the lives of so many of us. We can’t imagine how much he meant to you. We know he carried very important community and ceremonial responsibilities. We know he will be with us all as we celebrate 50 years since the historic Wave Hill walk-off, a legacy he proudly carried forward with a spirit that will continue to inspire the fight for justice for many years to come.
By Paddy Gibson