News | 04/02/2017

Lingiari, Yunupingu and Land Rights (1976 – 2016), Sean Bowden Garma Address 2016

I have been asked to open this session on the Land Rights Act[1] and its operation and impact upon since its promulgation almost 40 years ago. Shortly we will hear from lawyers who have also been engaged at the coal-face and they will look into the jurisprudence that has built up around the Land Rights Act, and provide international comparatives, dealing with its operation. What I wanted to do to set the scene was to make a few brief comments about the legislation and what it has meant for Aboriginal people and beyond that, what it means for Australians generally.

The Land Rights Act is at the heart of everything that you see around here at Garma. We are on Aboriginal land granted under the Land Rights Act and from that grant has come this extraordinary place, and this event which is an adornment to Australian public life.

Put simply we would not be here and Garma would not happen but for that grant of land in 1977.

It reminds us that Aboriginal claims to land and everything that comes with land are at the heart of Aboriginal identity and hence are at the heart of the relationship between Aboriginal people and others.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu has said to me many times, and he said to us all here yesterday: “We own everything here, the rocks, the soil, the trees, the plants and the animals – everything belongs to us and the responsibility is ours”. If not those exact words, we understood his meaning. He asserts ownership in a full sense, an unimpaired sense, and it is the Land Rights Act that empowers him to do so.

But for the Land Rights Act this un-reproachable sense of ownership would be abstract – for Galarrwuy, and his clan, the Land Rights Act has brought it to reality and keeps it alive. From that grant, that ownership, his family then makes this place available for shared use and enjoyment – Garma is not closed off, it is open: and it is a reflection of everything that Land Rights can give.

You could not, for example, imagine the Department of Lands and Planning conceiving of the idea of Garma, nor could they. This event, and many others, is conceived and brought to life for Australians and for the world by way of the Land Rights Act.

And rightly then the Land Rights Act is seen as the most significant piece of social justice legislation passed by the Australian Parliament, rather than simply as a mechanism for land ownership and administration.

And for this reason the Land Councils have been such an important part of the Aboriginal and Australian political system as they speak for the people that own the land. The CEO of the Department of Lands and Planning in Darwin does not have quite the same relationship with his or her fees simple title holders as the CEO of the Northern Land Council has with his title holders.

In thinking about these fundamentals recently it struck me that we have forgotten a lot about the Land Rights Act. Where it came from. What it represents. What it does.

Over 40 years we have forgotten something of the depth of the struggle for land rights and where its’ well springs really lie.

I wanted then to go back to near the start, to 1971, and play a short extract from one of the great men of the land rights movement, Vincent Lingiari.

There is a very direct, very short statement given by Lingiari in Sydney and recorded for the song Gurindji Blues that goes to the essence of land rights and what it meant to him and what it means to all Aboriginal people. He says this:

 “My name is Vincent Lingiari, I came from Dagaragu, Wattie Creek station.

 “That means that I came down here to ask all these fella here about the land right. 

 “What I got story from my old father or grandfather that land belongs to me, belongs to Aboriginal men before the horses and the cattle come over on that land where I am sitting now. 

 “That is what I have been keeping on my mind and I still got it on my mind. That is all the words I can tell you.”

 That’s a very simple message. Deceptively simple and I suspect that in the years since we have done much to confuse ourselves about the simplicity of the message.

For me I love the way he says “the land right” and I figure this may be the first time the concept was presented in such a way. And, of course, all his life “he’s been keeping it in his mind”. And he’s still “got it in his mind”. Why? Because it is his birthright. It is not a right that is won or lost, or earned by industrious enterprise or labour – it is the very essence of the man and all he is and all he will ever be.

And – like all Aboriginal people Lingiari knows that the land belongs to Aboriginal people. And the taking of the land, his birthright, was unfinished business. It is simply something that cannot be forgotten by him without dishonouring all of those who came before him, or, indeed, what he himself is.

And of course this is the great unresolved legal issue across Australian jurisprudence, across the country. The Native Title Act[2] has not gone any distance as yet in bridging the gap between this deep sense of ownership and the reality of ownership.

If we were on native title land here we would be subjected to another power and that power would likely reside in the Land Titles office in Darwin, rather than with the Gumatj clan.

Vincent Lingiari and Galarrwuy Yunupingu and the many Aboriginal men and women who fought and lobbied for land rights achieved their goal 40 years ago. Through a line that ran from the Bark Petition to the unsuccessful Gove Land Rights case, to the two Woodward Reports in 1973 and 74, to Gough Whitlam’s Parliamentary Bill and Malcolm Fraser’s Parliamentary Act of Legislation: it was a long struggle and it’s well worth celebrating 40 years on.

And the national parliament did do this very basic act of justice – it gave back land, it heard and recognised what Lingiari was saying. And, in its intent, it gave the Aboriginal landowners the capacity to protect that land with a veto power and an independent body in a Land Council. A rare combination is today’s body politic.

Still it is true that the struggle of Aboriginal people to be participants in the modern world and successful citizens in a modern nation state remains a difficult and elusive goal. Galarrwuy Yunupingu said to Kevin Rudd in 2013 “Prime Minister, land rights is empty, I want you to think about that”. A few months later he told Tony Abbott that land rights was “sleeping” and “needed to be woken up”. Those statements were not criticisms of the basic act of justice that is found in the Land Rights Act but a reflection of disappointment, of frustration, that the Act had not become everything it was meant to be. And that this basic act of justice had not been complemented by honest and determined government action in providing the services and facilities required in a modern economy and society. And that successive governments have done more to oppose than support Land Rights. The criticism applies to both the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments and to administrations of both political persuasions.

If you read Galarrwuy’s recent essay in The Monthly[3] you will feel this sentiment running through it – the sense of a stifled triumph. A sense of unfinished business.


[1] Aboriginal Land Right Act (Northern Territory) 1976 (as amended).

[2] Native Title Act (Commonwealth) 1996 (as amended).

[3] ‘Rom Watangu: The Law of the Land’ Galarrwuy Yunupingu, The Monthly, July 2016; see also: Truth, Tradition and Tomorrow’ Galarrwuy Yunupingu, The Monthly, January 2009.