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Brian Manning (1932-2013) and the Gurindji `walk offs’
Brian Manning addressed the Gurindji Freedom Day celebration to mark the 45th anniversary of the historic walk-off.
On November 3, 2013, Brian Manning -- veteran Northern Territory communist, trade unionist, campaigner against racism, long-time activist for Indigenous people's rights and solidarity campaigner with the East Timorese people (among many other causes) -- died in Darwin, aged 81. Brian won enormous respect for his commitment to human rights and his unstinting dedication to changing the system. As a tribute to Brian, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal highlights one important chapter in his inspiring political life: his important role in the historic struggle of the Gurindji people for their rights.
* * *
By Terry Townsend
[The following is an excerpt from The Aboriginal Struggle & the Left (Sydney: Resistance Books, 2009.]
With the backing of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), in 1964 the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the North Australian Workers Union (NAWU) – which was no longer led by the left, which lost control in 1952, although the militant wharfies’ section remained solidly left-wing -- unsuccessfully negotiated with the Northern Territory’s pastoralists [cattle ranchers] for full award pay and conditions for Aboriginal stock workers. In 1965, the NAWU applied to the Federal Arbitration Commission. The pastoralists hired none other than John Kerr, QC, who at the time was a aligned to the far-right National Civic Council within the Australian Labor Party, to represent them.
The federal Liberal government intervened to prevent any award being made which would cover pastoral work on Aboriginal missions and settlements. Kerr put the racist argument that Aborigines -- despite having been the backbone of the industry’s workforce for generations -- still needed training, because ``a significant proportion ... is retarded by tribal and cultural reasons from appreciating in full the concept of work’‘. The commission’s March 1966 decision, while accepting much of the bosses’ and government’s arguments, also reflected the pressure of public opinion in support of the Aboriginal people. In a ``compromise’‘ ruling, the commission ruled that all NT Aboriginal stock workers were to receive equal pay -- but not until December 1968.
The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) denounced the decision. During the case, FCAATSI unsuccessfully sought to make a submission in support of the workers, held demonstrations outside the hearings, produced a pamphlet for trade unionists exposing the racism against rural Indigenous workers, and sponsored a campaign to deluge the commission, the pastoralists and the leader of the federal Country Party with letters.
The focus of the struggle again shifted to independent activity of the Indigenous people themselves, and again the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), left-wing trade unionists and the socialist left offered vital support. The NT Council for Aboriginal Rights (NTCAR), in which communists George Gibbs and Brian Manning were leading members, played a crucial role. Gibbs was secretary of the NAWU’s militant waterside workers’ section, whose executive had a CPA majority. Manning was a wharfie and secretary of the CPA branch. The Darwin waterside workers had maintained their strong support for Aboriginal people’s rights that began in the 1920s.
In 1962, ``Wild Bill’‘ Donnelly, a CPA activist, travelled to Sydney to report to the Waterside Workers Federation conference on the local campaign to defend Peter Australia, an Aboriginal wharfie who had been jailed for 12 months for giving an Aboriginal friend a glass of wine. The campaign was successful and Peter Australia was released by federal cabinet after serving for months (Bernie Brian, ``Bill Donnelly: `Most Dangerous Man in Darwin’‘’, Worker’s Journal, Maritime Union of Australia, Spring 2003).
An ASIO document in 1962 reported in great detail the so-called ``penetration’‘ of Aboriginal organisations by Communists and detailed that in Darwin, communists George Gibbs and Brian Manning had helped establish ``the NT Aboriginal Rights Council in 1962'’ [in fact, according to Manning, the NT Council for Aboriginal Rights was formed in December 1961] and were on its council, while every member of its executive was ``a full-blood aboriginal’‘.
According to a 1965 ASIO document (``Communist Party of Australia Activity in the Northern Territory’‘, in the National Archive of Australia) the CPA had ``a powerful influence'' in the NTCAR, with not only three committee members being in the CPA but also its Aboriginal assistant secretary Terence Robinson ``was reliably reported to be a member [of the CPA] in 1963'’. At the 1964 Darwin May Day march, the NTCAR organised more than 400 Aboriginal workers and family members to march behind placards that proclaimed ``Equalwork, equal rights, equal pay’‘. A photo of the contingent, taken from the CPA’s Tribune newspaper, adorned the cover of FCAATSI’s Equal Wages Committee’s pamphlet, The Facts on wage Discrimination Against Aborigines.
NT Council for Aboriginal Rights
Angry at the Arbitration Commission’s March 1966 decision to delay equal pay for three years, and disappointed by the NAWU’s poorly prepared case, Aboriginal activists in the NT Council for Aboriginal Rights (NTCAR) sought to take matters into their own hands. Dexter Daniels, an NTCAR activist and NAWU organiser, and his brother Davis, secretary of NTCAR and an orderly at the Darwin Hospital, discussed the situation with Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari, who just happened to be in the hospital at the time. Reluctantly, NAWU secretary Paddy Carroll agreed to the Daniels’ and Lingiari’s proposal for a protest strike, but was opposed to it involving more that one station, as Dexter Daniels was calling for.
On May 1, 1966, Aboriginal stock workers at Newcastle Waters station went on strike. (Manning, Brian 2002, ``A Blast from the Past: An Activist’s Account of the Wave Hill Walk-off’‘, 6th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, delivered on August 23, 2002, Northern Territory University, http://indigenousrights.net.au/files/f81.pdf.)
The NTCAR now organised to push the action beyond the ``token’‘ protest acceptable to the ``moderate’‘ NAWU leadership and extend the strike to the larger cattle stations. As Brian Manning pointed out, ``the main exploiters of skilled Aboriginal labour were the large absentee landlord holdings, [such as] Vestey’s Wave Hill and Australian Estate’s Victoria River Downs, [at] the time the two largest properties in the Northern Territory’‘. The NTCAR decided``to canvass the feelings of workers on the larger properties by sending a deputation on a fact finding tour to get first-hand information. Nick, a Greek [Pagonis] wharfie took some leave from his job and with Dexter Daniels and Clancy Roberts, also a Roper River Man and Rights Council committee member, set out to tour the major stations: Victoria River Downs, Wave Hill and Helen Springs, another Vestey’s property south of Katherine... At Wave Hill they found Vincent Lingiari ... [who] was eager to take action ... At [Victoria River Downs] Dexter spoke with traditional owner and leader `King Brumby’, he too was prepared to join the strike.
In June 1966, the Gurindji people at began their historic ``walk-off’, establishing a strike camp on the banks of the Victoria River near the Wave Hill settlement.
Brian Manning was awarded the 2010 NT Senior Australian of the Year.
Brian Manning and the Darwin wharfies organised ongoing supplies for the strikers, making at least 15 return trips from Darwin on appalling roads. ``There were a number of Darwin wharfies who rotated to run supplies to the Gurindji over the next few months. Paul Patten, Barry Reed, Nick Pagonis, Jack Phillips and George Gibbs who made more trips than anyone else’‘, said Manning. The very first two-day run was made by Manning, Dexter Daniels and Robert Tudawali, the Aboriginal actor who starred in Charles Chauvel’s film Jedda and the television series Whiplash. Tudawali was vice-president of the NTCAR.
Brian Manning's famous Bedford truck: "I took the photograph on the morning after I arrived in the Gurindji’s Camp in the dry bed of the Victoria River in August 1966. With the first load of food supplies to sustain the Strikers in their struggle." www.gurindjifreedomday.com.au
The NTCAR also worked to raise the profile of the strike, which was receiving coverage in the national press ``thanks to noted Australian author Frank Hardy’s contacts in the media and letters the Council for Aboriginal Rights had sent to Unions seeking financial support... Frank Hardy was active in Sydney gaining publicity and organising press conferences’‘ (Manning 2002). CPA member Frank Hardy chronicled the events in his book The Unlucky Australians. Negotiations dragged on during the wet season, and the NTCAR threatened to would pull every worker off every station when the wet broke.
The CPA, through Actors Equity and other left unions, sponsored a speaking tour of the southern capitals in October 1966 by Dexter Daniels and Lupgnagiari (also known as ``Captain Major’‘), a Gurindji strike leader from the Newcastle Waters station. FCAATSI organised a national campaign in support of the strikers. The Waterside Workers Federation’s Sydney Branch hosted Lupgnagiari on a trip to Brisbane and Townsville, while Dexter continued to address job meetings in Sydney before their return to Darwin after about four or five weeks. The FCAATSI Equal Wages Committee appealed for support and left-wing unions and Trades and Labour Councils responded, providing considerable financial support throughout the strike. The Australaisan Meat Industry Emplyees Union declared a black ban on handling cattle from Newcastle Waters and Wave Hill.
In March 1967, the Gurindji moved en masse to a place in the centre of their land, Daguragu, or Wattie Creek. With the help of Hardy, the workers drafted a petition to Governor-General Lord Casey for the return of most of the Wave Hill pastoral lease, which was in the hands of the giant British corporation Vestey’s. To nobody’s surprise, the G-G refused the request.
The NTCAR provided a brick-making machine, building and roofing materials and a water pump. Unions down south also donated building supplies and a Toyota truck. Brian Manning was elected by Darwin wharfies to attend the Waterside Workers Federation’s All Ports Conference in Sydney. ``My contribution to the conference was to report on the Wave Hill walk off with reference to the active support by Darwin Waterside Workers in maintaining supplies and to highlight the problem of the Gurindji claim for some of their land and their decision to take some back by fencing it. The Conference decided to recommend to the Rank and File Members, a $1.00 per member national levy to support the Gurindji claim for their land. This raised $17,000 dollars, which became the Gurindji ‘war chest’ in their fight for land’‘, he recounted (Manning 2002). Frank Hardy wrote a series of articles on the Gurindji struggle in the Australian in 1970. On National Aborigines Day 1970, more than 500 people filled the Teachers Federation Auditorium in Sydney to hear Hardy give an impassioned speech urging continued support for their demands. A "Save the Gurindji" committee was formed out of the meeting.
When the federal government offered a lousy eight-square miles for a settlement, the Gurindji continued their land occupation. They were still there in 1972, when the Whitlam Labor government was elected with a promise to legislate in favour of land rights, and a land grant was finally given to the Gurindji at Wattie Creek.
Brian Manning describes the support provided to the Aboriginal strikers.
Throughout the strike, the CPA’s Tribune carried regular reports on the widespread solidarity and support for the Gurindji struggle, often written by Brian Manning and Frank Hardy. In the July 17, 1968, issue alone, there were reports of workers at a Brisbane meatworks meeting and donating $800 to the strikers, a 1000-strong march in support in Melbourne and another of 100 in Adelaide (Martin, Chris 1995, Green Left Weekly, August 9, https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/11021). CPA activist Jack Mundey, who led the militant NSW Builders Labourers Federation, recounted that ``in the 1960s, the Black movement started to become the second biggest issue after Vietnam ...We knew ... that racism was deep-seated and might be found among our own members, but we decided to fund some [Gurindji people] to come down and speak to us, and acquaint our members with the details of their struggle. We organised demonstrations and talk-ins. These actions were remarkably successful, given the obstacles in our way’‘ (Jack Mundey 1981, Green Bans and Beyond, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, p. 42).
The formation of the NT Council For Aboriginal Rights
[The following document was written in 2002]
By Brian Manning
I came to Darwin in December 1956 and became friends with an Aboriginal man from Elcho Island who made me aware of the extent of discrimination suffered by aboriginal people, particularly with regards to wages.
I joined the Communist Party of Australia in Darwin in 1959. The following year I was elected delegate to attend the congress of the Communist Party of Australia .
My contribution to the congress included my observations as to the plight of Aborigines in the Northern Territory.
The CPA policy on Aborigines was quite progressive and had been since 1931.
At the congress I met Shirley Andrews, from Melbourne who was a member of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights (VCAR).
Shirley asked me if I could return to Darwin via Melbourne as another VCAR member, Dr Barry Christophers was eager to meet the Darwin delegate.
I rearranged my return flight and had a four-hour stopover in Melbourne, where I rang Dr Christophers. He was busy at his practice and asked if I could possibly visit his surgery in Richmond. I caught a taxi out to his practice and spent some 30 to 40 minutes answering his questions about the plight of Aborigines in the NT.
He was a passionate and prolific letter writer to the N.T. News on issues concerning the health and welfare of Aborigines. He was strongly opposed to the assimilation policy. He loaded me up with pamphlets and other material, which included a copy of the constitution of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights.
I read the constitution during the flight back to Darwin,
I also read an article in the Bulletin which reported how a right-wing group of white supporters in Brisbane had stacked a meeting of One People of Australia League (OPAL) to exclude left-wing people from the committee.
This action proved to be very disruptive and was a clear example of how the Aboriginal rights movement was being manipulated and politicised to the detriment of the objectives of the organisation.
I inserted amendments to the VCAR constitution that required that the executive of the NTCAR should consist of 75% people of Aboriginal descent and at all general meetings, Aboriginal people must be in majority.
I approached Aboriginal people I knew and canvassed the idea of forming the NTCAR and also reported the proposal to the Darwin branch of the CPA, where it was well received.
I soon found that there was no interest amongst Darwin’s coloured community but strong interest among traditional people. I became aware later that this was due to the government granting exemption from the provisions of the Declaration of Wards to coloured people. This action effectively divided an earlier movement for rights.
The NTCAR was founded at a meeting of 26 Aboriginal people and two white Australians at Lee Point in 1961, and the draft constitution adopted.
Jacob Roberts was elected president, Terry Robinson vice president, Davis Daniels secretary and myself assistant secretary. A committee of six others included people from different areas.
A press release announcing the organisation’s formation was well received and published nationally.
The executive printed a leaflet which was mailed to trade unions nationally soliciting support.
We received an encouraging response from the mail-out and the first executive meeting was held soon after. Jacob Roberts had received a personal letter from a person he knew from time he had spent at a seminary in Sydney. The person expressed his congratulations and cautioned that he should be wary of communists trying to infiltrate the council.
Jacob moved a resolution that I should be expelled from the council because I was a Communist.
Terry and I expressed surprise but said this was an issue which should be decided by the Aboriginal members and left the meeting so that the matter could be decided by the eight Aboriginal members present.
After about 30 minutes, Davis sought me out and said that the decision was seven to one against my expulsion and that Jacob had resigned from president and the council.
The committee then decided to approach Jacob’s brother, Philip Roberts, and invite him to take over the presidency .
The council then set about discussing issues which were to become priorities in the development of objectives .
It did not take long for the word to get around and the council was soon to become an advocate for Aboriginal people experiencing problems.
We found an ally in barrister Dick Ward, who acted on behalf of Aboriginal defendants introduced by the council and at no time ever charged for his services.
We confronted discrimination wherever it emerged.
Once Aborigines were permitted to drink alcohol, the manager of the Victoria Hotel excluded Aborigines from the beer garden. He had a person arrested for refusing to leave the premises when he objected to the management refusing service to an Aboriginal companion who was neatly dressed and well behaved. The confrontation which resulted from this event received good publicity and sent a warning to other licensees that race discrimination would not be tolerated.
Standards of dress codes applying to all patrons were introduced instead.
The Star theatre had a policy of directing Aborigines to an entrance down a side lane for admittance to the front stalls to discourage them from using the dress circle and back stalls. This had been an effective means of segregating patrons on racial grounds. This was effectively confronted at the front ticket box queue.
We demonstrated against the mandatory jailing of citizen Aborigines for sharing alcohol with Aboriginal relatives who were still wards. In 1966, the Darwin’s May Day Parade had an Aboriginal contingent that outnumbered the rest of the parade. This response was largely due to the growing demand by all Aborigines for work at award wages.
* fronted [the] welfare [departments] on Aborigines’ behalf where they wished to lodge complaints of discrimination. This action was usually effective when a council member fronted welfare in company with complainants;
* assisted Aborigines to obtain work at award wages. Railways and the wharf became employers of Aborigines;
* arranged legal defence where serious charges were involved;
sought publicity to counter acts of discrimination such as refusing carriage on public transport and taxis;
* lodged complaints regarding police acts of excessive force and assault;
* investigated wage discrepancies and accounts for workers being paid off at the end of their season;
* encouraged and assisted others with similar aims.
I passed on secretarial work to Moira Gibbs when I became Workers’ Club manager in 1963.
Terry Robinson founded the Border Store at Oenpellie and George Gibbs became public officer as the organisation was now incorporated.
The Gurindji walk-off became the focus of our activity from 1966.
With the election of the Whitlam government major policy changes saw the introduction of consultative organisations in the NT. The NTCAR became redundant.
Following the untimely death of George Gibbs in 1976, the council was wound up by Moira, who moved to Sydney.
While I was secretary of the Waterside Section of the NAWU I inaugurated a scholarship for an Aboriginal student in his name. This proved to be inappropriate with government assistance to Aboriginal students.
Instead, a George Gibbs Memorial Collection was set up in the Mitchell Library with the annual donation.
This became the repository of NTCAR material plus George’s diaries from his periods as union organiser. Access is available to researchers upon request.