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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
The formation of the NT Council For
following document was written in 2002]
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 .
contribution to the congress included my observations as to the plight of
Aborigines in the Northern Territory.
policy on Aborigines was quite progressive and had been since 1931.
congress I met Shirley Andrews, from Melbourne who was a member of the
Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights (VCAR).
asked me if I could return to Darwin via Melbourne as another VCAR member, Dr
Barry Christophers was eager to meet the Darwin delegate.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
was founded at a meeting of 26 Aboriginal people and two white Australians at
Lee Point in 1961, and the draft constitution adopted.
Roberts was elected president, Terry Robinson vice president, Davis Daniels secretary
and myself assistant secretary. A committee of six others included people from
release announcing the organisation’s formation was well received and published
executive printed a leaflet which was mailed to trade unions nationally
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.
a resolution that I should be expelled from the council because I was a
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
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.
then decided to approach Jacob’s brother, Philip Roberts, and invite him to
take over the presidency .
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.
confronted discrimination wherever it emerged.
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.
dress codes applying to all patrons were introduced instead.
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
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;
legal defence where serious charges were involved;
publicity to counter acts of discrimination such as refusing carriage on public
transport and taxis;
complaints regarding police acts of excessive force and assault;
wage discrepancies and accounts for workers being paid off at the end of their
and assisted others with similar aims.
I passed on
secretarial work to Moira Gibbs when I became Workers’ Club manager in 1963.
Robinson founded the Border Store at Oenpellie and George Gibbs became public officer
as the organisation was now incorporated.
walk-off became the focus of our activity from 1966.
election of the Whitlam government major policy changes saw the introduction of
consultative organisations in the NT. The NTCAR became redundant.
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.
George Gibbs Memorial Collection was set up in the Mitchell Library with the
the repository of NTCAR material plus George’s diaries from his periods as union
organiser. Access is available to researchers upon request.