Australian history

The Aboriginal stockmen's struggle for equal pay

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The struggle for equal rights has been a hard and tortuous one for Indigenous Australians. Until 1968, they were not even entitled to equal pay. David Donovan reflects.

THE Government's proposal to recognize Indigenous Australians in the Constitution makes me recall my father's stories of his time in the Kimberleys in the early 1950s.  He had gone to Western Australia as a young man, living in Perth and later heading north via Marble Bar and Broome to Halls Creek in the state's North-East.

A stockman, Flora Valley, 1948

He quickly found work as a stockman on the vast Flora Valley cattle station, which was located about 120 kilometres east of Halls Creek.  It was a Vesteys station, meaning it was owned by Lord Vestey, one of Australia’s biggest land-owners at that time, with an empire that included a string of million acre properties in Australia's north and the nation's biggest abattoir in Rockhampton.

My father fell in love with the Kimberleys and spoke warmly about its endless Mitchell grass plateaus. But more often he talked about the Aboriginal people he knew there and worked with, especially the Indigenous stockmen that were the backbone of the Vestey operations.

My father was fluent in Pidgin and replayed conversations and mannerisms so flawlessly, that at times I felt like I was there with him and the Aboriginal stockmen with whom he'd spent so much of his early life. He had bonded deeply with these men — he called them the “beautiful people” and spoke of their unsurpassed stockmanship, uncanny bush skills, wry humour, great politeness and unswerving humility.

He spoke seldom of the whites he knew there. When he did speak about them, it was more often with disgust that the overseers paid the Aboriginal stockmen in flour, tobacco and meat – never money – even though they did the same work as the white men and were usually more adept. When I was old enough to hear such things, he also spoke darkly about how it was commonplace for white stockmen to have their way with Aboriginal women in the camp. The clear implication was that these liaisons were very often less than consensual.

The name Lord Vestey is these days best known in Australia for the Northern Territory’s Wave Hill walk-off of 1966, when Aboriginal stockmen from the Gurindji people left their jobs with Vesteys in protest over just the sort of pay and conditions my father had observed further west, in the Kimberleys, a decade before.

It is clear now that the exploitation of aboriginal stockmen was one of the keys to Vesteys’ stranglehold over the Australian meat industry. A Northern Territory government inquiry held in the 1930s said of Vesteys:

"It was obvious that they had been ... quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights."
Sign made by Australian author Frank Hardy for the Wave Hill walk-off

Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, who lived on Wave Hill Station at the time of the aboriginal strike, was reported as saying:

"We were treated just like dogs. We were lucky to get paid the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in tin humpies you had to crawl in and out on your knees. There was no running water. The food was bad – just flour, tea, sugar and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock. The Vesteys mob were hard men. They didn't care about blackfellas."

Disgracefully, during this time, it was in fact illegal to pay Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and money, though Vesteys was legally obliged by a 1918 Ordinance to pay Aboriginal workers a minimum wage of 5 shillings a day. A 1945 inquiry found Vesteys was not even paying Aboriginal workers that meagre pittance. By comparison, non-Indigenous males were receiving £2/8/- a week in 1945, as well as being comfortably housed and fed.

It was not until 1965 that an attempt was made to introduce equal wages for Aboriginal workers. It failed because pastoralists, including Vesteys, argued that equal wages would ruin the industry if paid immediately. In the end, the Government decided to defer a decision for three years, sparking the Aboriginal strike at Wave Hill. The Aboriginal stockmen finally received equal pay in 1968, a year after the 1967 referendum amended the Constitution to finally include Indigenous Australians in counts of Australia’s population.

The 'Wave Hill Walk-off' thereafter morphed into a battle for land rights and in 1973, after a 7 year struggle, Gough Whitlam finally forced Vesteys to hand over much of their land in Northern Australia to the Gurindji people.

The proposal for recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution is the latest in the long line of difficult struggles fought by Aboriginal people to gain human rights, equality, tolerance, respect and acceptance in this land in which their people have lived for at least 40,000 years. If he was alive today, I am certain my father would be cheering their gains and fervently hoping that the latest proposal achieves the same overwhelming support from the Australian people that the equivalent 1967 referendum received.

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