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The Wave Hill walk-off had far-reaching implications for industrial relations and Indigenous land rights but 50 years later there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

More than a handful of sand


Making a choice Wave Hill presented the NT union with a stark choice: continue to protect white jobs from the threat of Indigenous workers who were paid little, or join the case for varying the 1 8 SP R I NG 2 01 6 AUSTR ALI AN E DUCATOR 9 1

Gough Whitlam giving a symbolic handful of soil to Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari.

industry award to include Aboriginal stockmen. It chose the latter. Union and their members in the Territory played a big part in spreading the word and organising support from around the country. Food, money and in-kind donations poured in to support the strikers. “Wave Hill really could have been out of sight, out of mind. But the union movement said we’re going to highlight what these workers have been exposed to and make it a national issue,” says Keys. The 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk Off is cause for celebration, but the fight is far from over. “Attitudes and institutions are slow to change. You see it playing out in policy,” says Keys.

It was a momentous achievement against systemic racism and oppression, and a turning point for the union movement.

Kara Keys ACTU Indigenous Officer


he longest industrial dispute in Australian history began in August 1966 when Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari and 200 Indigenous stockmen and their families walked off Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory. The Wave Hill walk-off was a protest sparked by poor or non-existent wages (often paid in meagre rations), squalid living conditions and paternalistic bosses. Above all, the Gurindji wanted their land and to be able to control their own lives. They refused to concede until they were recognised as traditional owners. The stop work lasted eight years. It was immortalised in Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s powerful tribute From Little Things Big Things Grow, and the iconic image from 1975 of Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the hands of Lingiari, symbolising the return of Gurindji land. A year later the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act was established, prompting broader movements for native title and land rights. The effect of the walk-off on social and industrial issues was significant, says ACTU Indigenous officer Kara Keys. “It was a momentous achievement against systemic racism and oppression, and a turning point for the union movement.”

Educator spring 2016

Educator spring 2016