Another 50 years on: Wave Hill and Cronulla

A couple of days ago I posted on the Battle of Long Tan (1966), reflecting too on where I was at that time. Thinking about it now, I am not sure how much the battle resonated with me at the time. I do not specifically remember it, though I do remember being exercised often by the Vietnam War as such and our involvement in it, which in 1966 I still supported. See also my 2015 post Random Friday memory 27: my first election 1966 – and now…

No doubt what most preoccupied me in 1966 was the fact that it was my first year teaching, with, among other challenges, a Year 11 English class who the following year were to sit for the very first HSC and just had this neophyte teacher to guide them.

No doubt too there were family issues going on.

One event I do remember quite well is this month’s other major 50th anniversary: the Gurindji people’s ‘walk off’ at the Wave Hill property in the Northern Territory in 1966.

Around 200 Gurindji stockmen, house servants and their families initiate strike action at Wave Hill station. The Gurindji community, led by Vincent Lingiari, walk off the station as a protest against the work and pay conditions, and land rights. The strike is supported by several non-Indigenous people, including unionists. The Aboriginal workers do not return to work on Wave Hill station for the rest of the year, while negotiations continue. No agreement is reached.

See the chronology here and also The untold story behind the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off.

The lyrics of Paul Kelly’s classic are here. On that and some of the other sites linked above, visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

By May 1967 I was among the overwhelming majority of Australians to support whether two references in the Australian Constitution, which discriminated against Aboriginal people, should be removed. See also Wikipedia, worth quoting at length to dispel some common myths:

Section 127 was wholly removed. Headed “Aborigines not to be counted in reckoning population”, it had read:

In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

This section should be read in conjunction with Section 24 and Section 51(xi). The section related to calculating the population of the States and Territories for the purpose of allocating seats in the lower house of the federal parliament and per capita Commonwealth grants. The context of its introduction was to prevent Queensland and Western Australia from using their large Aboriginal populations to gain extra seats or extra funds. The ‘statistics’ power in Section 51(xi) allowed the Commonwealth to collect information on Aboriginal people.

It is frequently stated that the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people Australian citizenship and that it gave them the right to vote in federal elections, but neither of these statements is correct. All Australians, including aboriginal people, first became Australian citizens in 1949, when a separate Australian citizenship was created; before that time all Australians rather were British subjects. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949 gave Aboriginal people the right to vote in federal elections if they were able to vote in their state elections (they were disqualified from voting altogether in Queensland, while in Western Australia and the Northern Territory the right was conditional), or if they had served in the defence force. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 gave all Aboriginal people the option of enrolling to vote in federal elections. It was not until the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 1983 that voting became compulsory for Aboriginal people, as it was for other Australians. It is also sometimes mistakenly stated that the 1967 referendum overturned a “Flora and Fauna Act”, which supposedly mandated that indigenous Australians were governed and managed under the same portfolio as Australian wildlife – New South Wales state MP Linda Burney made mention of such an act in her maiden speech in 2003, as did Mark Colvin in a 2007 ABC article. A 2014 SBS article described the notion that “Indigenous people were classed as fauna” as a “myth”…

Do read that SBS article Myths persist about the 1967 referendum.

So it is probably accurate to say that 1966-67 was for me a time to rethink much about Indigenous Australians.

But even more in 1966 was I preoccupied with personal and spiritual matters. Two archived posts capture this. First, How I became a pluralist.

I remember almost exactly when it happened and even where. It was while walking from Cronulla Station across the park down towards the beach and the year was probably 1968. I was the same age The Rabbit is now and, like him, I was an English teacher though two or three years further down the track.

I had been a member of Sutherland Presbyterian Church — and more. In fact I was an Elder, a member of the Kirk Session, and Sunday School Superintendent. Sutherland then had in response to the first publication of the Draft Basis of Union of what was to be The Uniting Church (of which I am now a member) not only rejected that draft but had gone considerably further by opting out of the Presbyterian Church of NSW to start, along with a few others, a small Calvinist Presbyterian Church which still exists.* (Looking at their site I see a few names of people I knew then.) I had also been attending in more recent times, though not often by 1968, the more liberal Cronulla Presbyterian Church.

I had issues with the doctrine by that time. They included worrying about being aligned with people like the Reverend Iain Paisley in Northern Ireland, though that was not an official alignment, and about the very system of Calvinism itself. As today’s Presbyterian Reformed Church does, Sutherland PC then believed:

…the Bible to be the inspired word of God and the only foundation for how we are to serve God and live our lives as Christians. We believe in the Triune God consisting of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God who created and controls the whole world according to his excellent purpose and plan. We believe that salvation is only by faith in Christ Jesus, whose perfect life and sacrificial death was sufficient to atone for sin in every person who believes in him. We believe God’s promise to offer eternal life in heaven after death to all people who believe in the saving work of Christ Jesus and the requirement of eternal judgement in hell after death for all who reject Christ.

What we believe directs all activities in our Church. It is our desire to worship God with all our hearts and to study His word and apply it to our lives without compromise.

By the way, they are not miserable bastards, believe it or not; I have many good memories of the place…

However, I found it absurd to believe that God would be, um, dumber than I was. Was I really meant to believe that my school friends — respectively Jewish, Hindu, and Other — were damned by God’s mysterious predestined sovereign will? I couldn’t. Nor could I understand why conformity to a very human intellectual system — Calvinism — was somehow virtually a prerequisite to eternal life. It all made God seem terribly capricious, and not even very bright. It does mean, however, that I can understand the dilemmas of a Muslim fairly well, because it is remarkable how much (serious) Islam and Calvinism have in common, Christology apart.

I had sufficient doubts by 1967 to have formally resigned from the Eldership, and I didn’t follow my friends into the PRC. (I met one of them again just a few years back, by the way, when she turned out to be the Latin/ESL teacher at Sydney Girls High! We reminisced quite a bit, and she was very friendly and, I have to say, very happy and a fun teacher by all accounts. Dourness and gloom might seem corollaries to Calvinism, but it isn’t necessarily the reality in practice.)

That day in 1968 it suddenly occurred to me. Pluralism….

Second, Uncertain dogma, The Shire, and related musings.

I had been an elder at Sutherland Presbyterian Church, though younger at age 23 than The Rabbit now is but like him today I was then in my second year of English teaching, resigning [the eldership] in 1967 just before that separation; I had for a year or two been having considerable doubts about the Calvinism that Sutherland church had rediscovered, just as it seems forty years later Caringbah is rediscovering it. Since 1967-8 of course the Uniting Church has come into being, the Continuing Presbyterian Church — those who stayed out of the Uniting Church — tends to be conservative, but not all of them, and by no means all would endorse Caringbah in their heart of hearts; in fact you can easily see Caringbah’s position is assertive and to a degree embattled; some would say extreme. You don’t have to penetrate far into the Caringbah site to find Rousas J Rushdoony getting several guernseys. About that I have said earlier:

Yes, I have encountered the branch of dominionism known as Christian Reconstructionism before (chief nutter, Rousas J Rushdoony, working from the tendentious ultra-Calvinist philosopher Cornelius van Til, whose work I flirted with in my Dip Ed days way back before the Great Flood) and I can assure you this is a case of minorities inside minorities…

For that and several other posts related to these thoughts search Calvin on New Lines from a Floating Life.

Particularly Recycle 9: Myself When Young (17 March 2006).

* See Wikipedia on the PRC.

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3 thoughts on “Another 50 years on: Wave Hill and Cronulla

  1. Although I was deeply involved in the anti-war movement, at that time, I can’t remember whether I was particularly aware of this one event. I’d need to go back to the newspapers of the day; they might trigger my memory. What was being done to the Vietnamese people was a far more prominent thought at the time, something that is made starkly clear when one travels around Vietnam today. The impact of the war was such that somewhere between 2 and 3 million Vietnamese lost their lives. Today there are many cemeteries from that era.

  2. Neil, the one event of course was the battle of Long Tan. I saw your topic sentence and reacted to that before I’d read more of this excellent post. Theologically, I’d have described myself as an atheist, interesting how life changes. I look back on those days and realise that my acceptance of a spiritual life was merely on hold, I was in denial about the presence of God in my life. Having an abusive father and a particularly doctrinaire Presbyterian scripture teacher at school didn’t help also taking a stand on the war threw me into contact with a diverse group of radicals.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. In this post and in Fifty years on: Cronulla to Long Tan I was particularly trying to recapture that 1966-67 time. At 22/23 my default position was conservative (but opening!) and I was fortunate to be just too old for the draft. Obviously by 1970, when I started at Dapto High, I and Australia had moved on. Lunched today, coincidentally, with a good friend here in The Gong who had been a Canberra-based “draft dodger” on the run during the Moratorium years,

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