Australian conundrums

These are case studies about what an Australian High Court judge once said were about faraway people in faraway places. In our different context, one seemingly benign and beneficent, we have a case of sacralising that which isn’t so and a profaning of that which is.

The agitation for Aboriginal land rights in the late 1960s resulted in the Fraser Coalition government’s enacting what the Australian Labor Party had begun in 1973: a statute in 1976 to enable Aborigines to claim vacant Crown land in the Northern Territory. Aided by some dubious anthropology, the mechanism for land acquisition in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act is peculiar, to say the least. Land was not to be allocated on the basis of need, as with some Indian lands in the United States. There is no argument about prior occupation, or adverse possession, or continued possession, as in the case of the Inuit in Canada and the Maori in New Zealand. Claimants have to be Aboriginal, with demonstrable patrilineal, matrilineal or ambilineal lines of inheritance; they have to have spiritual attachment to the land and must be able to demonstrate the strength of that spiritual attachment by way of ceremonial duties. What underlies this curious mechanism is the [white] belief that all Aboriginal land involves spirituality and is therefore sacred. Some land is, indeed, sacred, as we will see, but much, even most, of Aboriginal land is or was camping ground and hunting ground, land which is hardly profane but which nonetheless has no under- or over-lay of sacredness.

In 1976, the Federal Government’s Land Fund Commission bought the pastoral lease of Noonkanbah Station for the Yungngora people of the Kimberleys.[12] In the diamond and oil rush of the time, over 500 mining claims, most of which were contested successfully by lawyers for the Aborigines, were lodged on that property. Amax Iron Ore Corporation held a five-year valid exploration permit to drill for oil. In 1979, they sent in a bulldozer to dig up ceremonial land near the homestead, named ‘P’ or ‘Pea’ Hill. Trustees appointed under the Heritage Act told the Mines Minister that to drill there ‘would affect the site by contradicting past and current Aboriginal sacred beliefs’. The Minister ordered the Trustees to give their consent. Thereupon, the Aborigines locked the Noonkanbah gate and refused all entry. Several legal injunctions later, this Dreamtime v Oil issue became very political. The Premier, Sir Charles Court, commandeered the private company’s oil drilling rig and sent the massive machine to Noonkanbah, accompanied by an enormous armed police convoy. There was a sense of outrage across Australia at this display of force, with the National Times calling the Premier Sir Charles Rommel. The point of this story is that Amax knew from geological experts that no oil was to be found at ‘P’ Hill—yet Court was intent on not only defying conservative federal Coalition notions on Aboriginal land, but also on defying and decrying any conceptions that Aborigines had a belief system worthy of respect. In an act of conscious desecration, Court drilled and of, course, no oil was found.