‘A tectonic shift in justice’: how the Wik people fought the law and won

More than two decades after the historic granting of native title, a documentary looks back at the battle and the backlash

If you are going to meet Wik people in Aurukun you may well be directed to the mango tree outside an auntie’s house.

It was beneath the shade of this tree that the Wik people gathered and mobilised to fight their native title claims. Under trees, in tents, driving thousands of kilometres across dusty potholed landscape in rusty old cars to get to camps to try to find a collective voice. Elder Robert Holroyd would arrive on his tractor with his fierce dogs.

The historic Wik decision is a story that started in an old tent at Lockhart river and went all the way to the high court in Canberra. “[The tent] is no different from Parliament House,” says Dean Gibson, director of a new hour-long documentary film Wik vs Queensland. “You have got a big fancy building but this is no different.”

Remote and isolated, clinging to the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Aurukun is cut off during the rainy season and newspapers are still not delivered there. But it was from this isolation that leaders would emerge.

At those early meetings was the activist, now professor, Marcia Langton. “People had a very clear idea of the injustices. They were also hardened by years of abuse. They were tough people,” Langton says in the documentary.

Peter Sutton, an anthropologist who spent 40 years working with the Wik, says, “When the Wik people are threatened from outside they abandon their usual fragmentation and conflict and band together like a solid rock. Courage is one thing the Wik people are not short of.”

Among those at the tent meetings was a passionate young law student, Noel Pearson, who was running the land council from a fax machine in his bedsit in Balmain.

Noel Pearson was a young law student when he became involved in the Wik native title claim.
Noel Pearson was a law student when he became involved in the Wik native title claim. Photograph: NITV

Also there was the cameraman Lew Griffiths, who documented the lives and struggles of Aboriginal people. When he died in 2013, he left 2,700 hours of video.

It is this rare footage that forms the basis of Wik vs Queensland, a story told from the perspective of the Wik people and their descendants. The land claims case was initiated by Stanley Ngakyunkwokka, who later died in a plane crash. “We have got to learn to fight, not with our fists, but with our tongues,” Ngakyunkwokka told those gathered in the tent.

“It became necessary to Aboriginal people to be recognised as the original lawful inhabitants with their own system of laws,” says Walter Sofronoff QC, who acted for the Wik people.

The footage of these meetings and what was to follow is only 21 years old, but it seems like 100 years in the racism and attitudes of white Australians. The world shifts, it seems, one tiny moment at a time.

The Wik claim followed on the success of the Mabo claim where the high court found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had rights to their land before the arrival of British colonisers. But the Mabo decision was limited to Murray Island, which was largely unaffected by mining and freehold interests.

In 1992 Paul Keating had given his landmark “Redfern speech” and invited Indigenous leaders to the centre of parliament. It was a time of hope. “There were blackfellas plotting in the corridors” says Pearson.

Lodged in June 1993 in the federal court, the Wik claim was on the basis that their native title was not extinguished by the granting of various pastoral and mining leases over the land.

On 29 January 1996, Justice Drummond found against them and that the granting of leases gave exclusive possession to the lessees and extinguished native title right. But he opened the way to an appeal to be heard in the federal court.

As Langton says in the film: “The case ended up in the high court because the Queensland government was determined to stop it and so was the commonwealth government.”

The appeal was heard by the high court from 11-13 June 1996, with all seven judges sitting and 35 barristers in the courtroom representing the various parties involved.

On 23 December 1996 the court found in favour of the Wik people. A euphoric Gladys Tybingoompa did a ceremonial dance outside the court. Pearson declared it “a tectonic shift in justice”.

Barefooted Senator Brian Harradine, who fought for a compromise with the Howard government over native title legislation, dances with Gladys Tybingoompa and the Wik people in front of Parliament House on 31 March 1998.
Senator Brian Harradine, who fought for a compromise with the Howard government over native title legislation, dances with Gladys Tybingoompa and the Wik people in front of Parliament House. Photograph: The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Reflecting on the decision, Gibson says: “They tried to find an avenue to get their message across. It worked to a certain extent but it also pissed off a lot of people in Canberra. The sad part in my mind is these people from Aurukun played by the rules of the country. They played the game and they won, but that wasn’t good enough in the eyes of certain politicians.”

The backlash was a shameful, hysterical period of modern history. State premiers said suburban backyards were under threat from native title. Alan Jones hissed bile on the radio. A newly elected John Howard held up a map showing how much of Australia was “at risk” and said the pendulum had swung too far towards Indigenous people. “Pastoralists were being told they would be murdered in their beds, that Aboriginal people were going to take their land,” says Pearson.

“He [Howard] just blatantly dismissed a nation of people,” says Langton.

Marcia Langton
Marcia Langton was a crucial participant in the Wik land rights negotiations. Photograph: SBS

The Howard government responded with the Wik 10-point plan, a watered-down, truncated version of the high court decision. The native title amendment bill was passed on 8 July 1998 after the longest debate in the history of the Senate.

“In the archives that I saw and all the interviews that I did no one ever hinted at that fact they wanted to take Cape York and put a big fence across Cairns and say ‘No one is welcome’,” says Gibson. “I never heard anything like that and it was never about that. It was all about: we know that you are here, miners and farmers, you are part of the landscape, but as Aboriginal people we can’t just be stomped on, we need to have an equal and prominent seat at that table.”

Pearson points out the opportunity for the community to benefit from the material wealth of mining and farming was denied to them too. But, says Gibson, “Some of the aunties said Noel was right in many ways but it was really our identity and culture, and the culture being lost and being locked out. That was more important to many of those old people.”

As Gibson’s family is from Hope Vale on the Cape York peninsula, he was invested in this story that unfolded when he was too young to understand. Now he does.

“If we can’t sit down as individuals even in high-level government and say this is what matters to us, please respect it; if you can’t honour that kind of stuff, what is the purpose of that government?

“Instead of valuing the things that don’t matter, we need to value the things that actually matter better. If a prime minister can get that right, I reckon that is going to unlock that goodwill and that willingness to make it work. And until we get that right we are just kicking a can around in a gutter.”

Wik v Queensland is screening at 8.30pm on 8 July and on 9 July at midday on NITV


Susan Chenery

The GuardianTramp

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