Event: Noonkanbah Protest (1979 - 1980)
- Aborigines and Mining
A key event in the Australian Aboriginal Land Rights movement.
"In 1976 the Noonkanbah station was advertised for sale. The Aboriginal Land Fund Commission acquired it and placed it in the hands of the WA Aboriginal Lands Trust, and a 200-strong black community returned to the station in September.
By May 1978, 497 mineral claims had been pegged on Noonkanbah station without any consultation. One company interested in exploring for oil was Amax, a multinational with strong links to BHP and CSR. In October 1978 Amax selected a site for drilling, which it apparently believed would not infringe sacred sites. The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act allowed for protection of any "sacred, ritual or ceremonial site", but the legislators had probably understood this to mean specific features, narrowly defined. At Noonkanbah, by contrast, as anthropologist Kingsley Palmer reported after visiting there, "although certain places ... Were recognised as being of particular importance for one reason or another, the whole land was recognised as being endowed with spiritual essence."
In May 1979 the Noonkanbah people sent a representative, Dicky Skinner, to Perth with a petition against Amax: "These people have already made the place no good with their bulldozers ...They mess up our land. They expose our sacred objects. This breaks our spirit. We lose ourselves as a people."
The petition made a media splash, and Skinner followed it up with an address to the WA Trades and Labour Council, which carried motions of support and sent letters to Amax and CRA. But about the same time, Cabinet met and reaffirmed its hard line. "I do not want either the local or the overseas people in Amax to feel I have not personally followed this matter through," wrote [WA Premier] Court. Acting minister Dick Old formally instructed the State museum to give its consent, whereupon the government authorised the company to drill.
On 15 June, a company representative sought access to Noonkanbah station but was turned back at the gate after verbal exchanges. This event made the Perth papers, and either Court or the company apparently decided on a tactical retreat: for almost nine months, the issue disappeared. But in March 1980, mining contractors entered the property, accompanied by police. However resistance was also stiffening.
Sympathisers rallied at St George's Cathedral in Perth. The relevant unions recommended bans on all work for the Noonkanbah drilling, the most important being the Transport Workers whose members would have to transport a rig from Broome, and the AWU which covered the drilling crew. Bob Hawke called on Amax to pull back, while the AWU suggested that all nine oil rigs operating in WA could be closed down if drilling at Noonkanbah went ahead. The unions' assertiveness reflected the strengthening of their industrial position between 1979 and 1981. Noonkanbah was delighted. The community wrote:
"So we are very pleased that all these people are coming out to help us, the Trade Union mob trying to stop Amax, and all the other people. That never happened in the first place. If we all stand together like this we can be friends and have respect for each other."
Ivan McPhee and Nipper Tabagee came from Noonkanbah to Perth to address supporters, including the TLC. Later some 30 fringe dwellers from Swan Valley briefly occupied the city's main cemetery, saying that their sacred sites deserved the same respect as white cemeteries. April 2nd saw another Perth demonstration of 500 people. Back at Noonkanbah, a session of Aboriginal song and dance lasting until 3 am gave the local people enough of a psychological advantage to intimidate the contractors, who departed the site when the community confronted them the next day. This unexpected victory had an impact on blacks around the country. Said poet Jack Davis:
"For years we had been demonstrating for land rights. I think to most blacks the call for land rights was slightly nebulous ... But what happened at Noonkanbah seemed to solidify their feelings."
Meanwhile the links with trade unions continued to improve, but outside Perth rank and file support was limited. In April Dicky Skinner met with a two-person TLC delegation in Derby, who had toured workplaces to assess the level of support. The labour force in the Kimberley was largely ununionised and anti-Aboriginal, and it became clear that the muscle would have to be applied at higher levels to be successful. In some cases unionists' main motivation was to settle old scores with Charles Court.
Even so, the prospect of union intervention worried Amax. In late April there was speculation that the company was getting cold feet. Noonkanbah also showed signs of becoming an international issue, after Jim Hagan of the National Aboriginal Council addressed a United Nations sub-committee in Geneva, with US television networks picking up the story. But Court was tenacious. In May he visited Noonkanbah personally to talk to the Aborigines; the resulting exchange left both sides as far apart as ever. In July Amax transported a water drilling rig to the site despite a token blockade by the local people.
At 1 am on 7 August, a convoy of 49 vehicles set out from Perth. Near Karratha six picketing union officials were arrested, while in Roebourne 40 Aboriginal people protested as the convoy passed. Two more union officials were arrested at Port Hedland, then just north of the town 160 blacks blocked a bridge and police had to push them back. Another 200 protesters greeted the convoy near Broome. At Noonkanbah the community also decided to oppose the convoy: 60 men established a blockade at Mickey's Pool where the road dipped into a sandy creek and no detours were possible. After a night-long stand-off, police and Aboriginal police aides cleared the blockade. The cause seemed lost when the news came through that the drilling crew, all trade unionists, had met and voted not to work the rig. Court's hard-line tactics had exploded in his face.
Six months earlier the AWU had unionised the crew on this rig. They were not particularly pro-Aboriginal, but some of them felt important union principles were at stake. During several meetings they stood their ground while CSR, under ACTU pressure, announced it would not operate the rig without the union crew. At this point Amax, after talks with Bob Hawke, was again willing if not eager to pull out, but Court had an ace yet to play: he arranged for Amax to transfer its rights to the State government, which then passed them on to a $2 shelf company. The technicality got CSR off the hook, so drilling could go ahead with a new crew."
(Excerpted from Years of Rage: social conflicts in the Fraser era.)
The drilling at Noonkanbah yielded a dry hole.
- O'Lincoln, Tom, Years of rage: social conflicts in the Fraser era, Bookmarks Australia, Melbourne, 1993, 255 pp. Details