The Right Stuff #5 – The Wave Hill Walk-Off

The Right Stuff #5 – The Wave Hill Walk-Off

Fifty years on, Australians have the chance to reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further we can go.

Is the news getting you down? Old Rupert Murdoch and his mates got you feeling like the world’s going to tear itself apart at any moment? Fear not, for [my] new column The Right Stuff assures you of at least one thing: to kick that growing cynicism aside and join us on the highway to optimism – destination: Hope Town*. The Right Stuff is your weekly dose of the news you deserve; from the mouths of people you may not have heard before. I can’t guarantee it’ll always be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, but life’s not like that either, is it? Arthur Miller once said that a good newspaper is “a nation talking to itself” The people you’ll hear from in The Right Stuff are speaking to us and all we’ve gotta do is listen!  

*Figuratively speaking, not that place in the Bahamas


On August 23, 1966; Vincent Lingiari, a member of the Gurindji clan, led a walk-off with a group of around 200 Aboriginal pastoral workers and their families at Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. Not only were the workers subject to poor working conditions and disrespectful treatment on the station, the men also received wages that were a fraction of that of their white colleagues. The family of Lord Vestey had tenure of the land where the cattle station was located since 1914. Vestey’s land also happened to be the traditional lands of the Gurindji people – lands which these people, and their ancestors, had lived on for thousands of years.

Last week, over 3000 people gathered at Kalkarindji (formerly Wave Hill) and Daguragu to celebrate Freedom Day, which celebrated fifty years since a powerful act of defiance – an act that is widely considered to be the catalyst for the land rights movement in Australia.

It is one of the most significant events in our 228 years of shared history. Songs have been written about Wave Hill –  from Lingiari and Yunupingu’s Gurindji Blues to the well known anthem by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody: From Little Things Big Things Grow. The beautiful rendition of this song at Gough’s funeral (watch below) still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

Speaking on Sunday Extra on Radio National last week, Kara Keys – an Indigenous officer for the Australian Council of Trade Unions – noted that the Wave Hill walk-off was “triggered by the wage dispute” but in reality it “was about so much more than that.” Keys argued that what Lingiari and the other men were doing was taking a stand against “systemic, legislated discrimination against Aboriginal people in the country at the time.”

It is important – especially for Indigenous Australians –  to celebrate events like the anniversary of the Wave Hill walk off. It shows what Australians are capable of. But we as Australians must remember that we still have a long way to go to reconcile the ills of our past. I’m have no doubt Vincent Lingiari would have been appalled had he lived to see the horrors of Don Dale. We know things can be better.

Pat Dodson delivered the fourth Vincent Lingiari lecture in 1999 under the title, “Until the Chains Are Broken”. In this speech he talked about the need for constitutional reform, for a treaty and for an end to Indigenous disadvantage. One line in particular jumped out from the transcript that I read:

The hard men of Vesteys still walk the corridors of power.

The 50th anniversary of Wave Hill is a time for celebration, and it is also a time for reflection. A time for us to reflect on whether we are happy about how Australia treats its Indigenous population. A time for us to decide whether Australians are kinder and more generous of heart than people like Lord Vestey. A time for us to challenge those who hold power and to demand an Australia that all of us can be proud of. As two wise men once said, from little things big things grow…

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