Western Australia is a fast buck state. That’s where they just dig the minerals out of the ground, send them away (usually to places like Japan) and pick up a nice fat cheque. There’s no messing around with the sophisticated machinery of semi-processing operations: This philosophy, more than any other, has prevailed in this sparsely populated state the size of Western Europe.
You’d think there was plenty of room for everyone, especially for the Aborigines now that they have long given up their fertile lands to the white man. But there’s no peace for the dispossessed if they happen to have come to rest on land where the state government thinks there may be something worth digging up. And so, for about three years now, a battle has been waged over a piece of ground in WA’s northern Kimberley region known as Noonkanbah Station.
Noonkanbah’s 400,000 hectares of fringe desert aren’t much use for anything, Which is probably why it was quite easy for the Yungnera people to get the Australian Government to acquire the cattle station for them in 1975. In the years since, the Yungnera have made a good fist of running the station. It seemed as if Australia’s first modern Aboriginal community was about to emerge. But the foundations of that community - profound association with the land - are now sorely shaken. The white man (in the form of WA State Premier Sir Charles Court) is determined to test an area of the station for oil by boring into ground which, Sir Charles knows full well, is the sacred home of the Great Goanna. And if the Great Goanna, a lizard, decides to leave the area, all the other goannaswhich live at Noonkanbah will stop breeding. And if they stop breeding the Yungneia people will not eat …
When the Yungnera talk of land rights, they mean the right of the land to own them (not the other way around, as is the white man’s view of ownership).
With much public sympathy and the support of trade unions across Australia, the attempts (almost half-hearted it seems at times) by the American-owned mining giant Amax (apparently under pressure from the Court Government), to start a test well on Noonkanbah were resisted until late August.
But then Sir Charles, having relieved Amax of its exploration permit, called in a specially formed $2 company named Omen Proprietary Limited to start drilling with non-union labour. Thinking that a union ban on working the rig had saved the day, most of the Noonkanbah community were away at the time at Fitzroy Crossing for the annual race meeting.
As the bit shafted into the domain of the Great Goanna, the message came from the Yungnera people: ‘Charlie Court got round us using a dirty trick. All we can say is the white man is mad. He doesn’t know what he is doing.’
Ironically, just about the time the drilling started, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was in the United States receiving an award from the Jewish B’nai B’rith International for ‘humanitarian services’. The B’nai B’rith described Fraser as ‘one of the most outstanding leaders in the world defending the basic rights that we in the US take for granted’.
‘The current reality faced by Aboriginal people makes a mockery of the award,’ complained Gary Foley, Aboriginal national secretary of the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation. ‘The only basic rights Aborigines have are to be imprisoned in the notorious apartheid laws in Queensland, suffer from the highest leprosy attack rate in the world, highest rate of curable blindness in the world and an infant mortality rate that is second only to two small impoverished nations in Africa.’
John Newfong, editor of Identity, a magazine produced by Aborigines, added: ‘There are dispossessed people in Australia too and the prime minister has not demonstrated much human understanding as far as Australia’s Aborigines are concerned.’