Barrie Pittock, Victoria Regional Meeting

Barrie Pittock 2005

The 50th anniversary of the 1967 Aboriginal Referendum, and the 25th anniversary of the Mabo Decision on Indigenous land rights was celebrated by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on 24th – 26th May in Canberra. That department arranged a series of events in Canberra and elsewhere, inviting a number of the surviving activists to take part. As one of the few surviving Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists I was invited, together with Diana.

My involvement goes back to my student days at Melbourne University in the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was involved with the Aboriginal Scholarship (Abschol) organisation, which raised money to provide scholarships for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to go to Universities. We quickly found that initially there were no applicants as no Aborigines in Australia had completed high school.

Following a radio documentary by ABC journalist Alan Ashbolt (18 June 1957) on racial attitudes in Moree (NSW), another student, Phillip Boas, and I decided to go on a tour of inland NSW and southern Queensland to see for ourselves what might be the problem. We quickly found racial prejudice and discrimination and a pauperisation that made it impossible for Aboriginal kids to get through secondary school – often communities of a hundred or more Aborigines, living in makeshift shacks the other side of the river or railway tracks, with no electricity and maybe a single cold water tap!

That experience radicalised us and Abschol, and led to my involvement in Aboriginal affairs via the Victorian Aborigines’ Advancement League, and then the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – FCAATSI). This led me on to the Executive Committee of FCAATSI in the late 1960s and early 70s with a particular interest in land rights. I was also strongly influenced in the 1950s and 60s by Ian Spalding’s periodical On Aboriginal Affairs.

When I got my Ph. D. in physics at Melbourne University in 1963, I chose Boulder, Colorado, for a Post-Doctoral visit of two years. This was partly because there was a new laboratory doing work related to my thesis re atmospheric science, and partly because Boulder was the home of a Flathead Indian writer and sociologist Darcy McNickle whose book Indians and Other Americans influenced my thinking.

I spent my last three months in America touring around looking at American Indian conditions, particularly in the southwest of the USA, including largely self-governing Tribal Councils with their own police forces and commercial enterprises. On the way home I stopped off in New Zealand for a few weeks in December 1964 to look at the Maori situation. A lot more could be said about that!

Back in Oz, I was an invited speaker at the FCAATSI Easter Conference in 1965 (where Diana and I met). I soon became convener of FCAATSI’s land rights committee, and in 1969-70 was involved in the movement for Indigenous control of FCAATSI policy. This was advocated by mostly younger Aboriginal and Islander activists, in part inspired by the American Black Power movement. While opposed to the violent rhetoric of some advocates, I did support the idea that only people of Aboriginal or Islander descent should be allowed to vote on policy issues, and moved a motion for a constitutional amendment to that effect, for consideration at the 1970 Easter conference.

This motion, one suspects deliberately, was left for consideration as “other business” right at the end of the meeting when many Aborigines had to leave to catch buses home to far areas. Constitutional change required a 2/3 majority, but the vote gained only about 50-50 and so was lost. This led to two senior elders, Doug Nicholls (who later became Governor of South Australia) and Kath Walker (the Aboriginal poet), calling its supporters to one side, where the National Tribal Council (NTC) was formed. I was appointed as its non-voting Convener for Land Rights.

Unfortunately the NTC only lasted for a few years due largely to a lack of funding and resulting poor national communications, which in FCAATSI had been facilitated by free mail and telephone from the offices of associated Labor Party MPs. Despite that, many other Aboriginal and Islander groups did survive and grow, especially Aboriginal legal and medical services, and later local and regional groups.

I continued in pro-Aboriginal rights groups in Victoria for some years, but later became pre-occupied with environmental issues related to my scientific work with CSIRO. This included destruction of the atmospheric ozone layer, the possible climatic impacts of a nuclear war.

My main concern re Aborigines and Islanders in later years has been that they should benefit economically from land rights. Back in the 1960s and 1970s I had argued that land was not only a spiritual base for Aborigines and Islanders, but also an economic base and no compensation had been offered. Early on I saw tourism and arts and crafts as part of that economic base, but by the 1990s it was clear to me that renewable energy, especially solar power, was a major economic possibility that could benefit remote communities enormously. A difficulty was how to transport the created energy to buyers to provide income to the communities. I suggested using renewable energy to generate hydrogen or ammonia as energy carriers for export, for use in distant generators or vehicle propulsion.

So, to cut it short, when the Prime Minister’s Department planned the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Referendum this year they invited a number of surviving activists on Aboriginal and Islander affairs to Canberra for the celebrations. Many of the activists have passed away, but I seem to have been one of only a few non-Aboriginal and Islander people invited.

Our being hosted by the PM&C department included sitting in on a special meeting of the House of Representatives. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition referred to and met with those present who were the original campaigners for the referendum and those involved with the Mabo decision. I was able to quickly mention to the PM the opportunities for renewable energy on land owned by Aborigines and Islanders in their own communities.

The busy schedule of events included media interviews and a lunch, with a group photograph taken at Old Parliament House. Sadly, many old campaigners were missing after 50 years. Senator Pat Dodson spoke eloquently at the lunch about the work yet to be done following the Mabo decision, including dealing with “extinguishment” of land rights and Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs), yet to be clarified.

In the evening at the National Museum of Australia was a panel discussion we attended which was broadcast on Radio National. Four Elders explored various current Indigenous issues, from health in remote areas to education and other matters which have developed after a long difficult history. The next afternoon we spent time in the NMA exhibition, A Change is Gonna Come, a moving and clever display on Indigenous activism. Included in it is a red head band that I wore at the FCAATSI meeting at which the National Tribal Council was born.

Before the NMA visit, I was rushed into a large meeting with the assembled staff of the PM&C Department where I was asked to speak with about 5 minutes notice. I gave an off-the-cuff speech not unlike the above article, recounting my involvement and ending with a strong plug for enabling renewable energy development on remote community land. (Fortunately, this is already happening in one area in the Pilbara, (Google renewable H2 Australia on the web). This more sustainable technology for transporting energy is developing rapidly.) Senior staff there who focus on remote communities were pleased to talk further about such developments, and we remain in touch.

Our daughter-in-law, Cath, conducted us on a visit to the ANU Art School Gallery and showed us old Indigenous art and artifacts owned by ANU. Some of these were collected by ANU staff and anthropologists many years ago and are therefore quite significant. In the foyer there was a delightful exhibition of fabrics from the Babbarra Women’s Centre at Maningrida.  Some were in a more traditional style while some were more contemporary; all colourful.

On our third morning the Indigenous Art Triennial at the National gallery of Australia was a treat before flying home. It is extensive and significant, with a large range of styles, some demanding, some beautiful, all skillful, some on which to meditate, and others to acknowledge the grief of the history shown.

Our three days were full and rewarding and yet there was more we could have seen. There were exhibitions at the National Library (which holds my archives), the National Archives and the Museum of Australian Democracy (which holds some of Diana’s collection of campaigning badges).  Canberra certainly excelled itself in recognising the two anniversaries.

Then on Saturday in Melbourne was the PM&C Department’s Melbourne lunch acknowledging the anniversaries of the Referendum and the Mabo decision.  This was followed by the “Long Walk” from Federation Square to the MCG, which we could not manage after our tiring, but appreciated, time in Canberra. On all occasions we were hosted with care and thoughtfulness by PM&C Department staff.


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