It is with considerable trepidation that I give this lecture. The topic is not just complex and immense, but it has been so taken over by the media and so politicised by so many varying and vested interests, that any objective discussion that satisfies everyone will be impossible. In the light of this, I decided to present a personal view based on past study and fieldwork.
I have been rather nervous about giving this lecture knowing that many reading would be better versed in the complexities of the issues than I am. But in preparing it I remembered the Academy symposium of 1981 when, as a relatively new Fellow, I chaired a session on Aboriginal land rights. What I remember most was sitting on the platform between Charles Perkins on one side and Hugh Morgan on the other and trying to keep some focus and calm discussion. So let me begin.
As a student doing field work for my PhD, I visited the fruit growing areas along the River Murray in South Australia during the grape picking season. At the time, Aboriginal people who were living on missions or reserves were not eligible for any form of social security. To eke out a difficult and marginal economic, as well as social, existence, they visited various regions where seasonal work was available. During the grape harvest before there was any mechanisation, seasonal workers were in demand and thus several Aboriginal families visited the area to pick fruit. Farmers, or blockers as they were then known, were required to provide white casual workers with accommodation but this was not expected for Aboriginal workers. They often had to make do, which usually meant camping on crown land or vacant areas along the river.
One day, while the men and older children were at work, I visited one such camp. The only occupant was a mother who was nursing a young baby while her older child, a girl of about two, played nearby. While I was sitting there chatting, a police car drove up and the young male driver came over to us. He ignored me and with a few words about the law which allowed police to remove Aboriginal children for their ‘own good’, he snatched the baby, grabbed the toddler and bundled them both into the lap of his companion in the police car. The children cried, the mother yelled and so did I. But I was severely warned that he had the law on his side and that I could be arrested for obstructing police carrying out their duty. Off he drove at speed.