The late Andrew MacMillan once told me a story about his first trip to the Northern Territory in 1978.
He’d hitched up from New South Wales, made it through the wastelands of western Queensland and was stranded at the Three Ways roadhouse just north of Tennant Creek for a few days.
Eventually he was picked up by a Greek builder returning to Darwin to work on post-Tracy reconstruction in his Mini Moke.
The first words the Greek said after he said he could give Andrew a lift through to Darwin were “Do you like drink?” to which Andrew responded in the enthusiastic affirmative.
Setting the tone for the rest of the trip they bought a half carton of beer and proceeded up the Stuart Highway to Darwin at the Moke’s top speed of 80 kilometres per hour, with regular stops at the conveniently-spaced pubs and roadhouses to re-up the esky, pitching the empty bottles into the scrub with glee.
North of the small town of Elliott they re-upped at Dunmarra and as they passed the Carpentaria Highway turnoff to Borroloola Andrew asked if they’d be pulling into the Daly Water’s pub just up the road.
“No,” replied the Greek. “Is shithouse. Is full of racist cunts,” and they moved onto Larrimah, an hour north and not much better in those days.
Daly Water’s reputation then—I’m sure it is different today—was confirmed not long after when photos of the noticeboard in the pub were published in Its coming yet: An Aboriginal treaty within Australia between Australians by Stewart Harris in 1979.
Later that year then Member for Arnhem in the NT Legislative Assembly Bob Collins (later Senator) raised the Daly Waters pub in the context of racial tensions arising from the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (1976) (the Land Rights Act).
Speaking to the NT News in October 1978, Collins said that ‘The racism was always there. It was never considered necessary to bring it to the surface before because Aborigines were never considered as any sort of social threat.’ He went on, noting that ‘There is no doubt that the land rights issue has bought out into the open some of the vicious racists who are playing on people’s fears to great effect … Clearly some white people cannot tolerate the mere notion of Aborigines obtaining title to land.’
Without naming the hotel—though noting that it was “much frequented by tourists driving into the Territory” and “a very poor introduction for tourists to the Territory” Collins revealed the content of some of the signs.
Keep Australia Clean (Kill a Coon);
If Abos want land they should buy the bastard the same as the whites do. They have no rights to any land whatever. If they don’t want to work under our system – let ‘em starve;
People with black legs won’t be served; and
Buy some Coon cheese today for catching black mice.
Three years later a colleague spotted some similar graffiti under the South Alligator River bridge en-route to Jabiru, three hours drive north of Katherine. He regretted that he didn’t take a photo at the time but recorded the comments in his notebook.
Beat the Blacks – fuck them white;
Gins are Juicy;
Save Oenpelli – shoot a coon now;
Become primitive – marry a gin; and
Coons are cunts
Amongst all this was “peace on earth – goodwill to all men.”
In December 1978 the Canberra Times re-published Collins’ comments for a southern audience, adding material from the “One Nation, One Law” committee based in Katherine, 3 hour’s drive north of Daly Waters.
One Nation, One Law maintained that the deterioration in race relations were linked to the Land Rights Act and “other discriminatory legislation … We want unity, not a racial situation. We want equal rights for everyone.”
The One Nation, One Law committee was the latest Katherine-based group that sought to challenge the emerging push of rights for Aboriginal people.
Showing that racism in the north had a long tail, five years earlier, Michelle Grattan reported for The Age on a rally in Katherine’s main street by the Rights for Territorians Committee—originally called Equal Rights for Whites—that she characterised as an example of an Australia-wide “white backlash” against the Whitlam government’s policies to get a better deal for Aboriginals.
Recently 600 people from all parts of the Northern Territory packed the hall of the outback town of Katherine to protest against what they saw as discrimination against whites in education, welfare and other services … The new Government’s rethink on Aboriginal policy–including its policy to grant land rights and its plans for new schemes of “positive discrimination” in favour of Aborigines, such as free legal aid–has crystallised old discontents into public action.
The chairman of the new Rights for Territorians Committee, Northern Territory pastoralist and member of the Legislative Council Mr Les MacFarlane says the movement has no axe to grind with the Aborigines, but is concerned with the policy of the Aboriginal Affairs Department … “The policy of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs has turned the Aborigines into a race of bludgers. It is not their fault–they are being given handouts.”
These “movements” would morph over the coming years in response to changing circumstances, first into the Land Rights Action Group in 1977 following the introduction of the Land Rights Act, then re-emerging as One Nation, One Law and later the Committee for Community Ownership of the Katherine Gorge National Park during the early 1980s while the Katherine Land Claim made under the Land Rights Act was being heard in Katherine and nearby Barunga.
At around the same time—and surely related to the on-going racial tensions swirling around the Top End—in October 1978 the Canberra Times quoted from letters sent to NT media outlets earlier that year by NT Police Constable David Jennings.
Jennings was the self-proclaimed “public relations officer for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (Aust),” who claimed—falsely it seems—that a large crowd had attended a meeting of the Klan outside of Katherine.
Jennings, who later described himself as ‘an embarrassment to the [NT Police] force,’ disappeared from both the force and the Katherine district without causing any lasting harm, other than to provide a lingering and fraught memory for local blackfellas and a curious reference point for future Klan-related—whether genuine or otherwise—activity in the NT.
In November 1978 The Bulletin reported on Jennings’ failed attempt to establish the Klan with its typically skewed version of events and politics:
However, whatever its numbers, the Klan and its ideals apparently have some sympathy in the Territory. Territory whites are asking why the Aborigines should be able to blackmail the government and hold up the Ranger agreement. More serious is the fear of Aboriginal violence.
But the Jawoyn fight for their land didn’t just play out in the Courts. Speaking to the ABC TV’s NT current affairs show Stateline 30 years later, Chips Mackinolty recalled that:
There were street demonstrations by various groups called ‘One Law, One Nation’ and ‘Rights for Whites,’ there were KKK cartoons sort of in the street and so on and one of the traditional owners, Sandy Barraway, had shots fired over his head one evening after giving evidence.
In October 1982 MacFarlane doffed his Speaker’s wig and took to the floor of the NT Legislative Assembly as the Member for Elsey, telling the Assembly that:
… the Aboriginal Land Rights Act is the greatest piece of divisive legislation ever seen and ought to be rammed down [Prime Minister] Mr Fraser’s throat.”
The next week more than 400 locals marched down the main street of Katherine “carrying placards and babies” as Lindsay Murdoch reported in The Age. MacFarlane, a WWII veteran told the crowd that “I fought for a sunburnt country, not six States and a piebald Territory.”
MacFarlane’s role in these events did not pass without attention elsewhere. Speaking to the Racial Hatred Bill (1994), in November 1994 member for the Northern Territory Warren Snowdon described the campaign against land rights as it played out in Katherine:
Shortly after the land claim was lodged, groups such as Rights for Whites sprang up in Katherine and waged a low-level campaign that culminated in 1982 with a major street demonstration in Katherine one Saturday morning. That demonstration was led by the then Speaker of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, Les Macfarlane.
That same parliamentarian, for a number of weeks, displayed outside his electorate office a strip of racist cartoons attacking Jawoyn and other Aboriginal people in the Katherine region. The cartoons were based on crude drawings and the worst kind of racist stereotyping. I have a copy of one of the cartoons here which talks about `Katherine for whites’. What was the intent of that particular cartoon or of the march that this person led if it was not to incite racial vilification?
The Jawoyn people won their claim for Nitmiluk—and went on to win other large tracts of their traditional lands—and now represent a powerful political and economic force in the Katherine region.
But racial tensions remained. In November 1986 the Northern Land Council paper Land Rights News under the headline ‘Bigotry Lives!’ reported: that
The racism that bedevils Katherine and makes it infamous around the nation hasn’t diminished since the Jawoyn land claim hearing was finished.
A group of white townspeople, including several prominent business-people and professionals, continue to be seen wearing a T-shirt at various social and private functions bearing the acronym SPONGE.*
That stands for the Society for Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything. The Ku Klux Klan chapter formed in Katherine may have gone underground. But the unholy spirit lives on.
Four years later Land Rights News again reported on racist attacks on Northern Land Council’s premises in Darwin and Katherine.
While in the Top End, racists strike by night.
Just before Christmas, shotgun blasts ripped through the windows of the Northern Land Council office in Darwin.
And shortly afterwards racists sprayed slogans on the council’s regional office in Katherine. Police investigated both attacks but no charges have been laid. In Darwin, the slogan “equal rights for whites” was daubed across the surviving panels in lipstick.
Captions on the photos say: “Racist slogans, sprayed on the Northern Land Council’s Katherine office window” [“KKK UNITED”; “666”; Die Coon Scum”] and “Plate glass windows in the Northern Land Council’s Darwin office … smashed by shotgun blasts.”
• It appears that there was little original in the Katherine group’s choice of their acronym. The Wikipedia reference for “SPONGE” reads: “SPONGE, an acronym for Society for the Prevention of Niggers (or more often cited, “Negroes”) Getting Everything, was a prominent political pressure group founded in New York City prior to April 12, 1964.”
- You can read more about that activities of David Jennings in the five-part series on his activities starting here: Constable David Jennings. NT cop and Ku Klux Klansman. Part 1. (follow the links at the bottom of the page).
- See more on Les MacFarlane’s exploits in the NT here: Les MacFarlane C.M.G. of Moroak: Cattleman, politician and racist?
• Disclosure: Bob Gosford is employed by the Northern Land Council in Darwin