I appeared at the office on Monday, 1 December and spent the morning filling out forms: bank deposit, next-of-kin, taxation. You can work it out.
Jason took me to lunch at a cafe just down the street. While we were there he told me what was happening: several aboriginal families had taken up residence inside the Sturt National Park and claimed rights to the area.
"In a way, they're right. But we're supposed to do something. And your first chore will be to evaluate the situation."
Back in the office, I was assigned a desk and did a little research.
In 1909 the Aboriginal Protection Act was implemented, and in 1936 the Aboriginal Protection Board acquired the powers to remove Aborigines from "undesirable living areas". From Tibooburra, around 70 people were forcibly loaded onto trucks and taken to Brewarrina, east of Bourke. Some found their way home to their tribal areas, but life for many was irreversibly damaged.
I also learned that Harold Hunt had written the memoirs of his mother, a native of the Corner Country. I walked down the hall.
"Do we have a library? I'd like to read up on the Corner."
"Use the collection in the Museum."
"I'll do that tomorrow. Now, what do I do?"
"In brief, you read the file; you do a bit of research; you ask me about getting to Tibooburra; you fly there; rent a vehicle; talk to people; come back; and write a report."
"Is there a budget? How long do I stay?"
"No and as long as necessary."
I took a deep breath.
"Do I fly to Bourke or to Broken Hill?"
"Whatever. I've never been there. It's tough. I'm throwing you into the deep end."
"I understand. One of the lectures I went to concerned the fact that though the telly and the cinema depict lawyers at trials, actually few lawyers engage in litigation. Lawyers are middlemen. Negotiators."
"Exactly. This will be awkward. I'm not sure whether these are really descendants of the Milparinka. But they might well be. And the problem is a century old."
The largely waterless lands of the Corner Country were traditionally occupied by several Aboriginal groups. In the Milparinka area lived members of the Maliangaapa people, around Tibooburra were Wadigalis and Wangkumaras.
A fundamental understanding of the land and environment helped Aboriginal tribes to survive, especially their ability to find and conserve water. Soaks and wells were dug in dry creek beds, holes gouged into the lower ends of claypans, and campsites established alongside creeks and waterholes. They carried water in bags of kangaroo skins, or in coolamons [Aboriginal carrying vessels]. Many Europeans, both explorers and early settlers, could not have survived without the help of the Aboriginal people.
Trade routes and tracks were established across the desert to the west, to the north and east to the rivers. Sturt recorded following one track for six hours, coming, in the end to a well full of water. Stone artefacts found in the Corner Country had their origins in quarries hundreds of kilometres away.
Settlement brought changes to life in the Corner Country. Pastoralists spread their flocks of sheep and cattle across the region and competed with local Aborigines for water, and for grazing land. Often there were serious and tragic consequences. In time, however, many Aboriginal people were employed on the newly formed stations, and were able to co-exist with pastoralists on their traditional lands. Others moved to local centres such as Tibooburra where they lived on the fringes of the township.
I phoned my dad when I got home and learned that I could just walk in and use the Museum's library. I told him about my "assignment" and that I wanted to talk to him about it. We agreed on lunch, as I'd be in the Museum, anyway.
I learned a lot on Tuesday morning. I'd known nothing of the evils of the "Aboriginal Protection Board." [Aboriginal Protection Board had the function of regulating the lives of Australians. It was also responsible for administering the various Half-caste acts where these existed and had a key role in the Stolen generations.] I realized just how shameful they must have been – there was no mention in the index of Paterson's The Lost Legions; nothing in Kinley's book (and I'd gone to his classes at Sydney on human rights law!).
I began reading Keith Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History; vol. III: The Stolen Generations and was horrified. "In 1997, the Human Rights Commission made the most notorious accusation ever directed against Australia. It accused this country of committing genocide against the Aborigines by stealing their children. The purported intention of governments and welfare officials was to institutionalize and assimilate the children into white society and thus rid Australia of its Aboriginal people. In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to Aboriginal people for these policies."
I met dad and told him what I'd been reading.
"I know," he said. "But it's very hard. Your mum and I lived close to Aboriginal bands for years. And we know how bad the behavior of Europeans toward the original Australians was. But, at the same time, I recall there was a great deal of criticism of Windschuttle's first volume when it came out. He's still a vehement denier where child removal's concerned. Don't swallow everything whole."
"True. True. But the citations from Alexander Stuart in the 1880s up to just before Rudd are so dreadful..."
"Lunch here or outside?"
"Here's OK. It's hot outside."
"Wait till you get to the Corner! It might drop below 30 at night in the Park."
"Oh, that reminds me. It's a national park. Was there enabling legislation?"
"Who knows? That's why you became a lawyer – so you could look up stuff like that." He laughed. "What fun: the park legislation and the Protection Board!"
We had begun eating when dad remarked "You know, if you want a different point of view, look up Paul Bartrop. He's recently moved to the States, but he's written extensively on the Holocaust ... and not only the Jews. But it's rather ghastly reading, and Australia is far from innocent. But the worst was before I was born. You know there was the Dunera crisis. I'd say that was close to a parallel to what Abbott's doing with boatfuls of emigrants."
"British ship at the outset of World War II. Showed the worst side of Churchill. Look it up." I made a note. I'd already written Bartrop's name. Dad had always read a lot. And he remembered a lot.
"I'm not sure yet just when I'll go. Any good advice?"
"Take sturdy clothes. Wear decent boots. Beware of snakes. Be polite to people. That's about it."
"It's the Outback. Snakes in the desert. Snakes in the brush. If you were further north, there'd be snakes in the trees and crocs in the water."
"Right. Any bad insects?"
"Same as everywhere. Ticks are the worst. But you're young and healthy, nothing to worry about. Take a vial of halazone or Aquatabs. That'll ensure the water's safe. I'd be most wary of snakes. I think there are adders, browns and taipan in the area. But they'll avoid you unless you do something stupid. And I'm sure you won't. You've been in the outdoors before."
"True. But I'm nervous."
"First professional trip. Your python may help."
"Your totem will not let you go astray. Your mother saved Jimmy. And Jimmy's nungungi named you a python. Remember, Gordy's wives are from the Corner. All is not alien."
I realized that dad took it seriously. It was a dozen years since he took me to meet my python. It was over two decades since he took me to meet the Kangaroo.
"Thanks. That will really help."
"I hope so. Ring your mum before you go."
"Of course. Thanks. I'm back to the library now."
The "National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act" of 1975 was very interesting, indeed. I wondered whether Section 18 (Aboriginal Land) had ever been read carefully:
(2) The Director shall not take any action under sub-section (1) in relation to any land except...
(b) after consultation with the Aboriginals, if any, as to whom the Minister is satisfied that they have traditional rights in relation to the land; and in accordance with an agreement between the Director and-
(i) in the case of land vested in Australia-the Minister of State for Aboriginal Affairs;...
(iii) in the case of land vested in a State-the Minister of that State or the authority of that State, as the case may be, having responsibility for the administration of that land; or
in the case of any other land-the person in whom, or body in which, the land is vested.
I searched, briefly, but found no record of "consultation" at all.
When I got home I told Rachel about my "research." She was interested, but not as intrigued as I was.
I had a complex dream that night. My serpent spoke to me, telling me that this was why I was nungungi and why I had read Law. "You need not fear any snake you encounter," she told me. I slept well.
The next morning I asked the main secretary about flights, vehicles and accomodation.
"If you tell me what you want, I can arrange it," she responded. I went to my desk, wrote out: "Sydney to Broken Hill on 8 or 9 December, open return; a vehicle at the Broken Hill Airport for several days; several nights at a hotel in Tibooburra." I took the paper to her.
"All I can think of. Should there be more?"
"Many blokes would put together a party."
"I'm not exploring the Rabbit Fence!"
She laughed. "I'll get on it. I presume you'll be back for the Christmas party."
"I hope so. My wife wouldn't be happy if I stayed away for three weeks."
I went back to my desk to put my notes in order. By lunchtime I had everything in order for flight next Monday, a 4-wheel drive and a confirmed reservation at the Tibooburra Hotel. At about 1500 a messenger delivered my tickets. Great service!
Tibooburra, I learned, had under 300 residents and was part of the "Unincorporated Far West Region" -- an area larger than Hungary with a total population of 698 (in 2011). That made the Region smaller than Mitchell, where my dad was born, and larger than Laverton, where my mum was from. But Tibooburra was smaller than either. I looked at the (thin) file.
At the bottom was a letter from the local police station in Tibooburra describing the situation and asking the Ministry what to do. There followed a wad of self-serving memos as "Under-Secretaries" tossed the hot potato about. The last was ten days old. Apparently, under a dozen "illegal residents" were involved. As far as I could tell, the National Park blokes hadn't been involved (possibly there wasn't even a resident ranger). Truly a puzzle.
Friday, I wrote a preliminary report and handed it over to be delivered to Jason. I found out about keeping receipts and got a form to record expenditures. At about 16:00 I went home to spend the weekend with my wife.