A bitter struggle
During a key moment of the ceremony to hand over the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to its traditional owners in 1985, a plane flew overhead towing a sign that read, “AYERS ROCK FOR ALL AUSTRALIANS”.
It reflected the bitterness with which opponents to the hand back approached the debate. Conversely, traditional owner Yami Lester was recorded by the ABC, meeting those fears with good humour. “I welcome the Governor General this afternoon. He's able to come here today to see the rock. By tomorrow the rock will be missing, the Aboriginal people going to take it away,” Mr Lester said. Much of the fear surrounding the proposed handover of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to its traditional owners was whipped up by the Country Liberal Party government of the time. In the lead up to the handover, the Northern Territory Government launched a massive scare campaign throughout Australia, telling Australians they’d be locked out of the park. The Chief Minister Ian Tuxworth toured through southern and eastern cities armed with $200,000 to run full page adds in the metropolitan papers shouting “THE ROCK BELONGS TO ALL AUSTRALIANS! (AND ALWAYS HAS)”. The ad also claimed, “It places in the hands of just a few that which belongs to all Australians: Ayers Rock, the heart of this country. “The Northern Territory Government seeks support from the Australian community to prevent this act of gross irresponsibility.” In the month of the handback, the Sunday Territorian editorial (6/10/85) supported the Territory Government’s boycott of the ceremony. “It’s difficult to see how the Territory Government could have reached any other conclusion but to boycott the event,” the editorial read. “It (the Federal Government) has also continued to ignore legitimate Territory concerns over management of the Uluru park which includes Ayers Rock and the Olgas. In turn, the success of the Yulara Resort, built at a cost of $140 million and guaranteed by Territory taxpayers, depends upon Uluru.” On 20 October 1985 the Sunday Territorian’s Adelaide-based political reporter Tony Baker compared the handover to South Africa’s Apartheid laws, but this time it would be the whites who would be discriminated against. “It is wrong to create no-go areas which white Australians cannot enter without the permission of black Australians,” Baker wrote. Former secretary to the Treasury under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and soon to be National Party senator (elected to the Senate in 1987), John Stone made his opposition to the handback clear in a Herald column just days before the ceremony on October 23. “On Saturday we shall see another purely ideological action when the Commonwealth formally transfers title to the ownership of Ayers Rock to a particular bunch of Australians – of Aboriginal decent – who have no more claim to it than the rest of us,” Stone wrote. The day after the handover, Frank Alcorta wrote a scathing critique of the historical event in his Sunday Territorian column, The Week That Was, under the headline “Handover a farce”. “The major news of the week for Territorians was the handover of Ayers Rock to the Mutitjulu Aboriginal Community,” Alcorta wrote. “This farcical outrage would not have been tolerated by any of the states. Their sovereignty is guaranteed by the constitution, but the Territory is fair game for rampaging Federal politicians to do as they like because it is not yet sovereign. “And that is at the heart of the matter. The Federal Government badly needs a symbol to disgruntled Aborigines in the rest of Australia.” In response to the negative campaign, Mr Lester and the Reverend Jim Downing wrote a letter to the editor of The Weekend Australian newspaper, printed September 28-29. Under the heading A fair go for Ayers Rock, they rejected claims the park was being given to a bunch of Aborigines who aren’t the rightful traditional owners. “Anthropologist Robert Layton of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, began in late 1974 to gather the stories and names associated traditionally with Ayers Rock,” they wrote. “The Ayers Rock Land Claim in 1979 brought out the results of the long and thorough study that he did. The genealogies of all the people with traditional claims are there. The main ones are the same people Yami Lester produced for the inter-departmental committee in early ‘74 “Let vested-interest critics read the evidence, stop the falsehoods and give a fair go to people who, as history shows, were forced off their land and kept off it, and who are happy to share it with everyone else, as the owners of Kakadu have done.” On October 23, the Central Land Council passed a resolution condemning “the racist and divisive campaign being waged by the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory against the transfer of title...”. "We do not believe that Mr Tuxworth’s divisive approach is supported by his colleagues and urge them, for the sake of all Australians, to take appropriate steps to control Mr Tuxworth’s behaviour. “If Mr Tuxworth is serious about his claims to develop the Northern Territory, then he should realise that this will only take place with the cooperation of Aboriginal people on whose land the Territory’s major economic developments are taking place,” the resolution concluded. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. A concert was organised by the National Federation of Land Councils, the Warrumpi Band and Spy V Spy for October at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney to celebrate the handover. There was also an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 18 debunking many of the myths put forward by the NT Government and opponents to the handover. It homed in sharply on Tuxworth’s claim that the handback would put control of Uluru in the hands of a few. “This is nonsense,” the editorial read. “Control of Ayers Rock will, in fact, pass to the Federal Government with the Minister for the Environment having the power to ‘impose’ solutions when the management board can’t agree. “The leasing arrangement will provide the Pitjantjatjara people at Ayers Rock with a negotiated income of about $100,000 a year. This is hardly an excessive amount and is intended to give the small Aboriginal community an independent income. “The real scandal over Ayers Rock is that the NT Government has been prepared to twist the facts for political advantage. “No doubt the volatile mixture of Canberra-bashing and implied racism will have an appeal in the Northern Territory. But the NT Government’s campaign to implant these attitudes throughout Australia deserves to fail. “For Aborigines, the vast rock mass which rises out of the surrounding desert like a huge crouching beast, is the home of numerous sacred sites with a wealth of dreaming inspired by it. In handing it over, on paper at least, the Federal government is giving back to the Aboriginal community an important part of its past and its future,” the Sydney Morning Herald editorial concluded. A few days after the handover, the Tennant and District Times quoted the NT’s only federal member, Paul Everingham, from a response on radio commenting on the large crowd of 3,000 who attended the handover. “I am sure there will be an ever bigger crowd at Ayers Rock in a couple of years’ time when my colleagues in the Liberal National Coalition return to Government, because they will almost immediately return to, Ayers Rock to Territory control,” the Times reported Everingham as saying. In truth however, traditional owners held complete control of the park for just five minutes. That’s the length of time between the Governor General Sir Ninian Stephen handing traditional owners title papers during the ceremony and them then signing an agreement to lease the park back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, which is now known as Parks Australia. And as long as people are still climbing up the rock against traditional owners’ will, there’s a constant reminder that despite what the deeds might suggest, its owners don’t truly have control of their own land. Despite the ferocity of the campaign against the handover and the fears it openly and dishonestly promoted, hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, from all over the world, are relieved to find Mr Lester didn’t put the rock on a truck and take it away.