The New South Wales Aboriginal Lands Trust and Its Place in History

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Aboriginal Lands Trust of New South Wales (1974-1983) was the first all-Aboriginal democratically elected statutory body to own freehold title to Aboriginal land in Australia. However, it was almost totally written out of history with the passing of the New South Wales Land Rights Act in 1983. The Trust came after the era of paternalism and the assimilation policy of the Aboriginal Welfare Board, and the Act under which it operated gave rights to the Aboriginal people of New South Wales that have yet to be matched. It was an early example of Aboriginal self-determination that ironically was destroyed by the promotion of just that ideal. The struggle to survive and to serve its people forged a fierce pride and loyalty among its staff and members, and its destruction fuelled a devastating sense of betrayal and cynicism of government. There are very few primary documents from the Trust in public collections and histories written of this era mainly focus on the land rights movement, South coast leader Ossie Cruse was elected to the Trust from its beginnings and served as chairman for seven years. He kept boxes of detailed files containing minutes of meetings and other documents, which are now housed in the Aboriginal Culture Centre Monaroo Bobberrer Gudu archive, near Eden, New South Wales. I have been working with community members since 2003 to catalogue and preserve the files. These files, along with interviews with Trust members, employees and the administrator, have provided me with the evidence to piece together the story of what the Trust was, what it did and what happened to it.

Introduction

This paper is written in the hope that the history of Aboriginal land rights in New South Wales will give unbiased attention to the role of the Aboriginal Lands Trust (ALT). The work of the Trust is of great historical importance as it covers the period from the end of the Aboriginal Welfare Board (AWB) to the beginnings of Aboriginal self-determination. It also gives an insight into the intersection of state and federal policies on Aboriginal affairs at the critical time of the creation of the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA). In researching historical texts, the few references to the Trust I found were often erroneous. The official website for the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council omitted the Trust from its land rights timeline until prompted by Ossie Cruse to include it (Cruse in Norman 2008, 24 April:4). Heather Goodall, who wrote the definitive study of Aboriginal land struggle in New South Wales (Goodall 1996), wrote in her biography of Isabel Flick that 'The State Government had set up a body called the Land Trust, made up of Aboriginal members but with no other power other than to fulfil government policy of quietly revoking or selling the remaining Aboriginal Reserves in the interests of assimilation' (Flick and Goodall 2004:149). This is despite accounts of the Trust's efforts to preserve Aboriginal land being in the public record in ALT annual reports and the Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aborigines tabled in the New South Wales Parliament in 1981.

Background

Paramount amongst the considerations of the Trust in respect to the holding of title to Aboriginal lands is the unique and deep sensitivity to the significance of the relationship between the Aboriginal people and his traditional land. This relationship so badly ignored and ravished in past years has only lived buried deep within the hearts of the Aboriginal people. It is this ember of tradition, which the Trust is trying to revive today to give Aboriginal people a sound land base to secure some sort of economic future for themselves and their descendants to overcome deprivations of the past and to build their hopes for the future (ALT 1975:7).

The Aboriginal Lands Trust was created from an amendment of the Aborigines Act 1969 (NSW). In the 1969 Act the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board was closed down and ownership of all Aboriginal land (composed of reserves, Aboriginal children's homes and town blocks where the AWB had built Aboriginal housing) became vested in the Minister for the Department for Child and Social Welfare (later the Department of Youth and Community Services). …