My first visit to the Northern Territory helped to precipitate an early general election. But there was no gratitude from the incumbent Country Liberal Party government for my having delivered them an issue that ignited the premature election campaign and underpinned the CLP’s victorious re-election. Rather, the government attacked my work and vigorously pursued a complaint to my employer, the ABC.
I was working in Brisbane, where I had rejoined the ABC in early 1979 as a reporter on a new television current affairs program, Nationwide, which was launched that year to succeed This Day Tonight. Nationwide was a hybrid program that aired at 8.30pm, Monday-Thursday. Each state had its own presenter; the first half of the program’s 40-minute duration was a national story, the second half had state-based content.
Before Cyclone Tracy in 1974, the ABC in Darwin broadcast a local television service. Tapes and film reels were flown in and put to air; there was a local news bulletin. After Tracy’s destruction, the Darwin service emanated from Brisbane, wending its way via a chain of microwave transmitters, placed every 30 kilometres or so apart, on a path through Mt Isa into the Northern Territory.
So it was that ABC viewers in Darwin received the Queensland edition of Nationwide. That made the Northern Territory part of the big beat covered by the Nationwide office in Brisbane, from where we made occasional forays over the border to gather stories.
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The Kenbi land claim story brought me to Darwin in early 1980. The NT government, led by chief minister Paul Everingham, had reached beyond its powers (although a final court determination about that was still more than nine years off) by hugely extending the town boundaries of Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs to put the extensions beyond claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 by their rightful Aboriginal owners.
Many land claims had been lodged by early 1980, but Kenbi was already shaping up to be the doozy of them all. The possibility that the Kenbi claim might succeed, as it ultimately would, rattled the Everingham government. Bad enough that vast areas of the Outback were already under claim or earmarked for future claim, but the exercise of land rights so close to civilisation as the Kenbi claim, just across the harbor from Darwin, raised the spectre of backyards being under threat — even though the Land Rights Act specifically excluded land in towns from claim.
By regulations under the Town Planning Act, the NT government on December 22, 1978 proclaimed that the city of Darwin would be expanded from 142 square kilometres to 4350 square kilometres (about three times the size of greater London) to include Cox Peninsula. The government knew full well that the NLC was intending to lodge a claim to land on Cox Peninsula under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act — as indeed the NLC did on March 20, 1979.
The Town Planning regulations were an extraordinary administrative artifice. Never mind that back in the late 1970s it took hours over unsealed roads to get to Cox Peninsula; never mind that immediately adjacent to the then-existing boundaries of Darwin there was ample property available for urban expansion: the NT government was thinking big. In 1978 the population of Darwin was about 50,000; the government envisioned that Darwin would spread to Cox Peninsula by the time the population reached about 500,000.
High Court Justice Lionel Murphy would later muse that the area prescribed by Everingham’s government for Darwin’s expansion was appropriate not to a town but to a megalopolis: “It is extravagantly beyond what could reasonably described as a town.”
Around March 1980 I flew with a film crew by small plane from Darwin to Belyuen to record the agitation of traditional Aboriginal owners about the government’s attempt to stymie their aspirations. Flying was more reliable because wet season rains persisted and the journey by road was problematic. I have one enduring memory of that trip: some filming happened on the beach, and I stupidly got about in bare feet. I was savagely sunburnt and had to seek treatment at the Belyuen medical clinic. My feet were bound in bandages; I was hobbled for weeks, unable to wear shoes.
The other half of the story required comment from the NT government. I don’t remember the details of negotiations that preceded the interview, but I do remember that a bruising stoush developed during my on-camera interview with CLP Chief Minister Everingham, as he defended with goading hostility his government’s decision to enlarge the boundaries of Darwin as an exemplar of prescient and prudent town planning. I have just reviewed a copy of the broadcast story, and there is a mutual disdain apparent between us.
The Kenbi land claim story, 18 minutes long, did not go to air on Nationwide until Monday 5 May 1980. I was then back in Brisbane, and unable to monitor directly the reaction in Darwin. According to newspaper accounts of the time, it was inflammatory. Radio talkback callers the next morning attacked the Labor Party because the program had disclosed a written undertaking to Aboriginal people at Belyuen by Opposition Leader Jon Isaacs that Labor, if it won government, would disallow the CLP’s town planning regulations, to allow the land claim to proceed.
The government went on immediate attack after the story was broadcast: “Perron lashes out over ABC report” was a six-column-wide headline in the Northern Territory News on Wednesday, May 7 (Marshall Perron was Treasurer and Lands Minister); “Anger over southern reporters” was the second deck of the headline. “Territory people are heartily sick of non-Territory ABC journalists making fleeting visits to the Territory, then retreating to their bases to prepare biased reports which reflect poorly on the Territory,” Perron fulminated.
He sent a 30cm-long telex of complaint to John Norgard, who was then chairman of the (then titled) Australian Broadcasting Commission. I retain a copy.
The telex opened:
“A.B.C. Nationwide emanating from Brisbane carried a story on trying to make a case that the Northern Territory Government had deliberately impeded the intention of local Aboriginal people to make a land claim to the area. It was both implied and asserted that I as Minister for Lands and Housing had failed to consult with local people prior to the extension of town planning boundaries to cover Cox Peninsula.”
Perron whined on for several paragraphs that he had not been given an opportunity to respond to that charge — ignoring the fact that it had been adequately put to Everingham, who claimed in the story which went to air that Aboriginal residents of Belyuen had been consulted about the regulations.
“Balance, fairness and impartiality were once the proud mottos of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The Cox Peninsula incident, and others which precede it, indicate that so far as the Territory is concerned your visiting reporters have a confirmed bias towards sensationalism.”
*This article was first published in the April 2016 edition of Land Rights News, published by the Northern Land Council as part of series that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
*Read the rest at Crikey blog Northern Myth