The class of 1942: The brilliance behind the Pastoral Strike

May 23, 2021

The three great figures in 20th Century Australian public life all met their appointments with destiny in 1942 – Australia’s darkest hour. John Curtin was in Canberra. Weary Dunlop was in Singapore’s Changi Prison. Don McLeod was in Australia’s north-west, recruited to rescue what he called, with his wicked sense of humour, the black sheep of the family.

One of the side effects of Perth’s recent bout of Covid track and trace was the postponement of the 75th-anniversary celebrations of the 1946 Pastoral Strike – one of the best organised, most ambitious and successful rebellions in Australian history, or any other history.

North in Port Hedland, the scene of the original action, there were no Covid fears and the May Day anniversary went ahead. It was 1 May 1946 when Don McLeod finally pushed the button to start the action rolling after years of intricate planning. It was in 1942 at a place called Skull Springs near Nullagine in the East Pilbara that Aboriginal representatives from far and wide convened a six-week meeting and convinced McLeod that they were capable of undertaking the massive projects he had in store.

The best description of Don McLeod came from Ron Bertram, an Attorney General in the WA Labor Government of the 1970s. Bertram likened McLeod to Gandhi, who was organising Indian independence at the same time McLeod was working up his strategies in Australia. McLeod admired Jandamarra, the Kimberley warrior, but he knew his movement had to be non-violent. Minorities who resort to violence give the Establishment an excuse to wipe them out. This appears to have been a mistake made by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. McLeod corresponded with Gandhi’s deputy and future Indian Prime Minister, Nehru, who gave him excellent advice. Do not begin the strike until you are absolutely organised and absolutely solid.

Addressing a surprisingly good crowd at the Port Hedland Racecourse on the evening of 1 May who somehow managed to hear about the event despite chaotic last-minute organisation, I made two points about the 1946 strike.

Firstly, Don McLeod was the only human being on earth who could have or would have undertaken such a mission as impossible and succeeded. It was a time, a man and a place. McLeod had a rare combination of technical skills allied to a social vision, great spirit and moral courage.

Secondly, the Strike was a chapter in a continuum that started in the House of Commons debates led by William Wilberforce to abolish slavery. Christian evangelical supporters of Wilberforce turned their attention to the welfare of natives in Britain’s colonies. By coincidence, their political influence was strong at the time Western Australia was campaigning to advance from colonial status to self-government. The colony achieved Statehood only by accepting a condition in its Constitution (Section 70) guaranteeing financial provision for the Aboriginal population.

Having been roped into the Aboriginal cause, McLeod discovered this constitutional history in his research and the issue dominated his thinking and planning for the rest of his life, as anybody who interviewed him will recall. The Pastoral Strike was part of this big picture.  So was the Jacob Oberdoo incident described later, the Noonkanbah proclamation of 1980, the Supreme Court Section 70 hearings of the 1990’s, which were the culmination of a life’s work for McLeod, and the High Court case in the present century, after his death.

Leading a group of Aboriginal station workers at the bottom of the food chain, scattered over millions of hectares of outback Australia to take on deeply entrenched economic and political power and to win the fight made McLeod the darling of the industrial and intellectual Left. Arthur Calwell introduced him around Parliament House as “Australia’s only practising socialist.”  But as Tom Uren said of Weary Dunlop’s socialism on the Burma Railway, it was pragmatic rather than ideological. If people were going to survive they had to help one another.

McLeod was the ultimate nightmare for Australia’s intelligence establishment. He built what nobody before or since achieved – solidarity among Australia’s Aborigines. ASIO filled warehouses with McLeod files. Officials feared further outbreaks of “McLeodism” among the natives. It won’t happen again. Either by chance of design, the advent of native title and pots of money has reduced Aboriginal society to language and family groups squabbling over who gets the cash from mining royalties. It is the oldest imperial strategy in the book and it works. Divide and conquer.

Yet McLeod was the most patriotic of Australians. Woe betide the Japanese if they had landed in the north-west. McLeod’s future strikers were young and fit and prepared with a classic guerrilla plan to harass the invaders.

The Aboriginal Law Men took McLeod into their confidence and gave him high status in their world. He was given a rare, possibly unique insight into Aboriginal society. The great meeting of 1942, in particular, deepened McLeod’s respect for the sophisticated sociology of Australia’s first people. He saw them as a positive force in Australia’s future development.

The classic illustration of McLeod’s brilliance as a leader harnessing his knowledge of traditional society is the role played in organising the Strike by Dooley Bin-Bin. In traditional Aboriginal society Dooley was the traveling Law Man. His job was to move around the country meeting his peers and keeping everybody abreast of developments in the Law. The Tribal Law is not static. Bruce Thomas fills that role today. I referred to Bruce in an earlier post (Pearls and Irritations 23 January 2018) describing the night five years ago when he and I, my brother Paul and a couple of others sat on a panel in West Perth on the 70th anniversary of the Strike.

In the wartime atmosphere of the 1946 Strike, Dooley’s traditional role was adapted to intelligence and communication, vital to success in any great conflict. He took the latest plans from McLeod’s headquarters to the outposts and returned with information from the periphery. Dooley was the CIA. Clancy McKenna was the muscle. Clancy was physically strong and McLeod said he was utterly fearless. In an amusing scene in the strike documentary, McLeod holds what is supposed to be a clandestine meeting in the Port Hedland mangroves where the police with torches are looking for him but the tall, muscular Clancy stomps around the marshes making enough noise to wake the dead.

Crow Yougarla
Crow Yougarla – photo by Jerry Roberts

Crow Yougarla was the young Turk among the strikers. Police carted him off to gaol five times. It did not do him any harm. He lived to a great age and was the lead plaintiff when the Section 70 case went to the High Court. Crow and Billy Thomas are two stars in the strike documentary film. Their charm, humour and good grace are palpable as they face the camera. What a treat it was to be standing next to Billy Thomas in his old age when he peered over the chest-high spinifex flowing down the hill in waves to locate the billabong where the Kartinjara snake coiled up for the night on his way down to the ocean, carving out the course of the Fortescue River.

These beautiful stories of the Aboriginal dreaming tie our country together and give us the continent’s Old Testament. Crow delighted me on our many drives along the Marble Bar highway when he burst into song, then translated the story into English for my benefit.

When our major iron ore projects kicked off in the 1960s, the directors of West Australian Newspapers decided their company should be involved in the industry. They bought two houses in Port Hedland, one for the reporter and one for the advertising representative. We each had one of the company’s short wheelbase Land Rovers with an extra 10 gallons of petrol in a tank fitted behind the driver’s seat. It was a good set-up but probably illegal under today’s safety regulations.

The house where I spent a summer 50 years ago is still there, looking out to the ships at anchor. It was Brian Johns, then Chief-of-staff at the Sydney Morning Herald, who tipped us off that Jacob Oberdoo, charismatic Aboriginal leader, had rejected the Queen’s British Empire Medal awarded in the New Year’s Honours list. It was a good newspaper story. I put a sleeping bag in the Land Rover, left a message on the Telex machine and went looking for McLeod at the 8 Mile where his dwelling was a scrap of corrugated iron for shade with the back seat of an old Holden for a lounge chair.

He guided me to the Shaw River near the intersection of the Bonnie Downs and Hillside roads where Jacob and the Mob were camped, sifting minerals from the river bed with the yandy to earn cash that was divided among the group. It was one of those nights that draw Victorian tourists to the outback, a clear sky and stars so bright that I did not need a torch to write notes. To say that I was impressed is an understatement. The people were fit and healthy, looking young for their age. They were living a simple life-style, not so different from their ancient ways and still in accord with the frugal discipline adopted out of necessity through the Strike years.

Later that year (1972) Don McLeod and Ray Butler called on me in Perth. We stood on the footpath outside Newspaper House, 125 St George’s Terrace and they told me a sheep station on the Marble Bar road called Strelley was for sale and they could raise the money in a mining deal. They were thinking of having another go at starting a school. Why not, I said.

Ray Butler was a distinguished geologist, polymath and soon-to-be pioneering educationalist who put a lasting, legal structure around Don McLeod’s vision. The purchase of Strelley coincided with the Whitlam Government’s election. Australia’s foremost public servant, Nugget Coombs, had accepted Harold Holt’s invitation to leave the Reserve Bank and head Commonwealth Departments of Arts and Aboriginal Affairs. Coombs agreed with the objectives of the Nomads Charitable and Educational Foundation implemented at Strelley.  People of goodwill, black and white, flocked to Strelley. It was a productive and exciting period in Australian Aboriginal affairs.

A wonderful literary monument to McLeod and the strikers is the rip-roaring ballad by West Australian poet and playwright, Dorothy Hewett.

Clancy and Dooley and Don McLeod

Walked by the wurlies when the wind was loud

And their voice was new as the fresh sap running

And we keep on fighting and we keep on coming.

The poet refers to an incident when McLeod was locked up in Port Hedland and the bare-chested strikers marched on the town to bust him out of gaol. They outnumbered the meagre population of Port Hedland at the time. The locals locked their doors in fear.

McLeod had mixed feelings about Don Stuart’s popular romantic novel, Yandy, based on the Strike. Stuart’s wife, Desi, stayed on with McLeod and the strikers. McLeod worshipped her but the relationship appears to have been platonic, as Hamish McDonald noted in his Sydney Morning Herald McLeod obituary.

Stuart had a good pen. He wrote the inscription at Hellfire Pass on the Burma Railway, a sacred site for Australian tourists. He was a mate of Jim Edwards, the real-life hero of Neville Shute’s novel, A Town Like Alice. Peter Finch played Edwards in the movie. The town was Marble Bar, not Alice, but that is another story.

When my brother Paul with Lynne and baby Simon returned from Africa where he had been running a school in Kenya in the highlands above Nairobi, I introduced him to Don McLeod and he supervised at Strelley the making of the documentary film, “How the West was Lost.”

The documentary, which runs for an hour and a quarter, will always be the best, most honest and most entertaining record of the 1946 Strike because of my brother’s integrity, because we see and hear Don McLeod explaining why he organised the Strike and because we meet some of the participants, albeit older than they were in 1946, telling the story and re-enacting scenes from their great adventure.

The film is available in DVD form from Ronin Films, who do excellent work with indigenous material.  It is an exhilarating, inspirational documentary that shows what people can achieve when they have vision, courage and solidarity.

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