The Australian Communist Author Who Lent His Voice to the Gurindji Strike

In 1966, Aboriginal stockmen, domestic workers, and their families at Wave Hill cattle station started a nine-year strike against work conditions that amounted to slavery. Frank Hardy, a communist author, helped the strikers tell their story to the world.

Communist author Frank Hardy exhibits Aboriginal art at the Rocks Gallery to benefit the Gurindji tribe in 1970. (John Patrick O'Gready/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

Frank Hardy was a wiry man. In 1966, draped over the front bar of a Darwin pub, smoking his pipe, he cut a quintessentially Australian image.

Later known as the “stranger from Melbourne,” Hardy had hitchhiked north looking for the “real Australia” — or, at least, an Australia that could not be found in the urbane capital city he called home. He had found himself talking to some men who left the pub next door to avoid drinking with a group of Aboriginal men.

Hardy had intended to confront them — but they took the wind out of his sails by offering him a drink. Resigning himself to their company was another reminder that the collectively minded rural communities Hardy remembered from his childhood in western Victoria had vanished.

Hardy joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1940. By 1966, after a quarter century of membership, he was becoming disillusioned. The party had been bleeding members since the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and was soon to split over the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1955, Hardy failed to attract sufficient support for a position on the National Committee, contributing to his disenchantment.

Unlike many CPA members, Hardy was committed to Australia’s literary tradition. He was particularly concerned about the lack of stories by and about working-class Australians. To remedy this, Hardy joined the Melbourne branch of the CPA-affiliated Realist Writers Group in 1945. However, by the 1960s, many left-wing writers had started to criticize the Realist Writers Group as dogmatic and Stalinist.

Short on cash, Hardy was also suffering from a serious case of writer’s block, partly a result of the pressure he felt to produce another work like his acclaimed first novel, Power Without Glory. While travelling, instead of discovering the rebellious strength that bush poet Henry Lawson had described, Hardy was learning that the “real Australia” was an incredibly racist place. Mateship was only extended to whites.

This realization led Hardy into a further personal crisis. He started questioning heroes like Lawson, whose racism against Indigenous and Asian people had tarnished his own legacy.

The Wave Hill Walk-Off

Soon after reaching Darwin, Hardy made contact with Dexter Daniels, an organizer for the North Australian Workers Union (NAWU). Daniels was the only Aboriginal union organizer in the Northern Territory (NT). He told Hardy about the Wave Hill walk-off. Within three days, Hardy had arrived at the strikers’ camp.

The walk-off began in 1966, when Vincent Lingiari, a Gurindji elder, led two hundred Aboriginal stockmen, domestic workers, and their families from the Wave Hill cattle station on strike. Owned by the English lord Samuel Vestey, Wave Hill station had relied on forcing Aboriginal people to work for rations and shelter since 1883, when the station was first established.

Across the NT, even where Aboriginal workers did receive wages, they were inferior to those received by whites. In many cases, trusts controlled by welfare officers held Aboriginal workers’ wages. This situation was enshrined in law by the 1953 NT Wards Employment Ordinance.

The government also paid an upkeep fee to landowners who had Aboriginal people living on their property. The landowners rarely used this money to pay Aboriginal workers or to provide food and services.

Such conditions meant that, for example, elderly members of the Gurindji community who were eligible for the pension did not receive it. The government paid the money into the cattle station’s bank account instead. The pensioners themselves received meager rations and no money. The Gurindji community suffered serious health issues arising from malnutrition and inadequate sanitation.

After walking off Wave Hill station, the strikers set up camp on their traditional lands at Wattie Creek (known to the Gurindji as Daguragu). They demanded better conditions, equal pay, and the right to be paid in wages. They also demanded land rights. Knowing they would need assistance, the Gurindji sent telegrams to NAWU and the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights (a majority Aboriginal organization) appealing for solidarity.

Most narratives about the Wave Hill walk-off focus on the stockmen. But one of the most urgent reasons for the strike was endemic sexual abuse of Aboriginal women working as domestic servants on the homestead, which was segregated from the station.

For the Gurindji community, their inability to protect women from sexual violence by white men was a source of deep and constant shame. Notably, these Aboriginal women never found allies in white women in the homestead and at the station. They did, however, find them in the emerging women’s liberation movement.

Speaking With Their Own Letters

After his arrival at Daguragu, Gurindji elders quickly chose Hardy to correspond on behalf of the community. For his part, Hardy understood the strike as one demanding basic labor and human rights. Because of his communist beliefs, he felt a responsibility to support the struggle of some of the most oppressed people in Australia.

With a series of articles in the Australian, Hardy raised public awareness about the strike. Trade unions, mainly from Melbourne and Sydney, responded to Hardy’s direct appeals by donating funds and a truck, and by organizing boycotts of Vestey goods. The government and the Vestey Group assumed that the Gurindji wouldn’t be able to survive indefinitely. But thanks to solidarity from unionists, communists, and students, they were able to follow through on their promise to stay camped at Daguragu.

Importantly, although Hardy was their correspondent, he never claimed to speak for the Gurindji people. He had no interest in personal prestige. Rather, as a communist, he was aware of his power as a white man compared to the strikers’ and the danger of paternalism.

Hardy felt obliged to donate his literary abilities and political connections to the strikers, who were largely unable to write. While he was away from Wave Hill, with no way to correspond with Lingiari and the other elders, he lamented that “the most dreadful crime of all is the illiteracy imposed on them.”

Hardy’s deep respect for the Gurindji people comes through clearly in the 1973 documentary made by English filmmaker John Goldschmidt. It was screened around Europe, but only released in Australia in 2016. One scene depicts Hardy and the Gurindji elders discussing how to make a land-rights claim. Hardy is careful to ensure the strikers understand — in their own terms — their decision to make a claim and the process for doing so.

While writing The Unlucky Australians, Hardy maintained these commitments by reproducing the words of Vincent Lingiari and other Aboriginal leaders phonetically. As he explains, the Gurindji language did not have sounds corresponding to f or v. Instead, when speaking English, the Gurindji elders substituted them with p and b, respectively.

Hardy was not just committed to giving the Gurindji elders a platform to speak with their own words. He insisted they should use their own letters, too.

Our Land, Our Way

In 1968, Hardy further assisted the Gurindji by helping them to submit a claim to the then Liberal-National government. Prime minister John Gorton offered them twenty houses at the site of the former welfare settlement.

The Gurindji refused — they wanted to design and build a collection of homes that suited their kinship structure and lifestyle. As Lingiari had said at the beginning of the strike: “We want to live on our land, our way.”

The Gurindji people knew that land was at the center of their ability to determine their own fate. As Vincent Lingiari said, when he first raised the question of land rights with Hardy: “I bin thinkin’ this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Bestey mob.” Only land rights would allow them to restore their cultural identity, to gain self-determination through education and housing, and to guarantee the safety of the women in their community.

Following the advice of federal Labor senator Lionel Murphy, the strikers determined that a petition was the first step toward land rights. Hardy drew up the petition and four Gurindji elders stamped it with their thumbprints. Hardy also signed, as did Bill Jeffrey, the local welfare officer.

As an employee of the system that maintained Aboriginal people in virtual slavery, Jeffrey was an unlikely comrade for the Gurindji. However, he had seen the appalling violence Aboriginal employees at his family’s station had suffered at the hands of his father and uncle. This made him sympathetic to the Gurindji people’s cause.

Ordinarily, journalists, leftists, and academics could only visit Aboriginal reserves with the permission of the NT’s director of welfare. However, Hardy gained access to the settlement thanks to Jeffrey, who hosted him as a guest.

Indeed, Hardy found a kindred spirit in Jeffrey. The two bonded over their shared working-class upbringings and feelings of responsibility to the Gurindji. Hardy gave Jeffrey a tape recorder to tell his story, as he had done with Lingiari, Dexter Daniels, and actor Robert Tudawali. In his tape, Jeffrey explained that his upbringing “had given him a guilt complex about ‘blackfellas.’”

Jeffrey also supported the strikers by donating tools and, in 1967, by writing an article for a Melbourne student newspaper about the strike. The article led to a raid of the newspaper’s office by the notorious special branch of Australia’s secret police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

The Unlucky Australians

The Unlucky Australians was published first in Melbourne, in 1972, then in Adelaide, and later in London, in 1978. With it, Hardy brought the story of the Gurindji to the Australian public. The book was a success and won widespread support for the strikers.

At the end of the same year, Gough Whitlam’s reforming Labor government came to power. Then, in 1973, the government lease on Wave Hill expired, and the Whitlam government drew up two new leases. One was with the Vestey Brothers. The other lease was with the Gurindji people — it promised them a small portion of their traditional land around Daguragu.

Although it was clear that the strike was winning, the Gurindji did not want to go back to work for Lord Vestey. Instead, they planned to build and run their own cattle station. These plans were disrupted when the Gurindji discovered that NT law requires cattle stations to have their own brand for cattle and a deed of land ownership.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari in Northern Territory in 1975. (Mervyn Bishop / Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet)

Finally, in 1975, the Labor government removed one of those barriers by handing the Gurindji the lease over a fraction of their original lands. Gough Whitlam travelled to Wattie Creek to hand the deeds to Vincent Lingiari personally, pouring sand into his hands to symbolize the return of land. Mervyn Bishop photographed the moment in one of the most iconic photos in Australian history.

Remembering History

Today, the Wave Hill walk-off is most associated with the image of Whitlam and Lingiari, and with the 1991 song “From Little Things, Big Things Grow,” written by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly. Frank Hardy’s role in the struggle is less commonly recalled.
Even less remembered is the support the Gurindji received from the Communist Party and trade unions. In part, this is due to a red scare promoted by Australian authorities. Hardy, who ran for Parliament twice, was seen as the public face of communism in Australia, often speaking publicly at CPA meetings and rallies. The authorities banned his first book, Power Without Glory, after a criminal libel case.

ASIO had kept Hardy under surveillance since the 1940s and tracked his movements and correspondence during his journey to Darwin and Wave Hill. They asserted that Hardy was there to make trouble and to recruit communists. This was really an extension of governmental paternalism that assumed Aboriginal people were incapable of making their own decisions or leading their own fights.

In reality, while Aboriginal activists appreciated the support they received from Communists, they were careful to make their own political decisions. In any case, Communists like Frank Hardy were not much concerned with making recruits, and worried that their public presence might damage the campaign for land rights.

Yet if we write Frank Hardy out of the history of the Wave Hill walk-off, we also write out a large part of the struggle of the Gurindji people themselves. The Unlucky Australians was the most important firsthand narrative of their nine-year battle for land rights. Despite that, it has not been republished since the late 1970s. The film version only reached Australian screens in 2016, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation set out to find and purchase the rights.

However, like Aboriginal land rights and culture, memory is not so easily erased. While the mainstream narrative about Wave Hill focuses on Whitlam and Kelly, Gurindji elders fondly remember the support they received from the workers’ movement — and from Frank Hardy.