HRAFF 2019: Wik V Queensland

By Simone King
Image courtesy of HRAFF

Wik V Queensland

Directed by Dean Gibson


Dean Gibson’s retrospective documentary explores the landmark native title decision Wik Peoples v Queensland and its political aftermath from the perspective of the Wik peoples themselves and invites us to reflect on the far-reaching implications of this chapter of Australian history.

Outside the boxy grey facade of the High Court of Australia in Canberra, an Aboriginal elder, smiling broadly and dressed in a stunning multicoloured print dress, picks up her clap sticks, starts singing, and does a traditional dance of the Wik peoples. This woman is Gladys Tybingoompa, a respected Wik elder, and she is celebrating the decision of the High Court in favour of the Wik peoples in the seminal native title case Wik Peoples v Queensland.

Those familiar with the Wik decision and its political aftermath know that the jubilation writ large on Gladys’s face would be short-lived, and that the storm of divisive and racist politics and media following the decision would ultimately end in amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) which, in various ways, limited the native title rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The 2018 documentary Wik vs Queensland, written and directed by Dean Gibson and to be screened as part of this year’s Human Rights Art and Film Festival, looks back at this pivotal chapter of Australian legal, political and social history. However, unlike the media at the time, it does so from the perspectives of the Wik peoples themselves, and those who supported them. It is their memories, reflections and stories that form the cornerstone of this important and timely documentary.

The Wik decision was delivered by the High Court on 23 December 1996. The majority of the Court held that the grant by the Crown of certain pastoral leases under Queensland legislation did not confer exclusive possession of the leased areas on the lessees.

Accordingly, it did not extinguish the native title rights and interests of the traditional owners of those lands: the Wik and/or Thayorre peoples. The decision developed Australian native title law by applying the principles of native title enunciated in the Mabo decision to mainland Australia and by establishing that native title can co-exist with other rights and interests in land.

The political, media, and industry response to the decision was largely angry and divisive. Farming industry bodies produced television advertisements conveying the threat to the certainty and security of white farming families posed by Aboriginal people under native title law. One state premier said that suburban backyards were at risk, while another made remarks critical of the High Court judges. The then newly elected prime minister John Howard declared that the decision had “pushed the pendulum too far in the Aboriginal direction” and released in a media statement a ten-point plan to amend the Native Title Act to return the pendulum to the centre.

Peter Sutton, an anthropologist who has worked with Wik peoples since the 1970’s says: “When the Wik people are threatened from outside as a whole, they abandon their usual fragmentation and conflict and they band together like a solid rock.”

Gibson’s documentary looks back on this period through the smooth integration of interviews and rare historical footage taken by the late freelance cameraman and filmmaker Lew Griffiths, who spent much of his working life documenting the lives and campaigns of the Aboriginal peoples of Cape York. The interviewees include a number of Indigenous leaders and public figures, relatives of the Wik elders who brought the case (many of whom are now deceased), and those who supported them. Among the high profile interviewees are Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson, and Pat Dodson.

This fresh approach to telling the Wik decision story enabled Gibson to explore a number of interesting social and cultural dynamics behind the case law. Viewers learn about the way in which the legal battle against the Queensland and Commonwealth governments brought the various groups that comprise the Wik peoples together. Peter Sutton, an anthropologist who has worked with Wik peoples since the 1970’s says: “When the Wik people are threatened from outside as a whole, they abandon their usual fragmentation and conflict and they band together like a solid rock.”

Further, as well as conveying the strength, determination, and resilience of the elders and leaders who brought the Wik case, the interviews and footage explore their vibrant personalities and quirks, which makes for very enjoyable viewing. We see Wik elder Robert Holroyd driving to community meetings on his tractor with “some of the toughest [dogs] in town” in tow – dogs which inflamed the dog phobias of some the city lawyers assisting the Wik peoples. We see a great deal of rare footage of the young Noel Pearson, who was at that time a dynamic law student running the Cape York Land Council from his small bedsit in Balmain. And, in a scene that captures both the strength and good sense of humour of Gladys Tybingoompa, we see her respond to a question from a journalist during a press statement after the High Court handed down its decision with: “I’ll answer that for you sir, whatever your name is, but I’m Gladys anyway. I’m the hot woman. I’m the fire. Bushfire is my totem, alright?…”

Importantly, the documentary also highlights the far-reaching implications of the political decisions made in the wake of the Wik decision. Noel Pearson reflects that, had the Bill implementing the ten-point plan not passed the senate, “we would have had twenty plus years of the greatest minerals boom on the history of the planet play out in a way that would lift native title holding communities across Australia out of poverty and misery.” In the current political climate, where the proposals put forth in the Uluru Statement from the Heart at the First Nations Constitutional Convention have been rejected by the federal government and remain unimplemented, this documentary’s invitation to reflect on the importance of political decision-makers acting with the “proper perspective of justice” is both welcome and timely.



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