The delegation

Everything must change

In order that nothing changes

– Giuseppe di Lampedusa

LONG BEFORE EIGHT-PACK units, a Mexican restaurant, two newsagents and a music school had bloomed on the hill like a rash on an unblemished cheek, our university share house had been a stately homestead in the paddock of a sheep station. It was now pinched into a tiny plot of land at 28 Morrow Street, Taringa, shops encroaching on every side, the relentless advance held off only by aloe vera that fringed the perimeter fence like sentinels. Before the stores, even before the homestead's first stump was packed into a hole, the land had been occupied in an altogether different manner. From that hilltop, you could see each layer of the shallow, short history of Queensland settlement; Australia's nascent culture, like new-fallen leaves, not yet part of the soil; Europe's heavy-booted footprint still soft in the mud. In 1991, another important tier of history was about to be layered on the hill.

I dropped into my friend Tim's house at St Lucia for a cup of tea on the way home from uni to find a dozen or so exhausted men perched on every horizontal surface that wasn't a surfboard. From Aurukun, Stanley Ngakyakwongka. From Pormpuraaw, Bob Holroyd. From Hopevale, Peter Costello. From Archer River, John Koowarta, and from Lockhart River, Jerry Pascoe was there. This was a gathering of the great Cape leaders of their time, in Brisbane to meet with the Premier. Frankie Deemal and Noel Pearson (recently graduated from law school) were in Tim's kitchen, discussing how on earth everyone might be housed. Next thing, I was riding home to make up extra beds.

The once grand homestead at Morrow Street was now divided into small apartments for university students, and had fallen into disrepair. Silky oak banisters on the staircase were parched and cracked and panes of the stained glass bay windows had been replaced with clear glass that stood out like missing teeth.

The billets all arrived at once. The first priority was to make tea. Not such an easy task in the "kitchen" – a dint in the wall, jerry-rigged in what was once a pantry. There was a portable bar fridge with two gas burners perched precariously on top and a tiny sink, barely large enough to rinse a teacup. My one small saucepan could not boil enough water for the tea. The first of many runs was made down the cavernous cedar hallway to Sharon's apartment, to borrow a bigger saucepan. Should we make earl grey, chamomile, peppermint or lapsang souchong? Frankie Deemal came in and pulled down a box of Lipton teabags with a grin.

A wide veranda wrapped the house in a languid embrace. Our guests settled into squatter's chairs and rattan couches on the veranda with tea in borrowed mugs perched on their knees and every reason to believe it wouldn't be long before dinner. I called my sister, telling her to come over right away. This was an emergency.

We set about making dinner. Pasta and salad for a dozen people seemed like a reasonable idea. Nervous as children on speech night but enjoying the responsibility and understanding the privilege, we chopped garlic and onion on the windowsill and cooked a sauce in an electric frypan on the floor. We waited for the water in our largest pot to boil. Waited. And waited. And waited. The flame of the gas burner flickered like a birthday candle, and threw about as much heat. Our conversation grew tense.

Our guests spoke in low voices on the veranda; all we heard was mumbles. There was so much at stake. The meetings to begin the next day were critically important to the Cape. They must be tired. We started to fret. It was already late. Look at the time! And this rotten pot's not even hot to the touch. An hour went by, then another half hour, with us willing and coaxing and cursing the watched pot to boil. Our hearts sank; there was nothing more we could do – no money to order pizza. Just then, Jerry Pascoe posted a joke for our benefit. "A man could starve," he said in a perfectly pitched voice, announcing in an upbeat tone his imminent demise, breaking the tension like a pebble in a pond. Quiet laughter followed from the veranda.

We ran down the internal corridor no one had used much until that night, in a mild panic, though we were laughing now too, enlisting the other members of the share house. We rapped on Bruno's door, an archeologist who lived downstairs and was, to our great relief, a good cook and, to even greater relief, at home. Pound pound pound on the door for Sharon, now potless and mugless, reading a statistics textbook. We combined our resources and managed a meal before anyone fainted from hunger. Then we borrowed bedding, made up beds and swags. Some slept on the floor but everyone was gracious, probably so exhausted by this time that even a one-inch foam mattress on floorboards seemed comfortable. Rosters were roughly drawn for the showers; bathrooms in several apartments were scrubbed, the whole house embraced the moment, the homestead came alive, its internal doors thrown open again, air circulating, blood flowing again through its veins.


THE DELEGATION STIRRED before daybreak. Tea was brewed. Lipton. Peter Costello was the first up, walking into the dining room as Sharon and I set the table with cereal, milk and fruit. He entered and wished us good morning. He looked even taller than before; a statuesque gentleman filling the doorframe in a grey polished-cotton suit. Bob Holroyd walked in next, in a dark suit regally offset by his long white beard. One by one, our guests gathered and we felt the weight of their dignity. Something important was happening.

Legislative recognition of Aboriginal land came late to Queensland. Long time Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen is now gone, but not forgotten. When Sir Joh's man Pat Killoran, the director of Aboriginal Affairs, came to Injinoo, I was told, he threw lollies for the children into the dirt from the back of his government ute. Vivid in the memory of the residents of New Mapoon is their forced removal from Old Mapoon in 1963. Their houses were burned behind them to make way for the Comalco mines. In this era the northernmost tip of Australia, Pajinka, was sold by the late Sir Joh to a friend for $1 an acre. The traditional owners, now living at Injinoo, had expressed no issue with sharing but now found themselves excluded from hunting and fishing areas they had used for generations. While Sir Joh held office, nothing could be done. People watched as year by year, more incursions were made on the Cape in the name of development – but in a manner suggesting greed. Following the Fitzgerald Commission of Inquiry into Official Corruption and the National Party's electoral defeat, the political climate changed. For the first time, negotiated outcomes seemed possible.

In 1990, people from Injinoo aged from seven to 70 piled onto the tray of a Bedford truck, travelled the bone-rattling hour along corrugated roads to the Tip, to the land previously sold for $1 an acre, walked into what was by now an exclusive game-fishing resort and settled down on lounges on wide porches, keeping cool under punker fans. Kids jumped into the pool. They had a great time, swimming in the fresh water without having to worry about crocodiles or tides. Later that year, people drove thousands of kilometres from all over the Cape to gather at Lockhart River for the first Cape York Land Summit. After a unanimous vote, the Cape York Land Council was formed. The Cape was stirring.

And now, for the first time in Queensland history, the Cape had come to George Street. Mandated representatives in business suits, text-based negotiations; they met the new Premier Wayne Goss on his own terms, scheduling meetings, defining the agenda and drafting the documents. This was long before travel allowances, "stakeholders" and names in plastic covers pinned to lapels, before the Native Title Act enshrined a "right to negotiate". This was a departure from the political culture that had come before and helped define that which followed, not only in Queensland but nationwide.

The delegation gathered on the veranda ready to go. They piled into the van, Frankie Deemal jumped in the front to drive. We waved them off, last-minute jokes and laughter trailing from the van as it disappeared down Moggill Road. We went our separate ways to class. Some of us just went back to bed.


THAT NIGHT, AFTER dinner and washing up, people relaxed with a cup of tea to recount the day's events. Banter in Guugu Yimithirr floated across the veranda followed by peals of laughter. The moon through the poinciana and jacaranda trees scattered shadows on the wall. Lit from inside, the stained glass in the cedar bay windows shone like jewels. There was a warm breeze, and we listened to the late train on the Caboolture line rattle and tap towards Indooroopilly. Jerry Pascoe had brought his guitar from Lockhart.

Meetings were held in a large conference room in the Executive Building. Bob Holroyd's 10-year-old son Leslie sat in the corner, pulling his cowboy boots (several sizes too big for him) on and off to keep himself entertained, polite and patient while his father addressed the Premier. An historic map of Queensland hung on the wall. One day, as Bob Holroyd explained territorial boundaries to the government representatives, he took a thick black marker from the whiteboard, walked over to the precious map and, lifting his pen, drew circles with sweeping gestures, the map now an audio-visual aid to his presentation. "This is my mother's country," he said, drawing a large circle in indelible ink. Winces from the officials who feared the map was being defaced. "And this is my father's country." Another large black circle on the map. There was laughter as the story was told. The map was under glass and could be cleaned, but an interesting point was made. Let me show you something more important than a priceless image of land. Land.

That night, when the rattle of the last Caboolture train had faded, the air fell still and it was as though the trees also craned to hear the quiet stories being told on the veranda at Morrow Street – stories about land and people that could change the course of a listener's life.

After the stories, Noel Pearson took to an early model desktop computer until the early hours of the morning, drafting a Term Sheet for the Aboriginal Land Act. In the morning, we printed it out on a dot matrix printer; it took hours, with all the usual technical disasters that marked the year as 1991.

By the time the van left that day, we knew how people took their tea (strong, milky) and we were prepared for dinner at night. We knew every form of land tenure from DOGIT (Deed of Grant in Trust) to forest reserve, we knew how to crosshatch maps, we felt the momentum building. We waved them off, feeling that in some way our future, too, was in their hands. How good it would be to live in a state that got it right.

At the next negotiation session, Bob Holroyd took the floor. The time had come to present the Term Sheet to the Government. The gathering waited silently as he unfurled the document that he had been clutching tightly in the back of the van. He rolled it in the opposite direction to get the curl out of it and unrolled it again, smoothed it out with one hand, now a little flatter. "Mr Premier," Bob Holroyd began his pourparler. "We've worked very hard on this document, and in it you will find what we believe is a framework for the resolution of DOGIT issues in the Cape." Yes (nods). Go on. "But, Mr Premier, I need to point out one thing before we begin discussions in earnest." One hand on the document, its corners curling stubbornly, he slowly scanned the room. "Mr Premier," he paused again, "there is curry on this document." Smiles flickered across Cape York faces. Confusion across others. "But, Mr Premier" Bob Holroyd continued, "it's not a hot curry like Pearson here eats," he said sternly, pointing at Noel, arm outstretched, as if from a pulpit trying to save a lost soul. "It's a very very miiiiiiild curry."

The gathering on the Morrow Street veranda hooted with laughter as the scene was recalled. Late into the night, songs were improvised recalling the events and characters of the day. Anne Warner, Minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs was remembered as "a beautiful half-caste girl" (actually of Indian descent) while Jerry Pascoe accompanied on guitar. Occasionally the stories were punctuated by the refrain, "It's a very very miiiiiiild curry." Each time the laughter was as fresh as after the joke's first telling.

Negotiations ended. The bill went to the Department of Natural Resources and Mines to be revised and prepared for submission to the Legislative Assembly. The delegation packed up to leave Morrow Street. They had to drive to the airport, fly to Cairns, and then travel to their communities by four-wheel-drive or light aircraft.

We stood on the veranda, shook hands and waved them off as the van again disappeared down Moggill Road, jokes trailing behind. Our household sat around in the rattan chairs, drank Lipton tea, and discussed how good the homestead felt with the interior doors wide open.

The Aboriginal Land Act was passed into law on June 12, 1991. It is currently under review by the Queensland Government.

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