This rock is sacred
: the Northern Territory Government and the handback of Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga) National Park, November 1983-May 1986

  • Suzanne Gibson

    Student thesis: Other thesis - CDU


    The Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga) National Park is located in central Australia, some 450 kilometers from Alice Springs and roughly equidistant from Australia's major cities. While the park is at once a refuge for a variety of desert flora and fauna and the home and homeland of Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people (Anangu), it is the literally monolithic presence of Uluru/ Ayers Rock which gives the park a unique National and International profile. The significance of the 1,325 square kilometers of land which falls within its boundaries can be constructed and deconstructed to produce a seemingly endless variety of scientific, indigenous, non-indigenous, Anangu, political, ecological, touristic and historic meanings but Uluru/ Ayers Rock is integral to understanding them all.

    This thesis is an historic reading of but one of those texts - the response of the Northern Territory Government to the Commonwealth's decision to grant Anangu title, with leaseback, to the Park. In the period between the announcement of the decision in November 1983 to the withdrawal of all Northern Territory staff from the Park in May 1986, the issue became a platform for Territory politicians seeking election in both the NT and Federal Parliaments. It forced the resignation of one of the most senior Country Liberal Party (CLP) party figures and led a Territory Chief Minister on an expensive national tour to warn Australians of a "national tragedy" should the handback proceed.

    This thesis will argue the Territory Government's response to the handback of Uluru National Park was based fundamentally on a territorial opposition to Commonwealth and/or Aboriginal control of land within the boundaries of the Northern Territory. At a time when almost 50% of the Northern Territory was subject to Aboriginal Land Claims and the Commonwealth was intent on extending the same rights to Aboriginal people throughout Australia, the significance of "the Rock" to non-Aboriginal Australians provided the NT Government with a populist rallying point, around which it could gather a community of opposition to Aboriginal Land Rights. As such, the territorial assertions of the NT Government were not only about control of the 1.325 square kilometers of land within the boundaries of the National Park but also about defining an ideological territory in a broader struggle between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people over the meaning of land and land rights.

    While my gaze is deliberately focussed on how and why one particular government sought to superimpose its particular meaning over the Park, it is necessary to delve into other constructions of the Park used (or negated) by the Territory Government in the course of their campaign. However this thesis does not attempt to engage at the level of Anangu Law the significance of the Park for its custodians, Anangu, Justice Toohey and others having detailed the area's Anangu story.

    Neither do I attempt to speak as a "Territorian". This thesis will argue that fundamentally, the image of the "Territorian" in the period under discussion was based not on physical characteristics but rather on adherence to beliefs shaped and promoted by the Country Liberal Party. The "Territorian" was a populist "us" against which Commonwealth imposed legislative constraints to the CLP's political and economic agenda could be simplified as "threats" to "us" from "them". As someone who does not identify myself with such an agenda and a resident of a mere two years, I inevitably speak as an "outsider". I have at least however, witnessed the re-enactment of the same territorial struggle in the events surrounding the Variety Club Bash, in 1992.
    Date of Award1994
    Original languageEnglish

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