March 2006

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Malcolm Fraser & Galarrwuy Yunupingu

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Both were princes in their own lands.

One was a scion of the squattocracy, the only son of a wealthy grazier and the grandson of a conservative politician, educated at Melbourne Grammar and Oxford University and sent to parliament at 25. Patrician in bearing and speech, he was now 48 and Prime Minister of Australia.

The other was one of the many children of Munggurawuy of the Gumatj clan of the Yolnu people of Yirkalla. Raised among his siblings, then sent to Bible college in Brisbane, he was skilled in painting, dancing, acting and music. At 30 he was a seasoned interpreter and negotiator who represented 81 Aboriginal communities as the elected Chairman of the Northern Land Council.

The year was 1978 and the two men faced each other across a divide that went to the heart of their respective views of the world. For Galarrwuy Yunupingu, it was the survival of his country. For Malcolm Fraser, it was the economic development of the nation. The issue was approval of the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu. At stake was the future of land rights legislation.

With negotiations at an impasse, Yunupingu proposed a fishing trip. Fraser, a keen angler, rose to the bait.

The place was a mangrove-fringed billabong where the creeks that flow from the Arhnem Land escarpment feed the headwaters of the South Alligator River. Mt Brockman, the site of the proposed mine, was just a few kilometres away. ”I deliberately took him there so I could ask him on the spot: how could mining take place in a national park?“ As they cast their lures, Yunupingu put his question.

The barramundi were biting, but Fraser wasn’t. ”It was an enjoyable occasion,” he recalls. ”I didn’t feel put upon.”

The PM caught ten or so nice big ones – “enough for the pot” – and there was fishing talk over dinner later in Darwin. But it was clear to Yunupingu that mining would proceed whether the Aborigines agreed or not. Later that year, under ruthless pressure from the federal government, he signed the deal.

In the years that followed, Malcolm Fraser was spurned by his own tribe and condemned to preach in the wilderness. Galarrwuy Yunupingu continues to fish in the lands of his ancestors, a perennial media target. At the Ranger mine, more than 120 incidents, spills and leaks have been reported. And as the spot price for uranium reaches a new high, the timetable for ore processing has been extended.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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