Pay the Rent!

If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, 
we must begin to understand our country. 
If we succeed, one day we might become Australian. 
                              - Bill Gammage
Pay the Rent

“You Are On Aboriginal Land”, 1981. Poster production in support of Mimi Aboriginal Arts and Crafts, PO Box 318, Katherine, NT, 5780, Australia.

You are on Aboriginal Land

Pay the Rent‘ is a political demand for land rights over property never ceded.

Aboriginal society has very careful rules about the ownership of land – there are distinct property rights held by clans and tribes and this has been worked out over many thousands of years.

The establishment of property rights is a feature of human society generally, these are the rules whereby land was acquired with the spread of human society out of Africa. It defines human civilisation.

Aboriginal cave paintings depict people coming by boat to Australia.  From that time a sophisticated process of land acquisition developed. Aboriginal management of the land on this continent survived an ice age, megafauna and beyond.

Archie Roach said it very well in Musgrave Park during the 2015 NAIDOC concert yesterday:

“People do not realise the ground they walk on here, we must tread softly on this place and be gentle with it cos we don’t know what has come before. We must respect the land because we come from it.”

Another, Adrian Burragubba is curently fighting to protect the land of the Wangan Jagalingou people from Indian coal company Adani. Adrian told me he and his family have moved back Clermont in Central Queensland’s Galilee Basin to protect the land and particularly the water from the ravages of coal mining.

Adrian said:  “We want to link up with the pastoralists to defend the land against the coal miners.” So the Wangan Jagalingou people are prepared to form an alliance with pastoralists whose predecessors took their land in order to defend it against transnational businesses like Adani.

So sacred is the land. It has always been thus.

My neighbour, Cosimo, quotes his father, a peasant farmer from Calabria:

“ If you do not eat the earth, the earth will eat you.”

Thus describing the importance of land to our survival.

The core dispute between the colonisers and the aboriginal people is about how property was acquired from the original owners, the tribes and clans that walked this earth for thousands of years.

When Captain Logan came to Brisbane and squatted with his troops and convicts on the south bank of the Brisbane River they displaced the Jagera people from their land.

For thousands of years, the Jagera people celebrated the sunrise at Kangaroo Point, a special place. Last Sunday, the Lord Mayor of Brisbane can claim to celebrate the building of the Story Bridge from Kangaroo Point only 75 years ago.

In an instant Jagera were driven from their land by the British interlopers. They were pushed from their place onto the lands of others, Turrbul, Djindubari, Dalla, Manunjali, Gubbi, Undanbi and others.  They became refugees from their own country into the country of other tribes.

When Dundalee fought for land rights uniting the Dalla, Djindubari and other tribes together to fight Captain Logan and his troops that resistance was a recognition of the injustice that had been done to all by displacing people from their land without negotiation and without treaty.

The tribes never ceded the land despite the brutal hanging of Dundalee in Post Office Square in Brisbane city on 5 January 1855. But they did lose it. It is little wonder that to this day you hear ‘Pay the Rent’ from the descendants of these tribes.

‘Pay the Rent’ is used more broadly to apply to other things that are not property. For example it is incorrect to apply it to manufactured goods and devices that have come from the labour of workers using a variety of designs and raw materials. The term ‘Pay the Rent’ does not apply to the labour that produced commodities, that demand is for land rights not for commodities.

Commodities are the product of workers labour. Some of these workers are aboriginal people whose parents had their wages stolen. So the union movement on behalf of workers, recognizing this injustice, have demanded the repayment of stolen wages to aboriginal workers and their families.

The property system that did exist in this place, exists no more; yet injustice remains.

To resolve this matter requires a recognition of prior ownership and compensation for its loss providing an economic base for the survival of traditional owners.


View from Mistake Mountains. Photo: Ian Curr, 2004

Until the political process deals with that issue, there can be no progress from a colonized state to a society that shares its wealth with original owners and workers alike.

Ian Curr,
July 2015

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