What Do We Want?

29 May, 2015

A new book titled ‘What Do We Want?’ – A political history of Aboriginal Land Rights in New South Wales went on sale early this month.

The author Dr Heidi Norman, a Senior Lecturer at University of Technology Sydney, says it’s the first thorough study of Aboriginal Land Rights in NSW.

The book starts at the beginning of the Land Rights Movements and ends on the eve of the Council elections in 2007 after a three to four year period of Administration. It covers all the significant political changes in between, including attempts from the Greiner Government to dismantle the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983. The compromise was getting rid of the regional tier of the Land Rights network.

OurMob sat down with the author of the book, Dr Norman, to find out what motivated her to write about the political history of the Land Rights movement and the changes that followed.

Heidi, first of all, can you tell us what inspired you to write this book?

Well, I think there were three things. So, I was thinking about it in real terms, the Land Rights Act, what it means to peoples lives but also how it helps us to understand modern rule and how a government tries to, through this sort of law, like the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act, tries to morally rehabilitate itself.

And the second thing, I remember ah, in the 1990s, there was big protest outside the New South Wales Parliament, around the Greiner Government reforms. I’d just finished school at that time. And, you know, even then, there was so much passion for Land Rights from the community and it was real. That 1990 period, the Greiner reforms, I think, really altered, certainly the Land Council network with the removal of the regional tier and I’ve argued the regional tier, it was a strong political power base and so the removal of that, really altered the network and led to a much more bureaucratic operating network.

A further point why I wrote this book, you know, I was really struck, in 2003/ 2004 when the State Government, Refshauge was the Minister, sacked the elected Council and nobody said a thing. There were no street protests, there was nothing, it was like it was muted, the community was mute, nobody protested, and nobody tied themselves up to the front of New South Wales Parliament.

Why do you think that was?

I think because in a way, there were genuine problems on how the Council was operating. It was quite dysfunctional, there was rolling media coverage of some of the not so great decisions Council had made. And I think there was a de- politicisation across the community.

And you cover corruption in the book, probably during that period; there were great accusations of corruption in the network?

So the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), there was almost a decade or more of quite intensive scrutiny of both Local Land Councils and certainly of the state office.

I think there’s a little bit of an explosive point in the book, Aden Ridgeway, when he was appointed the Executive Director, he explained to me in one of the many interviews that, yeah, he organised for those ICAC investigations. So he even had a sense of when the ICAC officers where going to be coming in. Not to say whether what Aden did was either good or bad, but at least what we can see is that these laws, this legislation, forced a different way of behaving, a different way of acting, almost like a respectability.

So you describe this as the most comprehensive book written on the history of Aboriginal Land Rights in New South Wales?

Yep, so there’s a couple of interesting other books, one was Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal politics in New South Wales, 1770-1992. There was another book by Meredith Wilkie that looked at the Select Committee Inquiry that Maurie Keane chaired but yeah, certainly nothing that looked at the movement for Land Rights and what’s happened since.

I would really like to encourage other young Indigenous researchers to do some more work. There are gaps in this book and I would really like to see more research done, especially at the local level.

Where does the book end?

I think I finish around about 2007. Just on the eve of the new Council coming in.

It’s a New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council Election year. You also looked into direct elections and uncovered an interesting fact. What did you find?

What struck me was that there’s actually been a real drop off in voter turnout, and also the number of candidates nominating. So the highest peak of participation in Land Council elections was in 1991, ah, but that’s dropped off considerably. And I think in order for the Land Council to be vibrant and for Council to come in with a strong mandate, there needs to be a lot of buy in from the community and that buy in includes voting.


We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners of the lands where we work as well as across the lands we travel through. We also acknowledge our Elders past, present and emerging.

Artwork Credit: Craig Cromelin, from a painting he did titled, "4 favourite fishing holes". It is a snippet of his growing years on the Lachlan River, featuring yabby, turtle, fish and family.