Deeper water

In the early 1980s, very few Australians would have heard of Hindmarsh Island and the phrase ‘secret women’s business’. Both are now part of our history and numerous books have been written about what came to be known as the Hindmarsh Island Affair. The latest is The Meeting of the Waters by Margaret Simons.

Hindmarsh Island is a small island in Lake Alexandrina near the mouth of the Murray. By 1989, Tom and Wendy Chapman (she was a former Lord Mayor of Adelaide and had associations with the Liberal Party) had advanced plans to expand the small marina they had developed on the island. These plans included building a bridge to the island, which was at that time only accessible by ferry. The Chapmans negotiated with the Premier of South Australia, John Bannon, and because the discussions were positive the Chapmans pursued the other steps they believed were necessary. These included an environmental impact study and con­sultation with representatives of the local Aboriginal people, the Ngarrindjeri. As history records, these moves were far from adequate and by the time the affair had run its course the Chapmans were broke and bitter and the Ngarrindjeri people deeply divided.

Even in the early stages, while the entrepreneurial couple saw dollar signs, others looked at their plans in very different terms. Conservationists, who had originally given qualified approval, were concerned for the fragile wetlands. The Aboriginal Heritage Branch wanted more serious work done on the mythology of the area and possible sites of importance. They recommended a report by an anthropologist, which was commissioned and carried out. Years later, the Federal Court found that it was uncertain whether the anthropologist was aware of the proposed building of the bridge.

Local residents and other concerned people soon banded together in loosely organised protest and called themselves Friends of Hindmarsh Island. When this name was registered by pro-bridge supporters, the name was changed to Friends of Goolwa and Kumerangk. Kumerangk is the Ngarrindjeri name for Hindmarsh Island and is said to mean place of pregnancy, while Goolwa was claimed to be the meeting of the waters, but these meanings were questioned and some believed they were part of the fabricated stories.

Late in 1993, when another anthropologist was studying the island, the first Ngarrindjeri joined the protesters. Around the same time Dr Doreen Kartinyeri, who would become a key figure in the dispute, heard about the proposed bridge. In April she made the first recorded mention of secret women’s business. Meanwhile, in February 1994, Justice Jacobs advised the state government it was legally obliged to build the bridge. From then on the situation escalated.

After a significant meeting of the Ngarrindjeri people, a letter was sent to Robert Tickner, the federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Labor government. It expressed concerns about the bridge and Tickner responded by placing a ban on its construction. However, one woman who had attended the original meeting was disturbed by what took place. She became one of the ‘dissident women’ who denied the existence of secret women’s business. This group would be championed in turn by the influential Liberal politician Ian McLachlan.

There were other signs of trouble. Anthropologists giving advice on the situation were splitting into factions. So were the Ngarrindjeri people, and Simons records this. But she continually calls the women who supported the secret-women’s-business position ‘the Ngarrindjeri women’, while calling the others ‘the dissident women’ as though they did not have equal claim to be Ngarrindjeri people. It is a common error.

During 1994, Tickner commissioned a report on the claim of the proponent Ngarrindjeri women, as he was legally obliged to. A senior female lawyer and female anthropologist were appointed. The appendix to the resultant report was placed in an envelope and marked ‘confidential—to be read by women only’. In an extraordinary twist in early 1995, a box of papers including the envelope was delivered to Ian McLachlan’s office in error. After parliamentary games of one-upmanship, it was revealed that a man had read the contents of the envelope and Ian McLachlan resigned.

Then in August 1995, the Royal Commission found that the secret women’s business was fabricated. Over the next five years there were debates in parliament and a number of court cases. In 1999 there was a settlement between the Chapmans, Westpac and the SA Government, and work on the bridge began. It was opened in 2000, the same year Justice Von Doussa of the Federal Court sat to consider action bought by the Chapmans. Its findings criticised the Royal Commission—but although Justice Von Doussa found against the Chapmans in entirety, he also found that ‘any future attempt by forensic process to establish the existence or non-existence of the knowledge [of secret women’s business] as part of genuine Aboriginal tradition will be fraught with difficulty’. So after years of wrangling, the major outcome besides the actual bridge is a very high cost: in personal pain to all the individuals involved, and in hard cash to the taxpayer.

When I began reading The Meeting of the Waters I was hoping that, at last, here would be an objective study of this very controversial issue. However, I rapidly discovered where Simons stands. Parts of her book are as polemical as the opinions of the people involved. The Meeting of the Waters is an unashamed apologia, for the proponent women and their claims that if the bridge was built it would have serious consequences for Ngarrindjeri women, because the island was special to them for reasons they could not reveal. However there is also some good objective writing and the book represents four years of comprehensive research. It must also be taken into account that it’s almost impossible to be dispassionate about this subject.

The Hindmarsh Island Affair is not just a dispute about whether some Aboriginal women fabricated a story to stop the building of a bridge. There is some validity in the author’s claim that it’s at the heart of how we perceive ourselves as a nation—and of what that perception means for the day-to-day
experiences of Australians, black and white, and from many other cultures and races. The book forces us to look deeply at our political and racial attitudes.

Should this book have been written? The bitter wrangle has already been the subject of a number of books, from both sides of the Great Divide. There’s been a Royal Commission, High Court challenges, Federal Court judgments and legal actions, inquiries, reports and appeals. For nearly 15 years the media has contributed screaming headlines and front page splashes as well as serious studies. Do we need more? Undoubtedly yes. The Meeting of the Waters has a role to play in being able to look at such an important topic with the privilege of hindsight.

The book describes the progress of the affair in great detail. It asks pertinent questions about why some evidence was overlooked or not acted on and, it claims, sheds new light on the saga. It is well
annotated and includes a helpful time-line and list of characters. The writing is refreshing. It ranges from unashamedly romantic, through chatty journalese, to taut factual language. Simons’ wry throwaway lines not only entertain, they usually enlighten. However, there is a noticeable variation in the way Simons handles her material. Her language becomes more or less pejorative depending on whether she is dealing with the proponent or dissident women.

Her research is basically thorough but with occasional mistakes. She calls Adelaide a city-state, and the majority of South Australians who dwell in rural areas or provincial towns and cities would agree. But she wrongly states ‘only the iron triangle of industrial towns, the Barossa and the Riverland have significant populations’. She has consigned to oblivion the entire South East and Mount Gambier, which has the biggest population outside Adelaide! Tasmanian readers will sympathise. On a more serious note, it’s always a concern to find these simple errors because it suggests there may be more serious ones.

For those interested in Aboriginal culture and politics, The Meeting of the Waters is worth reading for its comprehensive coverage. But despite Simons’ conclusions, the critical reader will realise that there are still far more questions than there are answers. 

The Meeting of the Waters: the Hindmarsh Island Affair, Margaret Simons.
Hodder, 2003. isbn 0 7336 1348 9, rrp $39.95

Pam O’Connor lives in the South East of South Australia and writes regional and community history. She has assisted a Ngarrindjeri woman to write her life story and is currently working with the SE
Nungas Community Organisation.



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