BACKGROUND and COMMENT
By ALEX NELSON
There is a long albeit sporadic history with the Alice Springs Town Council wrestling with the issue of flying the Aboriginal flag, at both the Civic Centre and atop Anzac Hill.
Left: Extra car parking and turning space created on the hill. August 1991. Photo by Alex Nelson.
The first occasion appears to have been in late November 1982 when the town council rejected an application to fly the Eureka flag from its then single mast at the civic centre, which pointedly included the Aboriginal flag – a decision which was “in conflict with an undertaking apparently given by Mayor George Smith some time ago to fly the Aboriginal flag on special occasions” (December 3, 1982).
In December 1989, Anzac Hill – Atnelkentyarliweke (alternatively Untyeyetwelye) to Arrernte people – became the focus of a new application to the town council to fly the Aboriginal flag. There was a considerable prelude to this situation.
From at least the 1970s onwards the popularity of Anzac Hill as a scenic vantage point became problematic. Car parking space near the summit was very limited and extremely difficult for turning tourist coaches.
A proposal by the council in the late ‘70s to extend the roadway around the north side of the summit was rejected by the RSL, which at the time was the trustee for management of Anzac Hill.
It wasn’t until November 1986 that this situation began to be resolved. The NT Department of Transport and Works awarded a contract to Central Engineering Services to dismantle the disused water tanks on Anzac and Billygoat hills.
Left: Fuel depot and water tank at Anzac Hill. Photo: Alice Springs Urban Enhancement Study, December 1975.
This work was completed in late March 1987 and the vacated space on Anzac Hill was immediately converted into additional parking space and a turning lane for vehicles, completed by late May 1987.
Simultaneously the town council (by now primarily responsible for Anzac Hill) had awarded tenders for the upgrading and “facelift” of the summit area.
Throughout this period the area of the Anzac monument itself continued to host four flag posts. The main pole, located on the eastern side, was used to hoist the Australian flag while the other three masts aligned on the south flank overlooking the town were used to fly the armed services flags on ceremonial occasions.
Constant vandalism precluded any possibility of leaving the flags flying every day and so the question of flying other flags atop Anzac Hill never arose.
This changed in 1989 with the final flourish of two towering masts (at left, photo by Alex Nelson), designed to be secure, permanently hoisting giant Australian and Northern Territory flags (they were promptly stolen).
Councillor Catherine Satour incorrectly asserts the first request for flying the Aboriginal flag on Anzac Hill was made in 2004; in fact the Central Land Council (CLC) under its new Director David Ross made such an application to council in late 1989.
The council denied the CLC’s request in December, with Community Services Committee chairman Jeff Huddlestone (who incidentally worked for Radio 8HA) stating “it was a matter of convention that the only two flags flown on Anzac Hill were the Australian and Territory flags – no other flags will be flown there” (December 20, 1989).
A decade later and the two council again wrestled with the suggestion of flying the Aboriginal flag at the Civic Centre, triggered this time by Alderman Raelene Beale in August 2000 when she proposed the Aboriginal flag fly permanently alongside the Australian, NT and council flags.
A protracted debate ensued over the next three months, at one stage with female aldermen in favour of the idea but outvoted by one vote by their male colleagues. During this time – as had occurred on Anzac Hill a decade earlier – the Australian and Territory flags outside the council offices were stolen.
In late October 2000 the council resolved to fly the Aboriginal flag at the civic centre but separately from the others.
In 2004 the CLC again applied to fly the Aboriginal flag on Anzac Hill and was rejected. It is this occasion that Cr Satour has referenced in the current debate.
Left: Flags on Anzac Hill are difficult to include within photographs.. This is only achieved at the expense of the scenery. Wide angle lens photo by Alex Nelson.
In June/July 2009 the issue erupted yet again in the media when Radio 8HA criticised the CLC for only flying the Aboriginal flag outside its headquarters. David Ross responded by declaring the CLC would only fly the national and Territory flags if the Aboriginal flag was flown on Anzac Hill.
An entirely predictable public debate erupted along the same lines as it has always done on this emotive issue.
More recently former Councillor Chansey Paech (now MLA) became an advocate for flying the Aboriginal flag on Anzac Hill, and now it is Cr Satour who leads the cause.
All of which begs the question, might there be another solution acceptable to most reasonable people?
Perhaps the council set a precedent in 2000 when it chose to fly the Aboriginal flag separately from the others at the Civic Centre.
In similar vein, Mayor Damien Ryan has suggested the Aboriginal flag could be located on top of the main range at the west side of Heavitree Gap.
I gave this matter some consideration 21 years ago when I was a member of Australians for Reconciliation. My interest was sparked in early September 1997 when the flags on Anzac Hill were flown at half-mast to mark the death of Princess Diana (at left, photo by Alex Nelson).
In my opinion, although the flags on Anzac Hill are in a prominent position, they’re not readily noticeable from a distance. Conversely, at the top of Anzac Hill the sheer size of the masts and flags preclude them from inclusion in scenic photography.
This observation applies even more as a criticism of Mayor Ryan’s suggestion of the Aboriginal flag on top of the range near Heavitree Gap – it would simply be lost in the distance and usually inaccessible.
The solution is a demonstration of the wisdom of “less is more.”
The ideal location to fly the Aboriginal flag is on Billygoat Hill (Akeyulerre).
Located at a corner of the major crossroads of Alice Springs and adjacent to the rail corridor, the low profile of the hill would give the Aboriginal flag obvious prominence seen from all directions.
Sightseers on Anzac Hill would have a clear sight of the Aboriginal flag on Billygoat Hill, set just off centre of the iconic view towards Heavitree Gap. Unlike the flags on Anzac Hill, the Aboriginal flag on Billygoat Hill would feature in every tourist’s photographs.
In addition, Billygoat Hill has a very special historical significance for local Aboriginal people linked to Australia’s military history.
Left: Billygoat Hill still visible when The Gap is shrouded in mist. January 2015. Photo by Alex Nelson.
It’s often stated that during World War Two the Australian Army constructed the original water reticulation system in Alice Springs but what’s generally overlooked is that much of the labour for that project was undertaken by local Aboriginal workers employed by the Army.
This work included the construction of four water tanks erected on a stone-walled reinforced platform on top of Billygoat Hill. That platform remains obvious to this day and there are other remnants of the plumbing there, too.
There is another important historical connection at Billygoat Hill with a man whose significance to the town and the Northern Territory is all but forgotten – his name was Frank Johnson, otherwise once known as “the old plumber.”
Johnson arrived in The Centre in 1932 and for many years was the only qualified plumber in the entire region. He was involved in every major construction project during this era, including the Alice Springs Gaol and hospital along Stuart Terrace before the war and the Alice Springs Higher Primary School (now better known as the old Anzac Hill High School) in the early 1950s.
Deemed too important for the war effort to serve in the military, Johnson was appointed by the Army to oversee the water reticulation scheme in Alice Springs, amongst other wartime projects.
However, Frank Johnson had a far more profound influence on the course of the Territory’s political history.
Above: Alice Springs 1951, the tanks atop Billygoat Hill visible in the mid distance.
In 1944 he was a foundation member of the Northern Territory Development League in Alice Springs, along with far better remembered luminaries such as Eddie Connellan, Dick Ward, Jock Nelson and D.D. Smith. The NTDL led directly to the establishment of the Northern Territory Legislative Council in 1947, the forerunner to the NT Legislative Assembly.
Frank Johnson founded the first ALP branch of the NT, comprised of railway workers in Alice Springs at about this time and chaired the first meeting, and then proceeded to assist in establishing new Labor branches up The Track in Tennant Creek, Katherine and finally Darwin.
Johnson was the first Labor candidate chosen to run in the inaugural NT Legislative Council elections of December 1947 and the first to broadcast his policy speech on radio. He lost to Dick Ward by one vote but on his second attempt in 1949 was elected as the first Labor Member for Alice Springs. In 1951 Johnson was re-elected unopposed, and is still the only politician representing The Alice to achieve this distinction.
Johnson was a great humanitarian, and especially concerned about what prospects the future held for Aboriginal people. Perhaps this was due to his close experience with them involved with the work of constructing the tanks and pipes on Billygoat Hill during the war.
He was a single-handed “prisoners aid society,” providing work and assistance to freed inmates; and in 1953 he presciently warned that work had to be found for Aboriginal people or the Government “had better get busy and build bigger gaols.”
After losing office in 1954, Johnson continued to remain active behind the scenes. He was a member of a local consortium (also including Federal member, Jock Nelson) that bought the Centralian Advocate in 1957 and ensured its continuation.
In 1964 the Advocate moved to new premises in Stott Terrace opposite Billygoat Hill – the property was owned by Frank Johnson. The Advocate remained there until relocating to John Cummings Plaza in 1981; thereafter the building was occupied by the CLC and the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service until it was destroyed by arson in March 1985.
Frank Johnson left Alice Springs quietly in late 1966 and retired to South Australia where he died on March 24, 1969 – almost half a century ago. Bernie Kilgariff, the new Country Party Member for Alice Springs (and who assisted in Frank Johnson’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 1954), moved the motion expressing regret at Johnson’s passing in the Legislative Council a few days later.
Another strong historical link with Billygoat Hill and Aboriginal people, especially of mixed race parentage, takes us back a century ago to a time when the First World War was raging.
Following the death of her husband Bill in May 1914, Topsy Smith, of Arabana descent, moved her large family of 10 children – her 11th child was born in October – from Arltunga to Stuart (Alice Springs) with the intention of moving on to Oodnadatta. With the permission and assistance of Sergeant Bob Stott, the family camped on vacant government land in Hartley Street (next to where the Old Courthouse exists) and stayed there. They also brought with them a large herd of goats, a valuable resource for the family’s sustenance.
In addition to her own children, Topsy Smith also accommodated a growing number of children born of mixed race parentage (“half-castes” as the term was then), the beginning of the institution that came to be known as the Bungalow. Ida Standley also arrived in 1914 as the town’s first teacher, and in 1915 took on additional duties as the matron for the Bungalow. Topsy Smith was retained as a houseparent but, unlike Ida Standley, wasn’t paid for her role – she only received her keep – and her goatherd license was forfeited to the Bungalow without compensation for her loss.
The goats were grazed at the edge of the town around a small rocky hill, Akeyulerre, that came to be known as Billygoat Hill (and the ridge directly east over the Todd River, Tharrarltneme, was known as Nannygoat Hill – known now as Annie Meyers Hill). Meanwhile the hill adjacent to Wills Terrace, Atnelkentyarliweke or Untyeyetwelye, came to be known as Stott Hill, after the benevolent policeman who took his official role of sub-protector of Aboriginal people seriously; the name was changed a few years later to Anzac Hill.
The Bungalow remained in Stuart for over a decade but, as the construction of the Central Australian Railway approached the little township, plans were made to relocate the children and their carers away from the perceived encroaching evils of modern society. In 1928 the Bungalow was moved to Jay Creek while Sgt. Stott retired to Adelaide – and was shortly thereafter killed by a train. He is remembered by the prominent arterial road of Stott Terrace, which passes next to Billygoat Hill.
In much later times there have occasionally been outcries against the apparently absurd name of “Billygoat” Hill and suggestions made to change it to something more respectable but this is in apparent ignorance of its poignant history.
All of this history is now overlooked or forgotten but it’s my contention that it provides an excellent basis for justifying the case for flying the Aboriginal flag on Akeyulerre, or Billygoat Hill.