A tribute to Lowitja O’Donoghue

Feb 6, 2024
Lowitja O'Donoghue at a ceremony to unveil a mural at the site of the former Colebrook Children's Home at Eden Hills, South Australia, 6 November 2013.

In 2017, I was privileged to deliver the Lowitja Oration at her invitation marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. I thanked Lowitja for her national leadership, for her trust, for her hopeful example, and for her friendship.

Through the prism of Lowitja’s early political involvements, I recalled the years of hard labour put in by those Australians who contributed to FCAATSI and its predecessors. Having left the Colebrook Home, she first became involved with the Aboriginal Advancement League in South Australia because it was the only organisation working for Aboriginal rights at the time. Lowitja recalled that there were many white people from the churches involved. She would take Thursdays off and meet up with like-minded people near what is now Rundle Mall. Looking back on those days, she recalled a strict religious upbringing so that even going to the cinema was not well regarded. She was sent to the country to work after her 16th birthday. She observed, ‘I’m not a radical but I certainly wasn’t to be walked over.’

When she took up nursing as a career, she had less time to dedicate to the Advancement League. But on her return from India in 1962, she got involved with the Aborigines’ Progress Association (APA). The APA was affiliated with FCAATSI. Lowitja used travel to Canberra for the annual Easter conference. One attraction of the APA in contrast to the Advancement League was that the executive positions were held by Aboriginal people. Lowitja then found a more natural home in the newly established Aboriginal Women’s Council. She was the first secretary. She found her political voice, working locally with these fledgling Indigenous organisations in South Australia, and participating in the annual FCAATSI meeting at which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians worked together. Their great achievement was harnessing support for the 1967 constitutional referendum. This involved sustained effort over many years, with close collaboration of key Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders representing many varied communities and sectors of society. Their efforts were rewarded with the highest ‘Yes’ vote ever in a referendum campaign.

The 1993 native title debate was the first time in Australian parliamentary history that Aboriginal people had real bargaining chips to bring to the table of political deliberation. The High Court had determined that Aboriginal native title existed in areas undefined, with rights undefined. Any native title which survived until 1975 was thereafter buttressed by the Racial Discrimination Act, ensuring that it could not be treated in a less advantageous way than any other form of land title. Miners and pastoralists wanted certainty when planning future activities on lands which might be subject to native title. It was imperative that government fashion legislation which was seen to be fair to Aboriginal people as well as to miners and pastoralists. Prime Minister Paul Keating needed to cut a deal with Aboriginal Australians knowing he could not expect unanimity among Aboriginal leaders. Keating needed an Aboriginal group with whom to work. As Keating said in his 2011 Lowitja Oration:

‘Had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders not stepped up to the plate, the substance and equity of the subsequent Native Title Act may never have materialised. In an instant, I was struck by the opportunity of the High Court decision and was determined to not see it slaked away in legislative neglect. But determined as I was, I needed the partnership with Indigenous leaders to get it done and get it done fairly.’

This was Lowitja’s finest hour. As the chair of ATSIC she had the opportunity to bring a group of key Indigenous leaders into the tent. It was not all plain sailing. On Black Friday, 8 October 1993, negotiations had broken down and Keating let fly as only Keating could. He said, ‘I am not sure whether Indigenous leaders can ever psychologically make a change to decide to come into a process, be part of it, and take the burdens of responsibility which go with it.’ In his own Lowitja Oration, he added that he was not sure ‘whether they could ever summon the authority of their own community to negotiate for and on their behalf’. Looking back in 2011, he said:

‘I like to think those remarks helped galvanise Lowitja O’Donoghue’s view as to what needed to be done. But as it turned out – only she could do it. She was the chair of ATSIC. This gave her a pulpit to speak from but no overarching authority, much less power. But this is where leadership matters: she decided, alone decided, that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia would negotiate, and I emphasise negotiate, with the Commonwealth government of Australia – and that the negotiators would be the leaders of the Indigenous land councils. She decided that. And from that moment, for the first time in the 204-year history of the settled country, its Indigenous people sat in full concert with the government of it all.’

Through all these complexities and intrigues, Lowitja O’Donoghue held a steady course with an unerring instinct about where to find true north. She did it, not by treating ATSIC as the primary consultative body for Aboriginal Australia, but by using ATSIC as the clearing house or hub to bring the key local and specialist representatives to the table. But having done so, she knew there would be other Indigenous leaders who would want their own place at the table, and that was a different table – the table of Senate deliberation and horse trading, rather than the cabinet table of negotiation.

Lowitja also worked closely with Malcolm Turnbull when he was full of idealism for constitutional change as Chair of Paul Keating’s Republican Advisory Committee. As a member of that committee, she recommended a constitutional preamble recognising her people and she convinced Turnbull to back it.

After the 2015 Lowitja Oration delivered by Marcia Langton, Lowitja compared the situation in 1967 with the contemporary situation:

‘There was a different movement to what it is now. The only way I can explain it is that black and white were together, walking towards the path to referendum. I think there’s another element to it now because I think there are activists out there who want things to happen before the referendum. They’re really more keen about getting action now and not waiting until what, hopefully, is a successful referendum. At the beginning I had confidence … but we don’t have the unity and we have to get the unity.’

Lowitja O’Donoghue brought and sustained unity amongst her mob when it most mattered and she made her people’s aspirations comprehensible and acceptable to ordinary Australians. She did it with personal integrity and grace, never putting herself before those she served. She did it through friendship. May she rest in peace.

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