Frank Brennan.  A tribute to the cautious, quirky, humorous, honourable Wayne Goss

Those of us brought up in Queensland owe a lot to Wayne Goss. I first met him when he was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in Brisbane in 1974. He was the articled clerk. Roisin Hirschfeld was a young social worker at the ALS. They later married and their two children went on to become Rhodes scholars. With Mark Plunkett, I used go in one day a week to the ALS as a volunteer law student. Matt Foley was there in the wings too. (Plunkett went on to sue Joh Bjelke Petersen for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice when the police commissioner was precluded from investigating assaults on student demonstrators. Foley became Attorney General in the Goss government.)

Wayne was a no nonsense fellow with a real commitment to justice for Aboriginal Australians during the difficult Bjelke-Petersen days in Queensland. He had a quirkish and devilish sense of humour. He put himself on the line, committed to legal representation for indigent Aborigines, appearing constantly in the courts, day in and day out. He would always come back to the office with a smile and a joke about the latest put down he suffered at the hands of the unforgiving magistrate not much given to pleas invoking past dispossession. He was irrepressible. He delighted in the quirks of human nature, especially from the bench, and later in the parliamentary chamber. He knew there had to be a better way.

In 1989, seeing off Joh Bjelke-Petersen who had been rolled by his own, he beat the National Party at the polls and was elected premier.  In his first term, he decided to do something about Aboriginal land rights in the most difficult state of the federation. He did this when there was no political or legal imperative to do so. He acted because he believed it was right. He believed in Aboriginal self-determination within the life of the polity. He retained the services of two young Aborigines to advise him – Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton. His chief bureaucratic adviser was Kevin Rudd.

As ever, he proceeded cautiously attempting to balance all interests.  He announced his “modest, blanched and responsible” land-rights package telling the Queensland public: “We rejected out of hand the Northern Territory approach as being too radical both in the way it affects the community generally and the specific impact on agriculture and mining.”

Despite his best efforts, things turned sour and Aborigines knocked down the gates of Parliament House. He was understandably very hurt, but philosophical about the course of post-colonial relations. Wayne was unerring in his commitment to do what he could to alleviate the unjust plight of the first Australians.  He was no starry eyed romantic.  He never lost his sense of humour, or his unwavering commitment to justice for the first Australians.

Three years ago, Wayne and I appeared together on the negative side of one of those “Intelligence Squared” debates.  By this time Wayne had gone under the knife repeatedly, taking on the brain tumour that finally took him.  He was as quirky and good humoured as ever.  The topic was: “If we populate, we perish”.  The chief protagonist for the “yes” case was Dick Smith who turned up with lots of free copies of his book Population Crisis which he distributed to the audience.  Wayne responded:

Ladies and Gentlemen, because you are a sophisticated audience, our team has decided that we will not be offering bribes in the form of free books nor will we be trying to scare the pants off you with predictions of the end of the planet.  We believe that the policy debate should be lifted to a higher level.  What I think I need to do is to reframe the issue: if Australia does not increase its population, you know what will happen? We’ll get older; we’ll get less productive; we’ll lose our spark.  You know what happens after you age and get greyer and greyer and greyer? You perish.  Think about it.’ 

His last words in that debate were, “Friends, Australia has a great opportunity. Let’s seize it.”  He did and so should we.  I was honoured to know him. He was a very honourable man.  May he rest in peace.

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