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I rise to associate the National Party in the Senate with this motion of condolence for the former Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Gough Whitlam. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.
As Minister for Aboriginal and Islander affairs, I would like to particularly focus on the difference that Gough Whitlam made in Aboriginal and Islander affairs by bringing land rights onto the national agenda. One of the most defining images I think we can all recall of Gough’s prime ministership was when he poured soil from his hand into the hand of Vincent Lingiari during the handover of land at Daguragu.
Whitlam’s intentions to change the way we think about Indigenous affairs meant that one of the earliest reforms of the new Whitlam government was upgrading the Office of Aboriginal Affairs to a ministerial level. This fulfilled, in his view, an election promise designed to meet some of the responsibilities afforded them at the 1967 referendum. In June 1975, the Racial Discrimination Bill was enacted, outlawing discrimination on the grounds of race, enabling Australia to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination.
In this place, in the short time I have been here, we have tended to reflect on changes and reforms that are almost behind where Australia is. We have already got there and we very comfortably make those reforms in a reflection of what Australia now thinks. And almost all of Mr Whitlam’s reforms were moving ahead to where we should have been as a nation. And I think that, in 1975, even the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Bill was where we should have been, but I suspect it was not where Australia was at that stage.
In August 1975, at Daguragu in the Northern Territory, Vincent Lingiari of the Gurindji mob formally accepted from Prime Minister Whitlam title deeds to a part of their traditional lands. The grandson of Aboriginal land-rights activist Vincent Lingiari, Maurie Japarta Ryan, remembers the moment when the Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, returned to Wave Hill cattle station to the traditional owners. He told the ABC:
It was enormous, it’s like the equivalent to Armstrong walking on the moon. It was a giant step for him to do that on behalf of the Australian people.
This is what Prime Minister Whitlam said on that day—and this is back in 1975: ‘On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of all Australian people—all those who honour and love this great land we live in. For them I want to say to you: I want to acknowledge that we Australians still have much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that have for so long been the lot of Black Australians. Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.’ Again: that was in 1975. I first went to the Territory some three years later, in 1978. And that is an unequivocal message to many people in the Northern Territory who simply saw this and this message as a message of dispossession of farmers and white people who had taken the land from the original inhabitants. And, in many ways, that, perhaps not so much down south, was seen as a very courageous political position, and I think it was possibly the position that allowed, in the Northern Territory, the then Country Liberal Party to stay in power for the best part of some 30 years.
In August of each year, people gather from all parts of Australia at Kalkarindji. This is Freedom Day, where we all celebrate, and sometimes re-enact the walk-off. In many ways, this annual celebration is in fact a celebration of the legacy of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
I often wonder what impact the previous life of Mr Whitlam had on some of his views in parliament. A number of the participants today have already mentioned the impact of the famous Bark Petition. It was rightly judged to have been the beginning of land rights which Whitlam took up and gave national leadership and life. It was quite a humble petition. I will read into Hansard some parts of it:
The Humble Petition of the Undersigned aboriginal people of Yirrkala … respectfully showeth.
1. That nearly 500 people … are residents of the land excised from the Aboriginal Reserve in Arnhem Land.
2. That the procedures of the excision of this land and the fate of the people on it were … kept secret from them.
… … …
4. That the land in question has been hunting and food gathering land for the Yirrkala tribes from time immemorial: we were all born here.
5. That places sacred to the Yirrkala people, as well as vital to their livelihood are in the excised land, especially Melville Bay.
6. That the people of this area fear that their needs and interests will be completely ignored as they have been ignored in the past, and they fear that the fate which has overtaken the Larrakeah tribe will overtake them.
… … …
8. They humbly pray that no arrangements be entered into with any company which will destroy the livelihood and independence of the Yirrkala people.
And your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray God to help you and us.
This, at the time, did not have a huge impact on the parliament in Canberra. I suspect it was, in fact, that in the early stages of the war, in 1942, Gough Whitlam was posted in Nhulunbuy, right in the middle of Yolngu country. Whilst I cannot find any association in research, I do know that many of the airforce personnel had a good working relationship with the very friendly and outgoing people, not only the then mission in Yirrkala, but more generally with Yolngu people. I suspect that when he saw the petition it meant something slightly different to him than it may have to other politicians. This was the leader who would give breath to this petition and to land rights, and he would be the one who would ensure that this became a central part of the national political agenda.
In the early 1970s there were plenty of attempts by Aboriginal people to take their fight to the courts, and whilst the plaintiffs tried with all their depth of evidence and much support to claim land ownership, Australian law at that time clearly could not provide a vehicle for Aboriginal land rights. It was devastating to the Yolngu people, but it was not the end. The leadership of Gough Whitlam changed the legal basis of land claims forever. The Yolngu case ended up being integral to the 1972 Woodward royal commission into land rights in the Northern Territory. This, of course, was something that Gough Whitlam was very strongly behind. This ultimately led to the Territory Land Rights Act of 1976 and from there to successful land claims all over Australia and the eventual overturning of the concept of terra nullius in the Mabo case in 1992. The Whitlam legacy of the way we engage with Indigenous Australians is today an integral part of political life. But it was different then. He used his political power, his influence and his leadership to move history on. As we look back, the change then was seismic.
I would like to end with the words of Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM, himself a towering force in continuing the historic courage of the Yolngu people. He said on the passing of Gough Whitlam:
It is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Mr Whitlam was a unique and sincere man, and he is remembered fondly by the Yolngu clans of Northeast Arnhem Land. In his time as Prime Minister Mr Whitlam was a great friend to Indigenous Australians. He always acted in a direct and determined way to resolve the issues. The Bark Petition started the move towards land rights, but Mr Whitlam’s leadership brought it to life and made it real. He was a true friend of the Yolngu people. I send my most sincere condolences to his family on this sad occasion.
As Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, I too send sincere condolences to Mr Whitlam’s family and friends.