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Noel Pearson pays tribute to Whitlam’s achievements

Posted on: 6 November, 2014
Issue: Vol 14 No 4, October 2014 – December 2014
Related to Cultural ways Social and emotional wellbeing Justice Policies

Noel Pearson, Chairman of the Cape York Group, delivered a powerful eulogy for Gough Whitlam at his state memorial.

He praised Mr Whitlam’s foresight and moral vision in striving for universal opportunity in Australia, and his legacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

‘When he breathed, he truly was Australia’s greatest white elder and friend without peer to the original Australians,’ said Pearson.

Thousands of people also gathered outside Sydney’s Town Hall and sang along to From little things, big things grow, about the Indigenous struggle for land rights and recognition in Australia.

Below are some excerpts from Mr Pearson’s speech.

‘In June 1975 the Whitlam government enacted the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Discriminatory Laws) Act 1975 (Cth). The law put to purpose the power conferred upon the Commonwealth Parliament by the 1967 referendum: finally outlawing the discrimination my father and his father lived under since my grandfather was removed to the mission as a boy, and to which I was subject the first 10 years of my life.

Powers regulating residency on reserves without a permit; the power of reserve managers to enter private premises without the consent of the householder; legal representation and appeal from court decisions; the power of reserve managers to arbitrarily direct people to work; and the terms and conditions of employment – were now required to treat Aboriginal Queenslanders on the same footing as other Australians. We were at last free from those discriminations that humiliated and degraded our people.

It was in Queensland, under Bjelke-Petersen, that its importance became clear. In 1976 a Wik man from Aurukun on western Cape York Peninsula, John Koowarta, sought to purchase the Archer Bend Pastoral Lease from its white owner. The Queensland Government refused the sale. The High Court’s decision in Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen upheld the Racial Discrimination Act as a valid exercise of the external affairs power of the Commonwealth. However in an act of spite the Queensland Government converted the pastoral lease into the Archer Bend National Park. Old man Koowarta died a broken man. The winner of a landmark High Court precedent, but the victim of an appalling discrimination.

The Racial Discrimination Act was again crucial in 1982 when a group of Murray Islanders, led by Eddie Mabo, claimed title under the common law to their traditional homelands in the Torres Strait. In 1985 Bjelke-Petersen sought to kill the Murray Islanders’ case by enacting a retrospective extinguishment of any such title. There was no political or media uproar against Bjelke-Petersen’s law. There was no public condemnation of the state’s manoeuvre. There was no redress anywhere in the democratic forums or procedures of the state or the nation. If there were no Racial Discrimination Act, that would have been the end of it. Land rights would have been dead. There would never have been a Mabo Case in 1992. There would have been no Native Title Act under Prime Minister Keating in 1993.

Without this old man the land and human rights of our people would never have seen the light of day. The importance of Mabo to the history of Australia would have been lost without the Whitlam program.’

Sources: ABC and The Sydney Morning Herald

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