Senate debates

Monday, 27 October 2014


Whitlam, the Hon. Edward Gough, AO, QC

1:10 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I too am deeply humbled and honoured to be able to make a contribution to this very significant motion, and to follow other members not just from the Labor Party but from all branches of politics in expressing heartfelt condolences over the passing of our former Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam AC, QC. Like Senator Lazarus, I too would like to thank Senator John Faulkner, who gave not only to parliament but to Australia a very personal reflection on Gough Whitlam.

Gough Whitlam's vision, in my view and that of thousands of others, created modern Australia. His big, grand vision and his larger-than-life, optimistic character were of progression and of justice for all. With that in mind he changed the social architecture and our ideas of fairness and equality. Gough Whitlam did what true world leaders do—that is, he stepped into the unknown to address the known. He had courage. His reforms shaped Australia and its people. Gough Whitlam was indeed a great Australian and a great friend of the Northern Territory and of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. We have heard already today how, in 1944, during the Second World War, Gough was stationed at the Gove airstrip in the Northern Territory for six months. He fought in combat. He was a navigator for the RAAF with 13th Squadron and was patrolling Northern Australia, providing convoy escort and attacking enemy positions and shipping. Gough had a deep understanding of the strategic importance of the North, and it was there he developed a sincere understanding of Aboriginal people and our culture. His love of the Northern Territory most likely started right in north-east Arnhem Land.

Just last week Yothu Yindi Foundation chairman and Gumatj clan leader, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, said Mr Whitlam will be remembered fondly by the Yolngu clans of north-east Arnhem Land. He said:

Mr Whitlam was a unique and sincere man. In his time as prime minister, Mr Whitlam was a friend to Aboriginal 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.

Mr Yunupingu passed on his most sincere condolences to his family on this sad occasion.

This is a man who made such a difference to many. Under Gough, for some, being on social security went from being something that meant you were not a good citizen to being a real member of society who was just trying to find work. He provided equality to opportunity—his visions of his reforms mattered to everyday Australians. He transformed the health system by establishing Medibank, the precursor to Medicare. He changed education so that being able to attend university was no longer based on the proviso that you had rich parents, but instead was based on merit. He inspired young people to believe that they could achieve, no matter where their start in life was. He held his hand out to the Aussie battlers and he lifted their spirits. He brought the troops home from Vietnam, and the list goes on.

One very personal memory to me was with Cyclone Tracy, as a survivor. We know that Gough was a driving force in the post-war reconstruction of Darwin—which without a doubt proved valuable following the devastation that was visited upon Darwin with Cyclone Tracy. In 1974, Darwin was completely flattened by the devastation of that cyclone, which visited on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In order to provide the initial emergency response, a committee was created. The committee, comprising several high-level public servants and police, stated that 'Darwin had for the time being ceased to exist as a city'. Gough Whitlam, the Australian Prime Minister, was overseas at the time but flew to Darwin upon hearing of the disaster. Gough established the Darwin Reconstruction Commission and in January 1975 pledged himself to 'a determined and unremitting effort to rebuild Darwin city and relieve the suffering'. Our population dwindled. In January 1975, Darwin had a population of about 10,000. But by May that year the population had grown to 30,000 people. Gough made the deliberate decision to not just rebuild Darwin but to seriously invest in Darwin, turning it from a country town into a capital city of strategic importance.

The two things I really want to talk about are the impact Gough had on the country's first nations people, which led to land rights and the defence of all people with the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act. Gough was a friend of the Northern Territory and, as I have previously indicated, a very close friend of Aboriginal Australians. He was one of the first to reach out to Aboriginal Australians and say we are equal.

I want to read an extract from a beautiful tribute to Gough by Patricia Turner. Patricia Turner, an Arrernte and Gurdanji woman, was Deputy Secretary of the Department Of Aboriginal Affairs in 1989 and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1991-92. She was also the Chief Executive of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission from 1994 to 1998 and a very well regarded Aboriginal woman. She said:

Gough visited the tent embassy and promised that when elected he would legislate Aboriginal land rights. He kept his word, at least in the Northern Territory, where he had Commonwealth authority. For Aboriginal people across the country, Gough Whitlam was our giant among former prime ministers. He was the first leader to campaign so openly for us. During his short term in office he and his government made momentous decisions to include Aboriginal people within the fabric of the nation.

Gough also created the Aboriginal Loans Commission, the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission and the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC). The NACC was the first opportunity for Aboriginal people to elect their own representatives to a national committee to directly advise the federal government.

Gough knew his job was to lead people. He would not be dragged down by widely entrenched racist views. He was clear about his commitment to improve our lives and give us long overdue recognition.

My colleague Senator Moore talked about when Gough poured sand into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, which was the defining moment of recognition that led to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. On 16 August this year I travelled back to Wave Hill, to Gurindji country, with my colleague Warren Snowdon. It was on the very same day 39 years ago that Gough poured the land into Vincent Lingiari's hand at the exact same place. Gough said these words:

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.

Vincent Lingiari simply replied:

We are all right now. We are all friendly. We are mates.

What really got to me when Warren and I stood at the place where this happened is the way the Gurindji people continue to pay their respects to the great man. On 16 August each year, which they call Freedom Day, the whole community shuts down to pay their respects. They have been doing this for the past 39 years. With about 90 Gurindji children we left the school grounds and went to the cemetery. Each of the children laid a wreath they made from flowers they had picked. These Aboriginal children speak two or three Aboriginal languages—English is their third or fourth. I asked these children: 'Why are we here?' One of them said: 'Because of this great man who gave our land back.' These kids are aged between five and 14 and they have a knowledge of and respect for this great man. What Gough really understood was that the Aboriginal people have a deep spiritual connection with the land. Every Aboriginal child has a relationship not only with people but also with their environment—the land, the animals, the plants, the skies, the waters, the weather and the spirits. Just like a human mother, the land gives us protection and enjoyment and provides for our needs economic, social and religious. We have a human relationship with the land.

We have talked about what Gough was able to do. In that significant moment, like my colleague Senator Moore, all I was able to think about was a song that was constantly ringing in my head—From Little Things Big Things Grow by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody. Knowing the history and walking the path and retracing the steps of that historical moment, I was thinking of the words of that song:

Gather round people I'll tell you a story

An eight year long story of power and pride

It continues:

Gurindji were working for nothing but rations

Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land

Daily the oppression got tighter and tighter

Gurindji decided they must make a stand

So they did that. In 1966, 200 workers walked off Wave Hill Station and sat down at Wattie Creek. I was privileged to sit down there with Warren and the Gurindji people and the many tourists who came along that day to pay their respects. The song continues:

A Vestey man said I'll double your wages

Seven quid a week you'll have in your hand

Vincent said uhuh we're not talking about wages

We're sitting right here till we get our land

People got upset but they continued. The song continues:

Then Vincent Lingiarri boarded an aeroplane

Landed in Sydney, big city of lights

And daily he went round softly speaking his story

To all kinds of men from all walks of life

Back to his country …

And he told his people let the stars keep on turning

We have friends in the south, in the cities and towns

They waited and, as the song continues:

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting

Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land

And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony

And through Vincent's fingers poured a handful of sand

It was during that time when Warren and I were sitting at this one place. This is the most important part of the song, which resonates with this history:

But this is the story of something much more

How power and privilege can not move a people

Who know where they stand and stand in the law

If it were not for Gough Whitlam, Aboriginal people's spirits would continue to be broken, because we do not own the earth; the earth owns us. I am happy to report that the Gurindji people, when they heard of the passing last week, expressed their sorrow at the passing of, as they called him, the jangkarni marlaka, which means 'big important man'. I know that the Gurindji men and women, including descendants of Vincent Lingiari, are planning to travel to the funeral service to pay their respects.

As an Aboriginal woman, as a Territorian and also as a traditional landowner, I am grateful for what Gough's vision has done for all Australians. The Racial Discrimination Act is not just about Aboriginal people. Through it, Gough protected so many hundreds of thousands of people who now call this place home. As we heard, Gough was a visionary, he was ahead of his time, and we must never lose sight of that. We cannot go backwards as a country. We have to maintain his vision. We all know that racism exists in this country, but Australia is a better place and a less racist place because of this great man. All Australians should be able to live free from discrimination.

We talk about a lot of things that people are trying to pull back now. We are talking about Medicare and fees for university, and we have seen just last week the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party clearly outline their intention to forcibly take away land from Aboriginal people. It absolutely repulses me that this can be happening when we should be looking at a shared vision for this country. This is why the battle will continue. This is why we cannot and we must not let our guard down or believe that the liberties that we enjoy today will never be threatened. We must never cease or tire in our pursuit of justice and opportunity for all. We all owe it to Gough and we owe it to all Australians. Gough told us back then, 'It's time' and because of Gough it is always time for a better, more generous and inclusive Australia—something that I will always fight for. Thank you, Gough. Thank you, jangkarni marlaka: the big important man.


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