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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19247


Mr SNOWDON (4:30 PM) —I cannot imagine why members are leaving the House, Mr Speaker!


The SPEAKER —I reassure the member for Lingiari that the chair is staying and that the member has the call.


Mr SNOWDON —In contrast to the events of this afternoon, let me make this observation: I am about to talk about a significant Australian who would, I think, be perplexed by the attitude adopted by the Prime Minister and his ministers in relation to the issue of honesty in this place. I am referring to Mr Joe McGinness. Joe died recently in Cairns. He was a person who experienced the trauma of living at a time when Indigenous Australians were vilified and had their rights taken away. When Joe was only four years of age his father died and Joe was taken to Darwin's notorious Kahlin Compound for so-called half-caste children. His experiences there were nothing short of terrible. He was left without formal schooling or regular meals and in some instances had to steal food to survive. Given Joe's start to life, it is truly extraordinary what he managed to achieve. His life as an activist was influenced by his friends, such as the authors Frank Hardy and Xavier Herbert—the latter encouraged Joe to get involved in the fight for Indigenous rights in the 1930s. Joe first took this fight to the streets of Darwin during the Great Depression, where he was actively involved in protests against mass unemployment and the poor treatment of Indigenous workers. He fought for Australia in World War II, serving overseas in the Pacific in the army field ambulance unit.

After the war Joe moved to Thursday Island and then to Cairns, where he began his involvement in the trade union movement as part of the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia. The union movement was very important to Joe and to the campaign for Indigenous rights, as it supported him and other advocates where governments would have failed to do so. Joe went on to help found the Cairns Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Advancement League in 1958. Gladys O'Shane, the mother of Terry O'Shane, was its president and Joe was its secretary. This organisation was a crucial advocate for the Indigenous residents of Cairns, who faced daily discrimination and abuse and survived on occasional underpaid work. Through the Cairns league, and later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders—of which Joe was president from 1961 to 1973—Joe constantly pushed the fold in some of the 20th century's defining battles for Indigenous rights.

History will record Joe McGinness's name proudly alongside other heroes of Indigenous campaigns such as Pastor Doug Nicholls, Charles Perkins, Faith Bandler, Stan Davey and Gordon Bryant. I might say that this gentleman, Joe McGinness—and a gentleman he was—was the head of the advancement group, FCAATSI, and, through it, a driver for the 1967 referendum. He was a significant Australian, a very significant Indigenous Australian. I am pleased to be able to say that, although he died recently approaching his 90th year in the Cairns hospital, I was able to visit him in the week that he unfortunately died. I want to pay tribute not only to Joe but to his family and friends and to those who supported him throughout his life. I want to celebrate his life—mourn his passing but celebrate his life. He was a great gift to Australia—a great Australian by any definition and one whose name will go down in the history books as playing a significant role in the advancement of Indigenous rights in this country at a time when it was not popular. I say to those who might listen to this debate or read this Hansard: if you do get the opportunity, you should read Joe's book Son of Alyandabu. His childhood friend Tom Sullivan wrote in the foreword of this book:

Joe has always worked for our people, it has been his whole life.

He has done this because he needed to and not for money, praise or glory.

He always turned his bitterness around into good and useful paths in his endeavour to advance every Aborigine of Australia.

He is a remarkable and honourable Aborigine.