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W.C. Wentworth AO: a great innings for indigenous rights.

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W.C. Wentworth AO - a great innings for Indigenous rights


Statement by ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark

On behalf of the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission and Indigenous people across Australia I want to acknowledge and pay my respect to the late WC (Bill) Wentworth, a leading campaigner for Indigenous rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although he came from a privileged background Bill Wentworth was a political visionary who advocated strongly on behalf of Aboriginal people over many years. We had few friends in Parliament over those years and he was a man well ahead of his time.

His passion for a better deal for our people was fuelled by the many visits he made to Aboriginal communities across the country. He and his wife often traveled alone to communities and saw first hand the shocking conditions suffered by Aboriginal people, but he also learned to respect the depth and vitality of the many Aboriginal cultures he experienced on these trips and developed warm relationships with many Aboriginal people.

In that he was probably alone in the federal parliament.

Bill Wentworth was instrumental in the creation of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (later to become the Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies). In 1959 he argued for a comprehensive effort by the Australian Government to record the culture of Australian Indigenous peoples. As a result, the Institute was established by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Act in 1964, with an interim Council set up in 1961.

Since 1978 the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has been organising the biennial Wentworth Lectures in his honour.

He was the first Federal Minister to have sole responsibility for Indigenous affairs having been appointed Minister in Charge of Aboriginal Affairs in February 1968 a position he held until May 1971 when he was succeeded by Peter Howson.

Bill Wentworth created the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, which included “Nugget” Coombs and Bill Stanner, to advise the government and a supporting Office of Aboriginal Affairs, which eventually became the Department of Aboriginal Affairs

The contribution by Bill Wentworth to the cause of justice and reconciliation at a time when Indigenous voices were unlistened to and unheard is a tribute to his commitment.

At a time when Indigenous Australians are facing serious challenges it is timely to remember this descendent of a prominent pioneer family who himself became a white pioneer in the cause of Aboriginal justice.

On behalf of all members of the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission I extend my sincere condolences to his wife and family. Canberra June 16 2003

Alastair Harris 0409 658 177