Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I join with the Prime Minister in his very fine words paying tribute to Lowitja O’Donoghue.
I begin by quoting excerpts of Stuart Rintoul’s authorised biography of Lowitja.
‘In August of 1932, somewhere near De Rose Hill, Lowitja takes her first breath. Her birth is not registered. Not her name, not the day, not the place…
In September 1934, Lowitja is handed over into the care of the Colebrook missionaries…
If her mother called her Lowitja, it is not the name the missionaries call her. They call her Lois, a Biblical name…
They give her a birthdate – 1 August…
Late in life, Lowitja will see a photograph purporting to show her with her parents: a little girl, seated between a white man and an Aboriginal woman on a camel-drawn buggy…
She has no memory of it, or of any other time spent with her parents.’
Mr Speaker, when Lowitja’s father handed her over to missionaries, she lost her name, her mother, her family, her language, and her identity.
Yet it was that tragic loss which would imbue in her with a resilience, a resolve, and a responsibility with which she would see herself rise to the pinnacle of Indigenous leadership in our country.
She said, and I quote:
‘I remember in my very earliest days standing up for what I believed in.
One of the earliest memories I have is of coming between the matron and the strap.
I would often stand in the way when the strap was intended for others, with the result being that I, too, got a beating.’
The missionaries clearly did not recognise the mettle of the young woman in their care.
They mistakenly thought Lowitja would be resigned to her fate that they’d set for her – sending her on her way to work as a domestic servant.
Lowitja was never going to be a nobody.
She wanted to be a ‘somebody’, as she said.
She noted, wisely, that ‘God had given me intelligence… I was going to use it.’
And use her intelligence, Lowitja most certainly did.
As the first Indigenous woman to train as a nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
As a public servant who rose through the ranks furthering the cause of Aboriginal welfare.
As Chair of the Aboriginal Development Commission and then the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
As a force for positive change in the 1967 Referendum.
As a negotiator with gravitas, grit, and grace, who helped bring about the Native Title Act.
And as the first Indigenous Australian to address the United Nations General Assembly.
It was on that international stage in 1992 where Lowitja celebrated the progress which had come from the Mabo decision. She said:
‘After 204 years, Australian law has finally recognised that indigenous people did own their land at the time of European settlement in 1788’.
Mr Speaker, despite the dark chapters of her personal past and those of our country, she imparted a message of optimism for Australia and for the world on that international stage.
‘… we want you to share with us a future of peace and hope based upon mutual respect and understanding – a new partnership based on equality, equal opportunity and social justice.’
Indeed, perhaps that moment of public triumph was also a quiet personal victory.
At a moment when Dr O’Donoghue may have recalled the words of the matron at the Colebrook Home who told her she would amount to nothing.
When Lowitja heard those words as a young woman, she thought to herself, ‘I’ll show you’.
And she certainly did.
She showed all of us that the past is no prison where there is courage, character and conviction.
She said, ‘I don’t think that one can be effective in life by being angry and bitter’.
Lowitja fought for – and furthered – the causes of Indigenous rights, representation, recognition, and reconciliation.
As her family noted, she created pathways, opened doors and tackled issues head-on.
She was – to echo Stuart Rintoul’s words – an ‘Aboriginal matriarch’.
Iconic, inspirational, indomitable – Lowitja has rightly been acknowledged with our country’s highest accolades, including, as the Prime Minister rightly noted, as an Australian of the Year and a Companion of the Order of Australia.
Today, in honouring Dr O’Donoghue’s life and her legacy, she takes her place in the pantheon of influential and illustrious Australians.
Her spirit and her endeavours will continue on in the institute for which she had great respect and admiration and support, and in the many people she has inspired.
On behalf of the Coalition, I express my heartfelt condolences to Lowitja’s family, to her people, and to her many friends across Australia and around the world.
May Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue rest in peace.