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Condolence Motion for Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue

9 April 2024

I rise to support this motion and to recognise the remarkable life and contribution of a truly great South Australian, Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue, and pay tribute to her remarkable legacy. I also join with my parliamentary colleagues in extending my sympathy to her friends and family.

Dr O'Donoghue was born in 1932, and her life and commitment to social justice was shaped by her experiences as a young child. At just two years of age, missionaries acting on behalf of the Aboriginal Protection Board took Dr O'Donoghue from her mother and placed her in the Colebrook children's home in Quorn. There, her given name, Lowitja, was changed to Lois, she was prohibited from speaking her own language and she did not see her mother again for more than 30 years. In a media release back in 2001, Dr O'Donoghue said:

I know that my Aboriginal mother would have had no legal recourse, nor any moral support, in resisting our removal…her grief was unbearable.

Dr O'Donoghue's experience mirrored that of tens of thousands of other members of the stolen generation, and her courage in speaking up and sharing her experiences has helped in our nation's journey towards reconciliation.

She said that the seeds of her commitment to human rights and social justice were sown in her childhood and, as has been noted in this place, the matron of the Colebrook children's home said that she would not amount to anything. We know how wrong that was. Dr O'Donoghue grew up to become one of the nation's most influential people.

At age 16, Dr O'Donoghue was encouraged to work as a nursing aide at the local Victor Harbor Hospital. When she later applied to complete her nursing training at the Royal Adelaide Hospital she was refused the opportunity because of her Aboriginal heritage. In 1994, she said of that discrimination:

I'd resolved that one of the fights was to actually open the door to Aboriginal women to take up the nursing profession and also for those young men to get into apprenticeships.

This was a fight that Dr O'Donoghue took on with great commitment and great passion. She joined the Aborigines Advancement League, which had taken up the fight to allow Aboriginal women to enter the nursing profession and this experience, I understand, provided the opportunity to meet Aboriginal rights activists from across the country and led to a lifetime commitment to politics.

In 1954, after a long struggle to gain admission, including a personal appeal to the then premier of the day, Sir Thomas Playford, Dr O'Donoghue was finally admitted and worked hard as a trainee to overcome the negative expectations of staff and discrimination, going on to become the hospital's first Aboriginal nurse—a significant achievement. This was one of many barriers that Dr O'Donoghue broke down in her life. She remained there for 10 years, being promoted first to a charge sister, despite confronting those ongoing experiences of racism.

In the 1960s, Dr O'Donoghue travelled to northern India and worked as a nurse with the Baptist overseas mission. When she returned to Australia in 1962, she worked as an Aboriginal liaison officer with the South Australian government Department of Education and later transferred to the SA Department of Aboriginal Affairs and was employed as a welfare officer, based mainly in Coober Pedy.

It was during her 10 years in this work that she built a reputation for her ability to advocate for justice for Aboriginal people, and this ability shone through in her campaigning on the 1967 referendum—a turning point in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. In 1967, she joined the newly established Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and from 1970 to 1972 she was a member of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement. In 1977, she became the founding Chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference.

At age 47, Dr O'Donoghue met Gordon Smart, a medical orderly from the Adelaide Repatriation Hospital, whom she married in 1979. In 1990, Dr O'Donoghue was appointed the inaugural Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), where she won universal admiration for her leadership, her tenacity and her integrity. A highlight was her pivotal role in that tense and complex negotiation period that enabled the creation and passing of Prime Minister Keating's native title legislation, which of course arose from the High Court's historic Mabo decision.

As has been noted by my colleagues, Dr O'Donoghue was the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly in 1992. She also campaigned in 1993 for the Australian republic. She was somebody who made an absolutely fundamental contribution not only to South Australia but to our nation.

Our country is a better place because of the leadership of Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue. I know that her remarkable story will continue to inspire future generations of South Australians and Australians. I join with my colleagues in extending my sympathy to her friends and family. I thank the Attorney-General for putting forward this motion today.