Paul Keating delivered the annual Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration at Adelaide University last night, persuasively arguing for the reversal of laws requiring Aboriginal title claimants to establish association with their land. Here is the complete transcript.

I knew Don Dunstan though not well. But I admired him for his ability to see through the conservative social orthodoxy which had developed as part and parcel of Australia.

Don Dunstan used the premiership of South Australia to challenge elements of that orthodoxy, so I am pleased to be associated with his spirit and this foundation in his name. And well may it be the case that Don Dunstan’s progressive instincts, reflected in the Foundation’s remit, should sponsor an oration in the name of another South Australian progressive; Lowitja O’Donoghue.

I have accepted the opportunity of delivering the Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration for one primary reason: out of respect for Lowitja O’Donoghue as a remarkable Australian leader. A leader whose unfailing instinct for enlargement marks her out as unique.

And unique for this reason: when a great opportunity in history; the history of the Aboriginal people and the largely European population of Australia presented itself, Lowitja O’Donoghue saw that opportunity with great clarity and unilaterally moved to seize it. The opportunity was the willingness of the Labor government I led to legislatively validate and develop the decision of the High Court of Australia in Queensland v Mabo (1992), today known as Mabo (No 2).

Without any position of mandated authority from her people, she caused their mobilisation in what was, the first time, that Aboriginal people were brought fully and in an equal way to the centre of national executive power. In the 204 year history of the formerly colonised Australia, this had never happened. Never before had the Commonwealth government of Australia and its Cabinet nor any earlier colonial government laid out a basis of consultation and negotiation offering full participation to the country’s indigenousr epresentatives; and certainly not around such a matter as the country’s common law where something as significant as native title rights could arise from a collection of laws which had themselves developed from European custom and tradition.

The High Court of Australia had opened the door to this possibility in Mabo (No 2), but without a comprehensive, firm and quick legislative response, that door would have just as quickly closed.  Most of the states of Australia had adopted a defensive posture to the opportunity of Mabo while Western Australia would have moved to extinguish whatever native title rights were revealed by the High Court’s historic judgment, as it, in fact, tried to do.

Lowitja O’Donoghue understood this. She knew that in the dismal history of indigenous relations with European Australia, this was an illuminated breakout; a comet of light in an otherwise darkened landscape.

Peter Fray

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