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Stepping up to the plate

By Lowitja O'Donoghue - posted Friday, 17 June 2011

The National Congress, as it stands today, is the result of extensive nationwide consultations. A maker inevitably leaves his or her mark on their creation. Our people have spoken and our fingerprints are all over the National Congress. We can expect to be judged on our part in its creation and its success or otherwise. As a result, this is an organisation that:

  • Is a company, limited by guarantee, at arms length from government.
  • Has built-in gender equity at all levels of representation.
  • Sets new levels of excellence and expectation (unrivalled in Australian society, whether in government or the public, private or community sectors); and
  • Has a structure interwoven with the golden threads of our communities; talented individuals and representative organisations across all spheres.

Some people regard me as a radical, others see me as quite conservative. I would say I'm both, as well as a pretty open book. My mixed feelings about the demise of ATSIC – for example, my belief that it was an organisation set up to fail, as well as my disappointment in some people and events of the past – are on the public record and I see no need to re-hash them here. Suffice to say that over the past six years, I have despaired over the absence of a national Indigenous voice, a vehicle for our self-determination.


I will concede that, as the National Congress was being fashioned, I wondered at times whether our community had the goods when it came to electing the best people. Then, when the notion of an Ethics Council emerged, I questioned what right anyone had to judge any of us by standards not applicable anywhere else. I asked myself if the imposition of gender balance was really necessary. And when the proposed multi-tiered structure was revealed, I found it complicated.

Having now had time to metabolise all of these things, I have arrived at a point where I am comfortable with the National Congress as a working model. I venture that it is, as my friend Paul Keating last week described the national Native Title Act 1993, 'necessarily completed but nonetheless inspired.'

I am excited, for example, to see what emerges from the blending of individuals – many of you leaders in your fields – with representatives of sectoral, state and territory and national organisations constituted in various ways.

And I have no doubt that gender balance would not have been achieved organically any time soon. Let it be declared, here and now, that the old 'Boy's Club' is officially dead – in this forum at least. I thank my brothers for supporting our sisters in this. I think we can be proud that, together, we've done something that no-one else has had the guts to do.

I would like now to make a few humble suggestions and issue a few challenges to you as delegates. Some are borne from my own experience; others are just common sense.

I say that you should expect the going to be tough and, regrettably, for things to get personal from time to time. The path you have chosen is not for the fainthearted. Some of your biggest critics will be your own people, so steel yourselves.


A people's movement will necessarily take time to build. I hope you will encourage membership of the National Congress – both within your own families and communities but also far beyond them.

Of course, an organisation with 100,000 inactive members may as well have none. It is not enough to say blithely, 'I'm a member of the National Congress' and do no more. That is having one foot inside the camp and the other foot out, ready to cut and run when the going gets tough. Every one of our people needs to decide: Are you out or are you in? And if you're out, run your own race and let the rest of us run ours.

I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, to observe that the National Congress will only ever be as good, energetic, dynamic, staunch and fearless as all of its people – elected representatives, delegates such as yourselves, members and staff. And none of us should wait for the administration to do all of the heavy lifting.

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This is an edited version of the speech by Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue AC, CBE, DSG at the opening of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, Homebush NSW, 8 June 2011

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About the Author

Ms Lowitja "Lois" O'Donoghue, AC, CBE, DSG (born 1 August 1932) is an Aboriginal Australian retired public administrator. She was named Australian of the Year in 1984 and 1990, and was inaugural chairperson of the now dissolved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)

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