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Djerrkura stood up for the rights of Indigenous peoples. We will miss him

By Brian Johnstone - posted Friday, 25 June 2004

It was a tragic Sorry Day, 2004. It was the day Djerrkura died.  The nation has lost a leader. Many of us have lost a dear friend and colleague. 

He's gone at 50-bloody-4: taken on the eve of the anniversary of the 1967 referendum and eve of the Howard government's introduction of a bill into the Federal Parliament to abolish ATSIC.  Djerrkura was the last appointed Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. He was almost its first elected Chair.

The story of what happened in and around the ATSIC boardroom on December 16, 1999 will have to wait for another day but one often wonders how things would be now had Mr Djerrkura walked out of the boardroom as ATSIC Chair that day. He knew it was the beginning of the end of his all-too-brief career on the national political stage. The devastation was etched into his face at the post-ballot news conference. He also knew the Commission was operating in a hostile political environment.  It had its back to the wall. 


Those who think the Howard government's proposed abolition of ATSIC is the product of recent political events would be well served to have a close look at how Howard treated Mr Djerrkura and the Commission after his appointment in 1996.  He was a senior Wangurri elder, well connected to the conservative political and business establishment in the Northern Territory.  He was a former director of the Henry and Walker group, the main commercial backer of the arch-conservative Country Liberal Party.  He had been a CLP candidate in the Northern Territory, and a former chairman of the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commercial Development Corporation, now Indigenous Business Australia. He was handpicked by Howard as a "conservative".

But the Howard government dumped him when it became obvious he would not turn his back on his own people and he realised he was dealing with a Prime Minister deeply antagonistic to the legitimate aspirations of his people. Howard refused to meet him during the entire second half of his term, deferring all requests for an audience to his Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron.

It was also obvious that Howard was deeply antagonistic to the concept of ATSIC. Mr Djerrkura was deeply troubled by this. He was caught between Howard's conservatism in dealing with those who appointed him and his own conservative past in dealing with his own people and his fellow elected Commissioners. It was a mark of the man that he publicly fronted both.
He chose a public forum in the Warrnambool Performing Arts Centre on March 5, 1999 to deliver what many close to him still consider one his finest messages to both. Most of the Aboriginal people in the audience were avid supporters of the man who succeeded him as ATSIC Chair. 

He began, as was his custom, by acknowledging the traditional owners, the Yaarar Goundidj peoples. He continued:

I thank them for welcoming me to their country. It is good to be in the home of other saltwater peoples. I also thank Commissioner Clark for his personal invitation to share this forum with so many distinguished colleagues.

We meet here tonight united by a common enemy. That enemy is ignorance. It is all about us. It dwells in some of the highest offices in the land. I could spend all night talking about examples in the public debate just in the past few weeks. But, I won't. I simply remind you of this.


The man who occupies the highest political office in Victoria has just been telling everyone the Aboriginal peoples of this country originally came from Polynesia. I'll be honest. When I heard that statement I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But then someone reminded me Premier Kennett used to be in advertising.

I assure you things are no better in the National Capital. I think it fair to say relations between the current federal government and the Aboriginal peoples of this country have never been worse. The root cause is ignorance. And that ignorance feeds arrogance.

Let's be clear. I have no doubt there are many good people in government in Canberra. I am sure they are committed. I am sure they are trying their best to advance our interests. But I do not believe they have the all-important ear of the Prime Minister.

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About the Author

Brian Johnstone is a columnist for the National Indigenous Times. He was Director of Media and Marketing at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission between April 1998 and December 2002. Before taking up that position he was a senior advisor to former Federal Labor Minister, Senator Bob Collins, and a senior correspondent with Australian Associated Press.

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