Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

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The catalogue of all the different organisations that were involved in trying to advance the Aboriginal cause and to work out policies is very long and complicated. Why do you think this is? Why do you think that there have been so many more different shapes and arrangements for Aboriginal Affairs than for most of the other major concerns in the country?

Well I think that's difficult to answer but I think it was because nobody had the answers, and so government's tried everything that they could and there've been just so many mistakes made in Aboriginal affairs. And while I think governments have studied countries like Canada and America and New Zealand and so on, obviously they're not the answer for us and hence the difficulties I think that we've got into over the years.

You've lived through quite a range of different policies in relation to Aborigines, too, not just organisational change, but massive policy change.

Yes I, of course, have lived through them all and the first of all the policy of protection, then assimilation and that was considered to be wrong, then we became integrated, then we had self-determination, and self-management and, of course, now we're working towards reconciliation by the year 2001. So certainly, yes, we've had a range of policies and, of course, that all becomes very confusing for everyone but, of course, the policy of self-determination is the ... is the policy, of course, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people have been striving for. And while governments give lip service to self-determination, we still have a long way to go in terms of determining our own future.

At a personal level, it's the thing you've always worked with too, that you take responsibility for yourself and you feel that Aborigines should also, as a group, take responsibility for themselves. Now you're head of an organisation that's charged with just that duty to get Aborigines together, to take responsibility for making policy for themselves. What are your main problems?

Well my problem, my biggest problem, of course, is the ... the problem of past policies and the fact that governments have put in place many organisations. Many Aboriginal organisations have emerged as a result of government policies and I just think now it ... it is just difficult to get Aboriginal people to get to the point where ... what it will mean I think, is less organisations, so that we can fund organisations much more adequately to actually deal with the problems. Now, one of the policies we have, of course, is that regional councils will, in fact, have regional and community plans and so in the first term all the regional councils worked on regional and community plans but, of course, what needs to happen is that they've got to be more than just a wish list of what people want because in that process I think Aboriginal people were asking for more organisations, which, of course, means that there's more organisations to fund, the dollars we have got to be spread across all of those organisations and it's not an efficient use of funds. So the most difficult task that I believe I have as the head of this organisation is to turn that around, and I'd like to turn it around by indicating to regional councils, which I have done, is that regional plans have got to be more than a wish list. There've got to be some really hard decisions taken, and that is, that in fact some organisations will need to be amalgamated so that in fact you have less administrations carrying out the major programmes that will improve the conditions for Aboriginal people. Not only in housing but in education and in health and across the board.

But given that one of the major Aboriginal problems has been employment, aren't you going to have difficulty in reducing the number of bureaucracies or organisations which actually provide jobs to people who otherwise would have a lot of difficulty finding jobs. Isn't there a contradiction there? Isn't it going to be difficult to persuade people that it's in their interest to give up organisations that actually provide them with work?

Yes, yes, it will be difficult and, of course, we found that out recently when we were doing our course research in relation to the ... the Green Paper on Employment that the Federal Government is wrestling with at the moment. But we found, of course, that ... that the figures would look much worse than they do at the moment if it wasn't for the dollars that go in from the ATSIC budget to community organisations employing Aboriginal people round the country. But I think if we were to amalgamate, many of those jobs would still be available, but we'd be funding less ... less bureaucracies, or less administrations as such if we could actually ...

Less paper pushing and more action?

And more action, yes.

Now in terms of the actual problems that are being dealt with in the Aboriginal communities through the programmes that you're presiding over, have the priorities changed very much in the sort of ... over the many years that you've been involved as an Aboriginal activist, or do a lot of the root problems stay the same?

No, the priorities haven't changed much and the root problems remain the same. But I believe the problems of alcohol and substance abuse, of course, have ... have become worse. And so we ... we really need to put a greater emphasis on that and I have ... while I have an interest in the ... the whole area of our programmes and so on, I've become very, very concerned and interested in the ... in the area of young people and the homeless - the homeless children. And particularly in my home state, I've made a habit of now staying when I go to South Australia, as close to Hindley Street and North Terrace as I can, to actually put in some time with the workers that are working and dealing with that problem. And so on. And I see myself becoming very actively involved in that when, in fact, I'm finished in this job in twelve months time. And I want to in fact give some time to that on, more on a day to day basis than I'm able to do at the moment in the trips that I do to Adelaide. So that is a very big area that ... that is not really being tackled by anyone. But what I really want to say is that the ATSIC programmes, of course, are programmes that are in place mainly because state and territory governments are not providing the services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people that they're providing to ... to their citizens. And they see that as a ATSIC responsibility or a Federal responsibility. Our funds are really are a top-up to the responsibilities they have and one of the big tasks that we have is to get state and territory governments to accept their proper responsibility for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens.

In areas such as?

In the ... in all the areas of housing, health, and education and also to those young people who are on the streets and, for the most part, are wards of the state. And so they have a tremendous responsibility here and unfortunately they see the ... the result of the referendum giving responsibility to the Commonwealth and they often quote that as a reason why they don't have to deal with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens of their states and territories.

You mean the referendum that ... are we talking about the 1967 referendum that included them in the census and made them recognised as citizens to be counted?

That's right, but ... but ...

But how does that take away the right ... of the need for the state to take care of them?

Well it doesn't but it also went on to say that the Commonwealth should also accept responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, but that was really when, in fact, the Commonwealth did, in fact, start to put extra money into Aboriginal affairs. But what's got to be understood of course is that the Commonwealth does pay money to the states as well in all these programme areas to assist the states to do that, and then, of course, on top of that there are the programmes that this commission provides as well, but is really only extra effort that's made on our part, and also to provide funds for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples out of frustration, of course, to provide funds because states and territories are not doing their job.

There is this feeling, I think, among a lot of people that over the last few years progress has been made and money has been spent to try to improve Aboriginal health, housing, employment, education and so on, and yet there's a sense that there isn't the progress that people would like. We still have terrible problems with Aboriginal health, we have deaths in custody, we've had a commission into it and nothing seems to have improved. Do you get that sense that there's a big gap between the wish to do things, the money to do things and the actual results? Why do you think that is? Why is it so difficult to get results?

Well I think the problems have been because Aboriginal people haven't been involved themselves in setting the priorities, making the decisions and when you consider that ATSIC has only been in existence for four years, that really has been a really big job for community people: all of a sudden to be given responsibility to make decisions for themselves. And I think a lot of headway's been made in terms of ... not outcomes on those programmes that we're responsible for and delivering, but there's certainly been outcomes in terms of knowledge ... the knowledge that Aboriginal people have gained over the four years. For instance, the mystery of how budgets are formulated, how you go about lobbying governments to provide extra funds, and how you get involved in regional council decision making and the need to set priorities in Aboriginal affairs so ... because I mean the bureaucrats did that before. And so in the last four years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people are coming to terms with that. Now, we'll make our mistakes in the same way, but governments have done it for 200 years. If Aboriginal people do it for four or five years, well then obviously we've got to be allowed to make some mistakes along the way but, of course, we are more keen to get outcomes, I believe, than governments have been, because it seems as if the more money you pour in, the more satisfied governments are that they're doing something. But we can't be content with that, of course, and while I have to confess at this stage that we haven't seen the outcomes that we'd like to see I'd certainly hope that in the future we can move towards seeing greater outcomes.

You talked rather wistfully of the unity and camaraderie of the early days, before there was much money, when Aborigines were working for something which they saw as happening in the future. Do you think that some of that arose out of a lack of appreciation of the enormous difficulties of what you were trying to do in bringing together people, who really [are] scattered all over the country, [with] different languages and different backgrounds. I wonder being in this job has made you feel ... what it's made you think and feel about Aboriginal unity.

Well I'd still like to think that we could ... we could go back to those times, when we had unity, because I believe that we, in fact, would get greater outcomes if we could. But we're ... I guess we're all too obsessed with what we're doing ourselves and not thinking enough about, in fact, coming together and talking about how we can perhaps move towards greater outcomes by working much more closely together but, unfortunately, I think having now formulated the organisations we have round the country, responsible now for ... for budgets and programmes, life is ... is too busy, I suppose, and we don't take the time out to perhaps network, ring each other and give each other the support and so on, that we did in those days back, you know, in the sixties but, I guess, that's the way life is. And, of course, now I'm in ... I'm certainly in a position of great responsibility. People often say power. I don't exercise power in the way that people might expect, because I see myself, of course, in this position as the first amongst equals and that the decisions ... the policy decisions that are made and the decisions that are made about funding to programmes and so on that are made by the Corporate Body, which is the Board of Commissioners ... and I've never been a person to get carried away with power, and so that's the way I operate.

You talk about leaving at the end of the year and going back closer to the community with the same kind of enthusiasm that you talked about leaving being a charge nurse and going back to bedside or community nursing. Do you find this distance that you are sitting in this office from the actual work face, work with Aborigines, hard to deal with?

No, no I don't actually. I've ... I guess experience over all this time, I've always made a very big point of always keeping contact with the community and I like to live in a small community and to get back there because I think it keeps your feet on the ground. Now admittedly, since ... since I lost my husband, I haven't got back to Quorn as much as I'd like to but, of course, life's been very, very busy here. But my family keep in touch on a regular basis and when we have Aboriginal people in town from my own home state as well as other places, I think they make sure you keep your feet on the ground, so I don't feel very remote. But I've worked very hard at ... at making sure that I keep my contacts.

Over all these years that you've been so close to Aboriginal communities and you've been looking at it and thinking about it and analysing it, in your heart what do you think is the most important thing to be done to really make a difference?

Well ... well in my heart I think ... what I feel is the most important thing to do is to really tackle the alcohol and drug abuse problem, because I believe that if, in fact, we're able to do that, Aboriginal people would be able to regain some of their dignity and I believe then they would be in a position to be able to deal with all those ... those more difficult problems of ... of housing and also of health and education, because I believe then people take on their rightful responsibilities.

How would you do it?

Well, of course, I mean it really is ... the only way I can do it, of course, from ... from this position is to encourage the Board of Commissioners in terms of budget allocations and for everyone to see that ... that that I believe is the biggest problem because then there has to be a shift of emphasis, of funding to those community organisations who are actually working on that particular problem. So really that's the first thing, that there has to be a shift in terms of funds allocation to those particular areas.

But what would you spend those funds on? What method can be used to be work with people who've been involved in this kind of pattern of abuse for a long time?

Well there are ... there are programmes in every state and territory that are actually dealing with it, but it's not just as easy as running day centres and rehabilitation programmes and so on because it's much more complex than that, because you have to get the confidence of the people and you have to get people who ... who are in fact, abusing alcohol and drugs to see the need for them to, in fact, enter into such a programme. So that is the most difficult. So we have to give the organisations the ability in the first place to ... to seek these people out, to also provide them, of course, with ... with the necessary accommodation and sustenance and so on, to get and gain their confidence in the first instance, that they need to do something about the problem. So that is always the problem with those sorts of programmes in the first instance though ... and also giving the workers the necessary support and so on that they need to keep going.

Some people have linked the alcohol problem and the drug problem to the dispossession of land and they take the view that the central problem is the land rights problem and that a lot of the others flow from that, including alcohol abuse. What do you think of that?

Well, of course, I mean land is ... we term land as our mother, of course, and that land certainly is ... is very important to us but, of course, we have the recent High Court decision in relation to Native Title and we now have the legislation and from ... from what we know, of course, only ... only ten per cent of Aboriginal people will really benefit from the Mabo decision, so there all of those people who are ... who are well and truly dispossessed, who have no chance, of course, of proving Native Title, and so that is also a difficult ... a difficult area that needs to be ... needs to be dealt with. So those people, of course, in urban and rural areas will need to be helped in some different ways and that's why in fact in this budget we are hoping to, in fact, receive significant funds for a national land fund, which, of course, will purchase land on behalf of Aboriginal people who've actually been dispossessed. Now land for ... for a number of reasons - cultural, social and economic reasons in the more urban areas - can be bought to enable Aboriginal people to ... to have social and cultural centres and also to own buildings and so on to operate their legal services and their medical services. That's probably about all we'll be able to do in terms of compensating in some way for ... for the dispossession that has actually occurred. But for the traditional areas of course there will be those who will ... there is quite a lot of land of course that, that has been bought up over the years in the Northern Territory and in the Kimberley, to a lesser extent in Queensland. Of course they will have the ability to ... to apply to the tribunal for consideration of their Native Title Claim.

Could you tell me about your part in this: how you felt when you heard about the Mabo decision, and then what it's meant for you in terms of your work here in the time since that decision was made.

Well, look it was very heady days, of course, last year while we were negotiating. It was difficult, but it was ... it was exciting and it was a tremendous responsibility, of course, we had as well and we were always aware of that because everyone was watching and my own particular role in it, of course, was only a member of the team, but a senior member of the team and being the chairperson of ATSIC, we were the funding body, of course, that enabled the other members of the team to be in Canberra as often as they needed to be to enter into those negotiations and so it was a ... it was a responsible job that we had and we really, at the end of the day, had to come out with a result and, of course, on the last night it was just euphoric and I guess, as I look back on the photographs and the coverage and so on of those times, it was obvious that I was very pleased by the outcome and it was good to get home at Christmas time with a feeling that you'd actually been part of a great achievement for Aboriginal people.

But in the wake of it, afterwards, trying to get the legislation right, being constantly criticised for not having gone far enough, or having gone too far, how do you deal with that personally? Does it worry you when other Aborigines attack you and say you haven't done the right thing and that you've sold out and use phrases like that?

Well look, I've never been a person to worry too much about those sorts of criticisms because I'm also a person that thinks ... thinks about what I do and every move I make I would have thought about it before ... before doing and also before speaking, and I think I've always been of the opinion that if, in fact, you've given a lot of consideration to it, that you believe it's the right move you're making and that you've just got to press on. If at any time I felt that I was in the wrong, and that I had made a mistake, and that I was in the wrong, I make sure that I fix it up pretty quickly and I never take any of those problems to bed with me at night and so I think that's why I've been able to keep going because I don't lose sleep over anything really because I believe that every move I make I have thought about it and I believe I'm doing the right thing.

But what about when you make a mistake, does that bother you?

I haven't made any very big mistakes, I don't believe, mainly because, I guess, from a very early age, I've had to work very hard at always doing things right and while they ... that was a very onerous ... onerous of course in the ... in my early years, I find that it really is just not difficult for me these days.

So you feel satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations relating to Mabo and to Aboriginal Title, but you're saying to ... say people in the white community who feel 'Well look that's fixed things, you know, we've, we've done the right thing here and it's going to', you would say, there's still so many Aborigines that won't be affected at all by this and who'll be in the same situation.

Yeah, well that's true, but of course we can ... we have to still deal with those Aboriginal people who've been dispossessed through our programmes. But the outcome of the Mabo decision won't make a great deal of difference. But, of course we had a ... we certainly had a victory in the High Court decision that dispelled the legal fiction that this country was occupied by no one: 'terra nullius'. So that was a very big victory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, but the final outcome of the legislation and so on will ... will not benefit, you know, too many Aboriginal people, but we'll continue to deal with those other matters through the programmes and so on. But I do feel satisfied with the outcome. But we've got a lot of work to do. I mean the tribunal is just being established, the head of the tribunal, of course, is ... is not yet appointed and there've been - one of the things that I've been pleased about, of course, that there haven't been massive claims but the, the Commission itself from the when the High Court was handed down, proceeded to give a selected number of Aboriginal organisations round the country the financial ability to research claims for Native Title, and I think that, in fact, if we do the research properly, which I believe is happening at the moment, that later on we can expect, of course, that there will be many more claims, but up till now there are only two claims before the ... before the tribunal.

[end of tape]

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