AURUKUN Shire Council Mayor Dereck Walpo has paid tribute to former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a good friend of the Aurukun community through his close friendship with Indigenous land rights campaigner John Koowarta.
Mr Whitlam, who passed away recently at the age of the age of 98, became friends with Mr Koowarta during his famous land rights struggles with Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen Government in the 1970s.
The story of Mr Koowarta, who himself passed away in 1991, was detailed in Indigenous leader Noel Pearson’s eulogy at Mr Whitlam’s nationally-broadcast memorial service last week.
Mayor Walpo said Mr Whitlam was a great supporter of Indigenous rights, and a close friend of the Aurukun community.
“The terrible events of the 1970s brought together John and Mr Whitlam, and from that moment, a firm friendship developed,” said Cr Walpo.
“John was a prominent person in Aurukun’s history and an amazing leader, and this was an important period for not only Aurukun, but also Australian history.
“This was long before Mabo, and through circumstance, John was a trailblazer in Aboriginal land rights.
“The legal battle which upheld the Federal Government’s Racial Discrimination Act resulted in John and Mr Whitlam becoming personal friends.
“They were so close that Mr Whitlam made two visits to Aurukun following John’s passing in 1991, once for the house opening and once for the tombstone opening.
“Mr Whitlam was a fine leader and supporter of Indigenous rights, and I speak on behalf of the Aurukun community when I pass on our condolences to the Whitlam family.”
In 1976, Mr Koowarta, an Aboriginal man of the Wik nation and the Aurukun region of Cape York Peninsula, and a number of other traditional owners, were planning to purchase the Archer River cattle station, which covered much of the Wik peoples’ traditional homeland.
They had been successful in gaining approval for funding from the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission, which was established by Mr Whitlam in that year following the royal commission that was completed the previous year.
However, then Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, directed the Queensland minister for lands not to approve the sale, as Queensland cabinet policy at the time was to not allow Aboriginal people to own large tracts of land.
Mr Koowarta initially made a complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, on the basis that blocking the sale was discriminatory.
The Commission upheld Mr Koowarta’s complaint, but the Queensland Government appealed to the Supreme Court of Queensland.
The Queensland Government also brought a separate action against the Government of Australia, arguing that they had no power to pass the Racial Discrimination Act, and as such, the case was moved to the High Court.
The High Court’s decision in Koowarta vs Bjelke-Petersen upheld the Racial Discrimination Act as a valid exercise of the external affairs powers of the Commonwealth.
However, the Bjelke-Petersen government declared the cattle station a national park, as a final measure to block the ownership of Mr Koowarta and other traditional owners.
When Mr Koowarta passed away nine years later, the lease had still not been transferred. A long standing promise to transfer the lease was finally honoured by the Bligh Labor government in 2010.