Volume 11 Number 1
Keeper of the Heart of Australia
01 February 1998

Lois O'Donoghue, one of Australia's best known public figures, did not know her mother until she was 35. Mike Brown tells the story of her extraordinary life.

Lois O'Donoghue was short-listed to become Governor-General of Australia, and chosen as a delegate to last December's Constitutional Convention on whether Australia should be a Republic or not. Yet she spent the first half of her life as a non-citizen, without rights, in the land of her birth.

She bears the name of an Irishman, but is also descended from the Aboriginal keepers of Uluru (Ayers Rock), the Yunkunjatjara people, whose ancestry goes back 60,000 years or more.

Dr Lois O'Donoghue, Order of Australia, Commander of the British Empire, 1984's 'Australian of the Year', first and only Aboriginal to address the UN General Assembly, for seven years the most senior Aboriginal in public office, was born in the red dust at the centre of this continent.

She has no memories of her birthplace. Her mother and relatives lived behind a dingo fence on Granite Downs station property, now 'Indulkana', in the north-west of South Australia. Her father was an Irish builder who soon after immigrating formed a long-term liaison with her mother.

At the age of two Lois, and two of her sisters, were taken from their family by missionaries on behalf of the Aboriginal Protection Board. An older brother and sister had already been removed. Called Lowitja by her mother, she became Lois.

She was one of the initial intake of 'the Colebrook Home for Half Caste Children' when it opened in 1934 near Quorn, SA. Later, like the other older girls, she was put in charge of several infants, bathing and feeding them each morning before going to school. Avis was one of her 'babies'.

O'Donoghue does not dwell on this period of her life, although she feels the facts need to be known. She remembers Colebrook as 'a very spartan place' run by two maiden missionary ladies. Known as a 'faith mission', it got little or no government support. Sometimes food stocks were low, and there was little to eat.

A grainy photograph reveals lines of smiling children each holding a cabbage. Sometimes a load of vegetables or bread would be delivered, unannounced. And the children would be called to sing 'Praise God from whom all blessings flow'.

Among the 'blessings' were a strict discipline, meted out with a leather strap. O'Donoghue, who did not submit easily, remembers grabbing the strap in defiance. It was used for such misdemeanors as speaking in their own language, or persistently asking about their families.

One aim of the assimilation policy was to integrate mixed-race children into white society. But in reality the children were not expected to become more than domestic servants or cattle stockmen. 'I decided I wanted to be somebody,' says O'Donoghue, who at that time as an Aboriginal was not even counted in the census. 'God had given me intelligence and I was going to use it. I decided I was going to become a nurse.'

Though she had worked in a country hospital, she was refused entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital-because of her race. So much for assimilation. 'I suppose that was when I first really got my blood up.' With the help of the Aborigines Advancement League she and a dozen Colebrook 'sisters' held a meeting in the Adelaide Town Hall, challenging the system. The matron backed down and in 1954 O'Donoghue was accepted as the first Aboriginal trainee. She graduated, was promoted to a charge sister, then spent a year nursing with a Baptist Mission in tribal villages in Assam, India.

After experiencing conditions in India, she was ready for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs where she had several times been offered a job. Till then, she had resisted because of the Department's pressure on Aborigines to 'become exempt from the Act' (in other words to sign away their Aboriginality and join European society). Now she felt ready to face the officials on her own terms. In 1967-the year of the Referendum which recognized Aboriginal people as full and equal citizens-she accepted a position in Coober Pedy, a mining town half-way north towards her home country.

When O'Donoghue arrived in Coober Pedy, she went to the only supermarket for supplies. A group of Aboriginals near the doorway watched her. Someone said, 'That's Lily's daughter.' Between her few words of Pitjantjatjara and their broken English, O'Donoghue discovered an uncle and aunt in the group. They wept. Her mother, they said, was in Oodnadatta. They sent word to say Lois was coming.

Work delayed O'Donoghue for three months. Every day for those three months her mother stood on the road, from dawn to dusk, waiting for her. When Lois and her older sister, Eileen, finally made the trip, their mother was too ashamed of her living conditions to welcome them into her 'humpy'. They stayed at a hotel. More painfully, they could not communicate without an interpreter.

The loss of language, culture and family goes deep. But, said O'Donoghue on ABC radio recently, 'I guess the thing that upsets me most is what my mother went through, all those years. I feel quite angry at the mission authorities for not at least sending some photographs so that she could know what we looked like.'

How could her mother know that other world Lois O'Donoghue was rapidly progressing into? By 1975 she had become regional director of Aboriginal Affairs. Two years later, she was a founding member of the National Aboriginal Conference. 'Self-determination' was the new policy. Numerous other posts and positions followed. Then in 1990 she was appointed as inaugural chair of the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), advising government on policy and managing a budget which peaked at A$1 billion a year.

Those years under the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating saw major policy initiatives, including the formation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconcilation, legislation on Native Title and the framing of a comprehensive social justice package through nationwide consultations. In all of these developments O'Donoghue played a key role. Her supporters pointed to her talent for being non-divisive in the fractious arena of Aboriginal politics: her detractors said she had worked so closely with Labor that she could no longer be an independent advocate.

Partly because of that teamwork, relations with the Liberal government elected in 1996 were bad from the start. The government targetted Aboriginal affairs for reform, claiming huge abuse of funding. The social justice packages were shelved and A$400 million was cut from ATSIC's budgets over four years.

Caught between militant Aboriginal activists and an unsympathetic Minister, O'Donoghue spoke out. The evidence of rackets quoted in Parliament had been taken from ATSIC's own internal auditing and had already been dealt with, she argued. Funding cuts would gut ATSIC's effectiveness. With every social indicator showing disasters in indigenous communities, 'Who is accountable to whom?' Meetings with the Minister went from bad to worse. Finally, when her term as ATSIC chair ended, she was replaced. Her health broke and, in early 1997, she battled to come through.

Such hurt goes beyond the personal; she grieves for the suffering of the people affected and the opportunities which have been missed. Yet she keeps bitterness in check. 'Hatred isn't a very healthy emotion,' she says. 'I've had to bite my tongue often.'

At the Reconciliation Convention last May, some reacted with indignation to the Prime Minister's speech. O'Donoghue did not. In the concluding session she cited part of what he had said as 'a skeleton of what we seek to achieve'. Then, holding out an olive branch: 'The first days of this government were very difficult for all of us, for me particularly. If there was a perception that I contributed in any way to that breakdown, in the spirit of reconciliation I say to the Prime Minister, "I'm sorry". We need to be able to talk with trust and collectively find our way through the maze.'

The olive branch withered through the following months of Native Title debate. A radicalization of the Aboriginal leadership is evident, reflecting a general polarization on race issues. Yet, as O'Donoghue noted at the Convention, 'the people's movement for reconciliation has taken root'.

She has no staff, no office; but her diary is filling with speaking dates well into 1999. Many groups have made their own formal apologies to her as a representative of her people. In response to one such apology, she said, 'We forgive you for the part you played in the removal of children from our mothers, families, culture, our land and our language.... But never ask us to forget the pain and anguish we have endured over years.'

Out there at the heart of this land are Uluru and her Yunkunjatjara elders, keepers of the rock over millennia. Though many people come and go, conflicts arise and disappear, they have kept their sacred trust.

Their descendant Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue also has a sacred trust-to be the keeper of the heart of all Australia. Freed of position, she is answerable to her people, and to all the people who belong to this land and its future.

She will need the patience of Lily, her mother, who waited day by day on the side of the road for her daughter to return.
Mike Brown

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