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Statement from Minister Harris on passing of Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue

It is with great sadness that we reflect on the passing of Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue at the age of 91.

A giant of a leader, hers was a remarkable life. It began with the trauma of removal from family, language and cultural identity. But it was defined by a passion and determination towards a better, fairer, more courageous Australia. One where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights would be recognised, and a true path towards reconciliation could be forged.

A commanding presence, Dr O’Donoghue was equally comfortable working at the grassroots of political activism as she was addressing international dignitaries and politicians.

The founding chairperson of the Whitlam Government’s National Aboriginal Conference, Dr O’Donoghue led a life of firsts.

She was the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, after lobbying the Premier of South Australia for the opportunity.

The first female regional director of a federal department, the Adelaide office of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

The first Aboriginal person to be named a Companion of the Order of Australia.

The first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly in Geneva in 1992.

And, as the first Commissioner for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Dr O’Donoghue worked closely with the Keating Government to develop native title legislation – the first time Aboriginal community representatives had been brought into the federal Cabinet room.

In fact, Dr O’Donoghue was Keating’s pick for first Aboriginal Governor General. However, she declined the offer, telling him “I’m a republican, and so are you.”

As the tributes to Dr O’Donoghue continue to roll in, it is clear that her influence was felt across the political divide, and amongst Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people the nation over.

We as a nation are the lesser for her passing, but the greater for her presence and the incredible legacy she leaves. I extend my deep sympathy to her family, her community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country at this sad time.

Mr David Harris, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Treaty

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