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Joe McGinness

(1914 to 2003)


Joe McGinness

Source: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Joe McGinness became the first Aboriginal president of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in 1961. He would hold this position for all but one year until the Federal Council's demise in 1978. Joe was well regarded as a chairman who was attentive to different points of view and who led by example. In an interview in 1996 Joe spoke about the process of colonisation necessarily involving the attempt to destroy people and their way of life. As a young activist in Darwin and later with the formation of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement Joe maintained a people's right to culture, as he explains here.

Well, you look at Timor or places around our region now, those people have been colonised by someone else and they're expected to be assimilated to their way of thinking, readjust their lifestyle to the colonisers. That's what we've got to remember. And as far as our opposition to all this, it started ever since colonisation took place here, you know. Our people were victimised one way or another, as you probably know. We were always the aggressors and non-conformists and whatever. There was always that opposition against being colonised, even our early ancestors and you know what happened there: wholesale slaughter, poisoning and all this went on. That's never been truly written up. Those of us that took up the cudgels in the late '20s, early '30s were more or less in isolation, you see? But with the formation of FCAATSI [Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders] - it started off with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in 1958 - they were able to get these different organisations in the various states to affiliate and we formed the national organisation. And the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement later on included the Torres Strait Islanders, that's why we've got TSI at the end of it. And we were more or less able to make more headway and make our presence felt nationally.

Joe recalls the practice of having a separate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander meeting before the formal FCAATSI conference proceedings began.

Listen, all Aboriginals actually, we made it a rule, you know, that the day before the meeting commenced we'd have an Aboriginal session. And all those fellas from the different states and communities came in and talked about their particular problem, and that was their input you see, and we raised it at general meetings. And, you know the other residents that went to the meeting, well they had a broader outlook of what went on here and there.

Joe describes the difficulty people, especially poor people in remote regions, had getting the money together for fares to get to Canberra for annual FCAATSI conferences.

Joe: We used that [money raised] sometimes and have to use our own money to get from here to there. And, you know, every payday the women ran a raffle, raised money that way for the [Cairns] Advancement League. Dances, you know, weekly dances, Gladys O'Shane and a few more others. I can't recall who was there, you know, leaders of the dance group and put on concerts and dances and Amy, you know, my wife, she was involved in it. That raised a bit of fun to keep us goin' through the years, you see, and particularly helped us with our travel, but you know we had to put our own money in too!

Joe's Irish father, Stephen McGinness, had operated a tin mine in the Northern Territory and his death, when Joe was about eight, turned young Joe's life upside down. His mother, Alyandabu of the Kugarakan tribe, lost the lease on the mining claim, even though she was a part-owner. Joe became a ward of the state and was taken to Darwin's Kahlin Compound, which he remembers as a place of severe deprivation. As a young man Joe McGinness worked in a variety of jobs and during the Second World War he served in the Australian army in Borneo. Afterwards, he got work on the wharves and joined the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF).

Joe McGinness has claimed that his political education came from the Cairns branch of the WWF, of which he was an active member. He became the secretary of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League when it formed in 1959.

Throughout the 1960s, the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island League initiated a number of Federal Council investigations. These included querying the number of Aboriginal tuberculosis patients who were not receiving the Commonwealth's tuberculosis allowance and an investigation into abuses of the Queensland Trust Fund. Joe McGinness skillfully combined assisting people with their welfare queries with encouraging them to join an activist organisation and press for reforms.

Joe recalls some early non-Indigenous campaigners who used their positions in society to make valuable contributions to the development of the national movement in Aboriginal affairs.

Well, I think Lady Jessie Street was the one that introduced the campaign about the referendum. She was one, and people like Jessie Street had access to different areas of influence, and that helped us deal with the referendum. Not only her, see there was Dr Barry Christophers. He had access to the medical profession, where he could raise the question of the TB [tuberculosis] allowance for example. And Reverend Charles Duguid, you see, fellas like that. And Charles Duguid himself had influence in the Australian Inland Mission or Board of Missions, I forget which it was. He favoured the introduction of bilingual teaching at the Ernabella mission. And another early leader was Stan Davey. He was the fella organising the Federal Council and he never let up seven days a week, twelve hours a day, old Stan. That's why I have great respect for Stan; I think he earned it.

In 1967 during the Vote Yes campaign for a referendum Joe travelled all over Australia putting the case for a 'Yes' vote. Here he recalls the campaign:

Oh well, you know there were various organisations that supported our request for a referendum to have equal rights - church groups, unions and everything, but we had to get around for six or eight years campaigning to get that support, which proved very effective, I think. Ninety per cent of the population voted for this constitutional change: church groups and everything else.

I did a bit of travelling around. I went to all the capital cities bar Western Australia, I think. Adelaide and Hobart, the referendum meeting that I addressed in Hobart was sponsored by the Bishop of Tasmania. I'll tell you about an experience I had. One of the funniest ones was going down to Devonport to address the church congregation on Sunday night about our plight and why we wanted a referendum and after the old priest in charge introduced me, they elevated me to the pulpit. I was talking from the pulpit - a bloody heathen like me talking to the congregation! - and the minister from Hobart was convening the meeting. There wasn't such a great crowd there, but he was introducing me: 'Here's Mr McGinness talking about the referendum coming up and Aboriginal rights. There isn't that many here to hear him but the cream of Tasmania is here', he says (general laughter). And while I was there I went to the Tasmanian University and addressed the staff and the students there, see. That's how we got our message across. Well others did it too, you know. I'm not the only one. We had to hand out pamphlets. Even Paul Keating handed out how-to-vote cards.

He pointed out the importance of land to Aboriginal people at annual FCAATSI conferences and in the following interview extract shares his awareness of the complexity of land politics.

Joe: Even today with the land question I went out there to Doomagie Mission, just on the border, and the Nicholson River land claim was just granted, and people from Doomagie belonged to that tribal group all the way down to Burketown from practically Borooloola in the Territory, see. And they are all in that tribal group right down there. And they were packin' up when I drove in and they said 'Those people over there might be wild with us if we go over there'. I said, 'You go up there, that's your country. We never put that fence [the state border] there. You go'. Even in Camooweal, in Bjelke-Petersen's reign, he was always blaming any disruption that took place amongst the Aboriginal people, 'Oh that's people from the Territory comin' down here and disturbing the peace all the time'. Even to a policeman, one time I was out there, I said, 'That's not altogether right what your premier is jumpin' up and down about. All of those people belong to the one tribal group, you know. They don't take any notice of that fence', meaning the border. The policeman agreed with me and said, 'Nobody takes any notice of it' (laughs). Even up in the Territory now a particular tribal group with land rights will say, 'Oh we're going to beef it up' - even my mob - and I say, 'You'll have to include others.'

I've been concerned with Aboriginal rights right around Australia for just on sixty years and I don't see it that way. Others have got to be included not only our tribal groups'. That's how I see it anyway. It only causes further conflict. That's what happens here now. You see all these people, being different tribal groups, put into communities, even Palm Island, see? But one particular group is supposed to traditionally own Palm Island. Others that come in and if there's any argument about someone raising a concern they'll say, 'Oh, you don't belong to this country. You go back to your earth'. It might be quite right, what he's talkin' about. And that sort of conflict goes on. Even here in Yarrabah, when it comes to the question of land rights, 'Oh you don't belong, your parents don't belong to here, you might have been born here but you've got no rights here'. It's a very difficult hurdle, that one, to come over.

The Aboriginal people who are this way inclined, have to come to grips with it I'm afraid. Look at it in a different light altogether. And I've heard the authorities using that too. There's a lot of women coming down from the Cape, pregnant, and they give birth here, you see. They say there is no facilities up there. But that doesn't hold much water in the argument as far as I'm concerned. They used to have their children up there before. They're down here for two or three months givin' birth and they go back and the kid grows up to adulthood, started talking about the rights to that land and the authorities say, 'Well, what are you talking about? You never been born here. You've been born in Cairns!' That stumps 'em too, poor beggars. This is the sort of thing they have to get around.

In 1973 Joe McGinness became a member of the National Aboriginal Consultative Council, the first federal government body of Indigenous advisers. He was manager of the North Eastern Region of Aboriginal Hostels from 1975 to 1979. He continued to work, through the 1970s and 1980s, in a number of Indigenous organisations. He was widely known and loved across northern Australia as 'Uncle Joe' and was awarded an Order of Australia in recognition of his work for Indigenous Australians. His autobiography Son of Alyandabu: My Fight for Aboriginal Rights was published in 1991.

Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Joe McGinness and Evelyn Scott conducted by Leanne Miller and Sue Taffe on 17 October 1996

Further reading

Joe McGinness, Son of Alyandabu: My Fight for Aboriginal Rights, Queensland University Press, St Lucia, 1991