Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

Joe McGuinness
1914 - 2003
Joe McGuinness
1914 - 2003

Joseph Daniel McGinness was born in 1914 at the site of his parents' tin mine, some 50 kilometres south of Darwin. He was the youngest of five children born to Irish immigrant, Stephen McGinness and his wife Alyandabu, a Kungarakan woman also known as Lucy, the name of the tin mine. He died aged 89 in Cairns on 11 July.

Joe McGinness was an extraordinary man who led a life of remarkable achievement and was involved in the 20th century's defining battles for indigenous rights in the Northern Territory, Queensland and nationally. His death on the final Friday of this year's NAIDOC was particularly poignant, given his critical role over many years in establishing and developing this important annual celebration of indigenous Australia.

His early years were relatively unrestricted for an indigenous child at the time, thanks largely to the presence of his European father, but following his father's death in 1918, the lease on the family's mine was forfeited. McGinness and his brother Val became wards of the Chief Protector of Aborigines and were removed, with their mother, to Darwin's Kahlin Compound. Life at Kahlin was difficult. The children were separated from their mother for most of the day and were left without formal schooling or regular meals. Like most children at the compound, McGinness had to raid the nearby vegetable gardens and orchards at night to stave off hunger. He left Kahlin at the age of 13 for his first job, working as a rouseabout for a travelling salesman to whom he was indentured for a year.

During the 1920s and 1930s, McGinness worked as a truck driver, labourer, and trepang fisher in the waters of the Northern Territory and Torres Strait, and was unemployed for several years during the Depression. In 1935, he met and married his first wife, Jaura Ah Mat, who died just four years later. Two children were born from this marriage, Elsie and John.

After surviving the bombing of Darwin in 1942, McGinness later wrote that the shock of the attack brought him to reality. He joined an army field ambulance unit and served in Darwin, Morotai and Borneo. Here, he learnt Bahasa Malay, adding to the Cantonese he had learnt as a child in Darwin. He moved to northern Queensland to be with his family and children after the war.

Uncle Joe, as he was so well known, lived through a period of Australian politics in which state governments began their policy of assimilating half caste Aboriginal children into white families and institutions, and herding tribal people into reserves. So-called protection laws gave state governments near autonomous control over the movements of Aboriginal people. However, at the same time, the colonial attitudes of non-indigenous people were slowly changing. Many groups, including unions, welfare organisations, and some churches, had begun to protest against racist state and federal legislation and the other injustices that daily faced Aboriginals.

McGinness's activism began in the 1930s in Darwin, where he protested against mass unemployment and appeared before parliamentary delegations examining the question of indigenous rights. Along with members of his family, he staged a protest tent outside the Kahlin Compound, an action unheard of at the time. Despite his lack of formal schooling, he had long realised the importance of literacy in tackling the injustices he faced, and was eager to read as much as possible. He read the daily newspaper and did the crossword until the last stages of his life. He counted among his good friends the authors, Frank Hardy and Xavier Herbert, the latter of whom he considered 'instrumental in motivating a number of us into meeting together and becoming active around the question of Aboriginal rights'. But it was after joining the Waterside Workers' Federation while working on the wharves on Thursday Island that McGinness' activism began in earnest.

McGinness moved to Cairns in 1951, where he met his second partner, Amy Nagas. His daughter, Sandra, was born in 1954, and he also helped care for Amy's two sons, Raymond and Samuel. It was in Cairns that his involvement with the union expanded after being elected to its executive committee. Like most Australian towns of the day, Cairns had sharp racial divides, with most Aboriginals living on the outskirts and surviving on intermittent, underpaid work. McGinness was determined to fight the constant discrimination and abuse directed at the local indigenous community, largely by employers and police.

The Guivarra family remembers these times, and they stated:

We often went under the protection of the unions, and just a handful of us marched on Labour Day in the May Day procession. Even then we were constantly harassed by the Queensland State Police before the march commenced, and there were always the threats to our parents of imprisonment. Our father and this big Uncle (Joe) would always be there contending with the police, but we always managed to get our little show on the road, putting up with the abuse, sometimes even from our own people and being the recipient of the rotten apples being thrown by pedestrian abusers.

The Cairns Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Advancement League was formed in 1958 to take on this advocacy role with McGuinness as its secretary. The league worked closely with the local Trades and Labour Council which McGuinness described as 'the only white organisation that showed concern over reported cases of injustice'. The Cairns league's activism coincided with an emerging national movement in support of indigenous rights a national indigenous advocacy body, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, commonly known as FCAATSI. This organisation was formed after a coalition of rights groups met in Adelaide, also in 1958. McGuinness soon became FCAATSI's first indigenous president, a position he held for 17 years between 1961 to 1973 and 1975 to 1979.

It was not long before FCAATSI won its first victory of national significance. A young indigenous man at the Hope Vale Mission who had consorted with his girlfriend, had been severely flogged by the mission's pastor and ordered to be moved to Palm Island. McGuinness directed a long and intense campaign against the pastor's actions. Although the campaign gained unprecedented publicity, Queensland's Minister for Native Affairs, Dr Noble, continued to condone the punishment, describing it as 'part of the tribal way of living'. However, the persistence of McGinness and others eventually forced the government to hold an inquiry into incident, which found that the pastor's behaviour was 'inexcusable'. It was the first time this type of misconduct by a mission had been successfully challenged. The win triggered a range of protests against similar incidences of abuse across the country.

Hope Vale was McGinness' first major victory, but there were many, many more to come. Across the country, FCAATSI pursued legislative reform, wage equity cases, and the early push for land rights. McGinness will no doubt be remembered best for his role as joint national campaign director during the lead-up to the 1967 referendum. It was a campaign of driving from town hall meeting to town hall meeting and grassroots action across the nation. The referendum was FCAATSI's strongest and most successful campaign. It gave constitutional capacity to the federal government to legislate in favour of Aboriginal people, and allowed indigenous Australians to be counted in the census. Supported by more than 90% of voters, it remains the strongest 'yes' vote of any Australian referendum.

His co-campaigner, Faith Bandler, said of Uncle Joe that he was a:

tireless worker for the 1967 referendum [and that while] his vision and tremendous commitment might not be replaced it will leave many throughout this country in good stread to continue the work for reconciliation.

Uncle Joe went on to be a key figure in the early days of the development of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and had great influence over members of federal parliament from both sides of politics. Back in North Queensland, Uncle Joe became the regional manager of Aboriginal Hostels in Cairns, and was instrumental in the establishment of many of the major Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations in north and far north Queensland. As Patrick Dodson wrote of Uncle Joe:

This grand old man has been the inspiration to many of us who have joined in the battle for justice. He has provided wisdom and advice, guidance and correction, humour and hope. His interest, enthusiasm and point of view on the continuing challenges we face against the ignorant and arrogant who professed to know what is best for us or who try to con us in so many ways was always present and available as he encouraged us on.

He went on:

He did not like corruption in Aboriginal affairs and had high expectations for all leaders. His preference appeared to me about getting the task done in a cooperative manner, not to bask in the limelight of the media. The priority of the peoples' rights, interests and conditions were the most important things.

Source: Speech by JohnAh Kit, Member for Arnhem, Ninth Assembly, First Session - 12/08/2003 - Parliamentary Record No: 14

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