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McGinness, Joe (1914 - 2003)

11 July 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 2003.

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 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. 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. 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.

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 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 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 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 (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.

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

[Gary Foley]