Reflecting on the career of a reconciliation pioneer

The Hon Fred Chaney AO has committed a lifetime to improving conditions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Starting his career as a lawyer, Mr Chaney was an early advocate for Aboriginal voting rights and later served as a Liberal Senator for WA, a Member of the House of Representatives and held several Ministerial appointments in the Fraser government.

Mr Chaney was Deputy President of the National Native Title Tribunal and, more recently, Chair of Desert Knowledge Australia.

After serving as the inaugural Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia, Mr Chaney remained on the Board for almost 15 years, before stepping down at the end of 2014.

As Mr Chaney heads into retirement, and prepares to pass on his Senior Australia of the Year title this Sunday, we reflect on his lifelong commitment to bringing all Australians together.

Ideas about right and wrong were implanted in me before I met my first Aboriginal person when I was 14. I was uncomfortable with what I saw then about relationships and respect through the window of that first encounter. It did not seem right to me and roused my interest and curiosity.

Visiting Aboriginal reserves in the south-west of Western Australia, seeing people who did not have the right to vote and were not even counted as Australians, as well as witnessing overt acts of racism, were all part of convincing me that this was the most significant aspect of Australian life that had to be changed.

My first direct involvements in reconciliation were in 1959, when the University Liberal Club worked with Swan Valley fringe dwellers on the erection of playground furniture at the Allawah Grove camp. We followed that up by drafting a submission on Aboriginal voting rights to the Parliamentary committee that was enquiring into that subject in 1961.

Ever since, I have been observing and participating in the direction of Australia’s travel in these matters. It is a trajectory in the direction of reconciliation.

Over the last 50 years we have achieved a lot, including, among many other things, voting rights; the successful 1967 referendum; the Mabo decision; the Native Title Act; the 2000 bridge walks and the Apology. These are achievements I hope to see built on into the future, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples take their rightful place in Australia.

With 500 plus Reconciliation Action Plans, cross-party support for constitutional recognition, the Prime Minister designating himself as Prime Minister for Aboriginal affairs and a vast number of community-based initiatives working with Indigenous people, our trajectory as a nation continues to be in the direction of reconciliation.

The good intentions of the present Government are apparent and they, like all governments, have a real challenge in achieving results equal to their ambitions. The capacity to work with Indigenous people rather than on Indigenous people has to be developed if the Prime Minister’s laudable ambitions are to be realised.

Many Indigenous people are under too much day-to-day pressure just to survive let alone prosper and contemplate their futures. They need to be given the opportunity to develop collective visions and views for the future.

The question remains, are we big enough, generous enough, to provide room for the world’s oldest living cultures to find their continuing futures?

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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