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Autobiography shows breadth of work by Aboriginal activists

Joe McGinness campaigned for Aboriginal civil rights throughout his life. His autobiography shows the importance of Aboriginal voices in fighting for equal access to government payments, citizenship and equal wages.

Unemployment and sickness benefits were never paid in full in the north of Australia, because these benefits exceeded the wages of Aborigines.

Joe McGinness, 1991, p 72
About the artefact

Joe McGinness, a Kungarakan man, was a life-long activist for Aboriginal rights. He was involved in a range of important movements, including seeking equal access to government payments, campaigning for the ‘yes’ vote to the 1967 Referendum, and fighting for equal wages and better employment conditions.

McGinness was a leader in key advocacy groups including the Cairns Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Advancement League and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA, later FCAATSI). He also worked with the Victorian Council of Aboriginal Rights (CAR).

McGinness wrote about some of these experiences and about his early life in his autobiography, Son of Alyandabu: My fight for Aboriginal rights.

Fighting for equal access to government payments

This excerpt from his autobiography captures McGinness’s work gaining equal rights to full and directly paid social service benefits for Aboriginal people. He outlines how Aboriginal people were discriminated against in the legislation at the time and how advocacy groups sought to change the law.

He recalls the FCAA publishing the Yinjillli leaflet, which outlined the payments Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could get. He commented that it ‘… should have been the duty of governments at that time to do just this’.

Campaigning to change Tuberculosis Allowance instructions 

McGinness writes about his in-depth involvement in the campaign to change Department of Health instructions that stopped Aboriginal people getting Tuberculosis (TB) Allowance.

When visiting a non-Aboriginal friend with TB in hospital, he found out that his friend was getting TB Allowance, but that an Aboriginal patient in a nearby bed wasn’t able to get the same payment.

McGinness told CAR and the FCAA about this and found out that the discrimination was written into government instructions and manuals.

McGinness worked with Oodgeroo Noonuccal, also known as Kath Walker, to collect case studies of Aboriginal TB patients who weren’t getting TB Allowance. Together with doctors EW Abrahams and Barry E Christophers, McGinness and Noonuccal campaigned for change.

After a persistent campaign, the government changed the Department of Health’s instructions in 1965 to amend the discriminatory passages. McGinness concluded that this was ‘… one of the successful campaigns by FCAA and its affiliates’.

McGinness’s personal account reveals how central Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists were to important civil rights changes around this time.

Source details

This excerpt from Joe McGinness’s autobiography was supplied by AIATSIS.


Permission to include this excerpt was granted by Joe McGinness’s children Ms Sandra McGinness and Mr John Francis McGinness, with the assistance of his daughter Gwen Motlop.

Copyright © University of Queensland Press, 1991. This excerpt is made available for viewing for personal use. All other rights are reserved by UQP.


McGinness J (1991) Son of Alyandabu: My fight for Aboriginal rights, University of Queensland Press, Queensland.