• Gough Whitlam formally handed back land to the Gurindji people, pouring soil into the hands of elder Vince Lingiari,
Indigenous Australians have paid tribute to former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who died this morning, aged 98.
Malarndirri McCarthy, Andrea Booth

21 Oct 2014 - 10:57 AM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2014 - 4:54 PM

Whitlam’s government established legal and other services for Indigenous Australians, championed self-determination and the right of traditional owners to own their land.

In August 1975, at the site of the Aboriginal walk-off at Wave Hill, in the Northern Territory, Gough Whitlam formally handed back land to the Gurindji people, pouring soil into the hands of elder Vince Lingiari, marking the first time land was handed back to Aboriginal Australians.

“Mr Whitlam was a great champion of the rights of Australian’s Indigenous peoples” said Mr Samuel Bush-Blanasi, chairman of the Northern Land Council in a statement this morning.

 “The Northern Land Council farewells a great Australian."

“Although it was the government of Mr Malcolm Fraser which passed the Northern Territory Land Rights Act in 1976, the substance of that law was in fact the creation of Mr Whitlam’s Labor government.

“The Northern Territory Land Rights Act set the stage for the High Court’s Mabo decision many years later.

“And in August 1975, only three months before his removal as Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam heralded land rights legislation in the Territory when he famously handed back the lease of Wave Hill Station to Aboriginal Traditional Owners.

“Mr Whitlam was a great friend of Aboriginal people and land councils in the Northern Territory. In fact, his last visit to the Territory was in 2004 when he attended a dinner in Darwin to farewell the NLC’s long–serving former chairman, Mr Galarrwuy Yunupingu

Flags outside the NLC headquarters in Darwin are flying at half-mast today in honour of Mr Whitlam.

As well as setting up the Department of Indigenous Affairs, the Whitlam government also introduced the Racial Discrimination Act and ratified a number of international human rights treaties.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples hailed the late Gough Whitlam as a true leader for Australia for reforming colonial-era policies and laws.

“He not only believed in justice but demonstrated the will to achieve justice outcomes,” Congress said in a statement.

“Long after he left political office, Mr Whitlam continued to work with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership to challenge racial discrimination and inequality.  For example, he joined a delegation with the National Aboriginal Conference leaders to present their issues to the United Nations,” the statement said.

“His achievements live on and we will remember the Whitlam 'era' as the platform for recognition of the rights of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in modern Australia.“