Vale Gerard Leslie Hand - Australian Fabians
23 February, 2024

Vale Gerard Leslie Hand by Alan Austin



Vale Gerard Leslie Hand

(30 June 1942 — 15 November 2023) 



The greatest accomplishment since federation by any parliament, state or national, on behalf of Australia’s Indigenous people eventually became one of the nation’s most profound failures. 

In mid-1987, prime minister Bob Hawke and his cabinet decided it was time to undertake a bold reform with far-reaching potential benefits. They determined to fulfill the long-held and passionately-expressed aspirations of the First Australians for self-determination by enacting an elected national council. This would immediately replace the Aboriginal Development Commission and eventually take over many responsibilities of state and federal Indigenous affairs departments.

The man Hawke chose for this daunting project was Gerry Hand, a parliamentarian reckoned — correctly as was soon proven — capable of bringing together disparate Aboriginal groups, of formulating the complex structure required, and able to work with the conservative Howard-led Opposition.

The 45-year old minister, who had been in Parliament just four years, worked tirelessly for the next three years and got the job done. The Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC) began operation in 1990. This followed decades of Aboriginal affairs ministers on both sides of politics who had promised much but delivered little.

Throughout that challenge, Gerry Hand gained and maintained the respect of virtually everyone with whom he worked across the 60-plus Aboriginal regions, including opposition shadow ministers Chris Miles and Warwick Smith.

It was always understood ATSIC would take a couple of generations to settle in, possibly more. (One equivalent elected council in Canada took eighty years to become operational, according to Inuit elders.) That this did not eventuate was no fault of Gerry Hand.

ATSIC’s rocky first six years were overseen by chairwoman Lowitja O’Donoghue who passed leadership to Wangurri man Gatjil Djerrkura. Gatjil struggled valiantly against Howard government hostility from 1996 to 2000 before handing the reins to the controversial Geoff Clark. Four years later, in April 2004, Howard announced the council’s abolition declaring “the experiment in elected representation for Indigenous people has been a failure”.

ATSIC’s closure in 2005 was one of the most shameful acts of the craven Howard government, supported unfortunately by failed Labor leader Mark Latham. What should have been one of multicultural Australia’s greatest achievements became a tragic failure — an outcome no less appalling for having been repeated several times by Coalition regimes since. 

Gerry Hand as minister for Aboriginal affairs will be remembered by the Indigenous communities and their supporters as a passionate and courageous defender of the rights of the disadvantaged, a visionary and hard-working architect of vital reform, a patient but determined negotiator and a kind and decent man. 

Showing 1 thought

Please check your email for a link to activate your account.

We use cookies on our websites. You are free to manage this via your browser setting at any time. OK