Vale Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG
The Sector > Workforce > Advocacy > A formidable leader who never failed to act: Vale Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG

A formidable leader who never failed to act: Vale Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG

by Freya Lucas

February 05, 2024

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains the name and image of a deceased person.


One of Australia’s most highly regarded First Nations leaders, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG passed away yesterday, 4 February 2024, on Kaurna Country in Adelaide, South Australia with her immediate family by her side.


Dr O’Donoghue (Aunty Lowitja), a Yankunytjatjara woman, was the inaugural chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission from 1990 to 1996, and a leading figure in debates over First Nations rights and policy for multiple decades.


“Our Aunty and Nana was the Matriarch of our family, whom we have loved and looked up to our entire lives. We adored and admired her when we were young and have grown up full of never-ending pride as she became one of the most respected and influential Aboriginal leaders this country has ever known,” a statement from her family notes. 


Dr O’Donoghue dedicated her life to the rights, health, and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As a member of the Stolen Generation, her work was deeply rooted in personal experience, and in advocacy. 


A trailblazer in many spaces, Dr O’Donoghue was the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, the first woman to be a regional director of an Australian federal department, and drew attention when turning down the offer of then Prime Minister Paul Keeting to become the Governor General saying “I told him, I’m a Republican, and so are you.”  


She was named as Australian of the Year in 1984, and in 1999 became a Companion of the Order of Australia for public service through leadership to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the areas of human rights and social justice. 


Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described Aunty Lowitja as “a figure of grace, moral clarity, and extraordinary inner strength.” 


“With an unwavering instinct for justice and a profound desire to bring the country she loved closer together, Dr O’Donoghue was at the heart of some of the moments that carried Australia closer to the better future she knew was possible for us, among them the Apology to the Stolen Generation and the 1967 referendum. She provided courageous leadership during the Mabo debates and as chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission,” he said.


“Dr O’Donoghue knew that our best future was a shared one built on the strong, broad foundations of reconciliation.”


Her family have asked that all Australians, including those educating and caring for its youngest citizens “continue to honour Aunty Lowitja’s legacy through using your Voices to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to share the stories of her incredible life, which always had our First Peoples at the heart of all that she worked for and achieved.”


A timeline of the extraordinary life of Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG is available here. Image credit: Leanne King.

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