Senator MOORE (Queensland) (8.07 pm)-
Senator MOORE (Queensland) (8.07 pm)-Last week in Brisbane, a large group of people gathered together to celebrate the life of and to say farewell to a wonderful Aboriginal woman who had been an inspiration for many of us. Auntie Eunice Watson Coolwell left this life just a couple of days ago, and so many people gathered together to talk about her life and to share stories as people do when someone is well loved. We gathered at the Mt Gravatt State High School, where she had been so determined to make sure that her children received the best of education, because she did not have that advantage.
She was a Mullenjarlie woman, who was born at the Lady Bowen Hospital in a separate ward where Aboriginal women had their children, and came back to live in the shanty towns around the town of Beaudesert. She was a strong woman and maintained her connection to her country and her extended family network. As a young woman, Eunice was not able to go through a very strong education system. She was actually excluded from getting the best kind of education and forced into menial and low-paid work just to make ends meet. It was tough.
She moved to Brisbane and married young. As we know, when you are at a lot of family celebrations now, you see a whole range of photos that come up and tell the life story of the people you are talking about. At the celebration, there were photos of a stunningly beautiful young Aboriginal woman, who was a keen horsewoman. That is something I never knew about Eunice when I worked with her. She was actually working happily in that Beaudesert area. She moved to Brisbane, and there were photos of her celebrating around the clubs in Brisbane.
She raised six children in very tough circumstances, mainly in the suburb of Mt Gravatt in Brisbane. Her daughter Karen was telling stories about the way her mum was committed to ensuring that those kids got the best possible chance in life. When there was not a lot of money, Eunice made this into a bit of excitement, a challenge for the kids. Karen was telling the story of how, when the lights went out because there was no money to pay for the electricity, Eunice would get the kids together and play and make it into a special time. She also told a story-and it is one of those of us who worked with Eunice would understand well, because she was an exceptionally lovely and stylish woman-about when there was an opportunity for a large dance in the Brisbane area. There was just not enough money for Eunice to go out and buy a new outfit. Karen had us all laughing about the way Eunice went and bought a filmy yellow nightdress from one of the local stores and wore this nightie as an evening frock to that occasion. People were saying how good she looked and how proud she was.
Her son Sam, who is a good mate of mine and a genuine Indigenous activist, told a story about how they had to make ends meet by going out and getting worms from the seashore. He told how, when the worms went out, they would go out and how good their mum was at doing that.
I actually got to know Eunice well when she was working in the then Department of Social Security. The story was told about how Eunice went back and actually put herself through high school and got a strong education. In 1975, just after Cyclone Tracy hit in Darwin, a decision was made by the department to employ Aboriginal workers to work with those families who were displaced by the cyclone. Eunice was one of the very first people to be employed at that time. Out of the extraordinary work that she did with a range of people in that post Cyclone Tracy period, she was then offered permanent employment in the Department of Social Security and was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal and Islander network in the department. She was so strong, fearless advocate for her people and worked to ensure that Aboriginal people received the best possible service not just from the Department of Social Security but from the public sector. She demanded the right to good service. She also demanded the right of her people to be employed, not just to have a job in the public sector but more to have an effective career structure. In 1988, Eunice was awarded the Public Service Medal in the Order of Australia. The exceptional service that she had provided was recognised by the then director of the department in Queensland, John McWilliam, who said:
Eunice is well respected, both in the department and in the community in Queensland, with a strong commitment to our clients and a lot of common sense. She gets issues over clearly and simply, and this has helped her achieve a lot for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Naturally, Eunice took this award very humbly. She actually said:
I feel that there are many others who deserve this award much more than I do, but I also feel that it is great to know that others have chosen me to represent them. This isn't my medal alone; it belongs to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the community who supported me. It also belongs to the staff of the Department of Social Security.
I think a lot of the staff in the Department of Social Security were the ones who were most keen for Eunice to receive this award.
Her son Sam, in talking with us in the Brisbane hall that day, talked about the fact that his mum was such a strong foundation member of many of the major organisations and community services that are still operating to this day in Brisbane. Her contribution was vast and selfless. To name just a few, Eunice's name is written in the annals of the Yelangi Preschool, which is a special preschool for Aboriginal and Islander children in the Brisbane area, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and one that I know was particularly dear to Eunice-the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Legal Aid Service.
Eunice identified very clearly the special need of Aboriginal women in the areas of child safety and family safety. She was a strong, feisty woman who also maintained a gentleness and a dignity that set her apart. You always knew you were working-and I heard the term very often-with a gracious lady.
I enjoyed working with Eunice Watson because she challenged you and also made you feel that your work was worth while. Not only was she able to encourage people strongly in the workplace and in the community but she also enjoyed life so greatly. One of the things I remember most is her wonderful laugh. As you used to walk through the halls in the department, sometimes, when there was not a lot to laugh about, something would catch Eunice's attention and this lilting laugh would come out, and we always knew that things were going to be okay.
Eunice touched many people in her life, and she has been an inspiration to so many. On the day of the celebration of her life at the Mt Gravatt hall, there was one very special message from our Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, who was not able to be there, because she was in France at the time. She wrote a note for all of us but particularly for Eunice's family. She noted that Eunice was a woman with a fine intellect, a gentleness and a calmness who was an inspiration to us all. Dr Jacqui Huggins, who was also there, another public servant from our days in the public sector in Queensland, talked about a 'grand, grand woman'. We understood that our grief from having lost Eunice was affected in many ways by the acknowledgement of the inspiration and the work she had done for so many of us.
Eunice raised six children, and there are so many, through the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who have been set a legacy by their grandmother.
When Sam was talking with us on the day, he said:
Here before us now there are grandchildren and greatgrandchildren who will now be charged with the responsibility of carrying her name, her character, forward into the vast and measureless depths of time. Mum has now become their senior ancestor, and that is the true value that pulses at the heart of our Aboriginal culture.
Eunice Coolwell Watson will not be forgotten. She achieved so much in her life and she has given so much for us all to move forward. She was a strong woman, a strong public servant, someone who loved her family deeply and worked greatly for her community. And I think in many ways the Australian Public Service has been affected forever by the work that Eunice did, because by developing that strong Aboriginal and Islander network in the then Department of Social Security in the seventies we have the basis for an effective process to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into the future. Eunice Watson was acknowledged in her life. We will not forget her now that we have lost her in this part of our life.