The honourable and quirky Wayne Goss


Frank Brennan and Wayne Goss on IQ2 panel

Those of us brought up in Queensland owe a lot to Wayne Goss. I first met him when he was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in Brisbane in 1974. He was the articled clerk. Roisin Hirschfeld was a young social worker at the ALS. They later married and their two children went on to become Rhodes scholars.

With Mark Plunkett, I used go in one day a week to the ALS as a volunteer law student. Matt Foley was there in the wings too. (Plunkett went on to sue Joh Bjelke Petersen for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice when the police commissioner was precluded from investigating assaults on student demonstrators. Foley became Attorney General in the Goss government.)

Wayne was a no nonsense fellow with a real commitment to justice for Aboriginal Australians during the difficult Bjelke-Petersen days in Queensland. He had a quirkish and devilish sense of humour. He put himself on the line, committed to legal representation for indigent Aborigines, appearing constantly in the courts, day in and day out. He would always come back to the office with a smile and a joke about the latest put down he suffered at the hands of the unforgiving magistrate not much given to pleas invoking past dispossession. He was irrepressible. He delighted in the quirks of human nature, especially from the bench, and later in the parliamentary chamber. He knew there had to be a better way. 

In 1989, seeing off Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who had been rolled by his own, he beat the National Party at the polls and was elected premier. In his first term, he decided to do something about Aboriginal land rights in the most difficult state of the federation. He did this when there was no political or legal imperative to do so. He acted because he believed it was right. He believed in Aboriginal self-determination within the life of the polity. He retained the services of two young Aborigines to advise him – Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton. His chief bureaucratic adviser was Kevin Rudd. 

As ever, he proceeded cautiously in his attempt to balance all interests. He announced his 'modest, blanched and responsible' land-rights package, telling the Queensland public: 'We rejected out of hand the Northern Territory approach as being too radical both in the way it affects the community generally and the specific impact on agriculture and mining.' 

Despite his best efforts, things turned sour, and Aborigines knocked down the gates of Parliament House. He was understandably very hurt, but philosophical, about the course of post-colonial relations. Wayne was unerring in his commitment to do what he could to alleviate the unjust plight of the first Australians. He was no starry eyed romantic. He never lost his sense of humour, or his unwavering commitment to justice for the first Australians. 

Three years ago, Wayne and I appeared together on the negative side of one of those 'Intelligence Squared' debates (pictured). By this time Wayne had gone under the knife repeatedly, taking on the brain tumour that finally took him. He was as quirky and good humoured as ever. The topic was: 'If we populate, we perish'. The chief protagonist for the 'yes' case was Dick Smith who turned up with lots of free copies of his book Population Crisis which he distributed to the audience. Wayne responded:

Ladies and Gentlemen, because you are a sophisticated audience, our team has decided that we will not be offering bribes in the form of free books nor will we be trying to scare the pants off you with predictions of the end of the planet. We believe that the policy debate should be lifted to a higher level. What I think I need to do is to reframe the issue: if Australia does not increase its population, you know what will happen? We’ll get older; we’ll get less productive; we’ll lose our spark. You know what happens after you age and get greyer and greyer and greyer? You perish. Think about it.

His last words in that debate were, 'Friends, Australia has a great opportunity. Let’s seize it.' He did, and so should we. I was honoured to know him. He was a very honourable man. May he rest in peace.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ, professor of law at Australian Catholic University, is presently Gasson professor at the Boston College Law School.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Wayne Goss, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, land rights, law, Queensland poltics


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A refreshing and uplifting reflection on Wayne Goss' significance for Qld and the nation. Goss also had the ability to create a more dignified debate,along with his humour and ability to see beyond the immediate conflict. Just like Gough, Goss added to the polity in a way sadly missing today. May his passing re-emphasise why we need voters to think beyond slogans, prejudices and media hype, and look to the quality of the person first.
Dr Robbie Lloyd | 12 November 2014

On numerous occassions, I have heard eloquent speeches of how great and honorable white Australians have been to Aboriginals, yet I cannot find one honourable Australian to take up a landmark case where the evidence shows the white systems are at fault. As no one is bringing home human rights for educated dark skinned people in Australia, we are continually hanged out to dry by the continued 'system of lies, lies and statistics'. I have tried to get hold of you on numerous occasions over the years to help with this case but to no avail. As you very well know, in Australia, only white Australians have authority and power - take any board, judical bench, government agency, church hierachy across all industries - its a whites only policy. We can and must only turn to white Australians and rely on their whims and vagaries whether they will assist. To date, no white Australian wants to genuinely help - its all about the show. This is how the dark skinned person is continually being treated in 2014, as we have no human rights. Is there anybody genuinely willing to help?
Jackie | 12 November 2014

Thank you Frank. One of the highlights of my life was the election of the Goss government. Sincere sympathies to Roisin and family. May he rest in peace.
Name | 12 November 2014

As always from Fr Brennan, this is a reflective and elegant essay. But it's essential message seems to be (and I write as another who was brought up and formally educated in Queensland) that Mr Goss's achievements were essentially for Queensland: his mortal illness prevented a contribution to the national life. Unless, that is, one reflects upon the bequest which Frank did not mention: that Wayne Goss prepared Mr Rudd for his divisive and damaging contribution to our history.
John CARMODY | 12 November 2014

Wayne Goss a man of great statue who did his best to address wrongs imposed on Australia’s First Nations People (FNP). Land rights were essential in this yet at threat today, “like never before” as Ian Viner said of the iconic NT ALRA. “The plan to undermine the Land Rights Act” (29 October 2014) at,7052 Hard fought Land Rights are under great threat across our Nation. Lands are sought at great speed in unscrupulous ways and land tenure arrangements freed up. It is said for economic development (ED) , private home-ownership or to allow the social and cultural rights and benefit of FNP. But who and how many will truly benefit? In the NT land rights are have been stripped away as first predicted at the outset to the NT Intervention: "The real purpose of the Commonwealth’s lease acquisition proposal ... revealed by [Minister] Brough ...[was] the need for the Commonwealth to decide which communities would be offered 99 year leases ... ." 21 August 2007. FNP are coerced into leases or expected to surrender land rights in exchange for cash, basic services and housing etc that has long been denied. The process to 19A) 99 year leases has been terribly flawed as noted by Murray Garde recently demonstrated, “ Lost without translation:what the Bininj missed”. In the past few days we have also seen a new settlement offered the Noongar people of WA. $1.3 billion to surrender their native title rights.There is much dissention in this. “ Native title offer will go to the vote”. This will not assure human dignity nor the common good and denies the principal of subsidiarily. It denies our Nation much.
Name | 12 November 2014

Wayne goss is remembered for his support of women's issues - the first womens consultative council, advisory body to government. I was a member of that council, and able to advise on domestic violence to women. Also the women's office in premiers department. Thanks to Wayne Goss, the first modern Premier to actively support women's issues,
dr gwenneth roberts | 14 November 2014

Just a simple: THANK YOU. Reading of your experiences of Wayne Goss's integrity confirms the impression he gave publicly. He was a breath of fresh air because of his strength, vision, determination, and to use your words, he was "honorable" in a profession where not everyone shares that characteristic. I appreciated reading the detail in your description - thank you for writing this.
Carmel Ross | 14 November 2014

Thank you Fr Frank for putting it so well as you always do.
I kinda feel guilty I did not know how good a man he was.
Peter Collins | 14 November 2014

Wayne was the most honourable and decent man I ever met. I worked with him for many years. Fr Frank has done him proud - the two of them were great mates as well. But that we could see his like again ....RIP Wayne.
Tony Koch | 14 November 2014

You can watch the memorial event for Wayne Goss held at Queensland's GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art) at
Frank Brennan SJ | 23 November 2014

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