I was saddened to learn of the death of Eric Deeral, who was the first Aboriginal person to be elected to an Australian state parliament, representing the seat of Cook in the Queensland Parliament from 1974 to 1977. I knew Eric personally when he became a Member of Parliament.
Born at Hope Vale Lutheran Mission in 1932, Mr Deeral was educated at Woorabinda Central School. He left school at the age of thirteen and held a number of jobs whilst continuing to educate himself.
In 1957, he became Chairman of the Hope Vale Mission Community Council. This was the beginning of a distinguished life of community service.
In 1964, the elders of the surrounding Cape York and Torres Strait communities decided at a meeting at Palm Island that he would stand as a candidate for Parliament.
In 1974, representing the National Party, he defeated six other candidates to win the State Electorate of Cook in an election that reduced the Labor Party to just 11 members of Parliament.
Mr Deeral won the election against the contentious backdrop of the Whitlam Government attempting to give back the Torres Strait Islands to Papua New Guinea. With the support of the Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Mr Deeral defended the islands and campaigned against moves by the Federal Government to give away any part of the Torres Strait or the waters around them to Papua New Guinea.
In his maiden speech made in the Queensland Parliament on 18 March 1975, Mr Deeral spoke of his hopes and dreams for his community. He pointed out that he firstly considered himself an ‘Australian from Queensland’ as the Deerals had lived in the electorate of Cook for over 20,000 years.
He was one of the first Indigenous leaders to speak out against passive welfare and its devastating consequences. In his maiden speech given 37 years ago, he said that “No man can continually accept hand-outs without losing his initiative and self-respect”.
Throughout his life, he remained a dedicated servant of his community. As an elder of the Gamay clan, he continued to provide leadership and guidance to young Indigenous Australians. He was a proud and passionate advocate for his community and for Indigenous Australians.
I extend my deepest condolences to his family during this very sad time.