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Pat O'Shane AM

Pat O'Shane has always fiercely defended the rights of women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Honour Roll

Pat O'Shane was born on 19 June 1941 in Mossman, Queensland, to an Irish father and an Aboriginal mother. The eldest of five children, she grew up surrounded by poverty and prejudice. Her father, a wharfie, was active in the militant Waterside Workers' Federation. Her mother, of the Kunjandi clan, was also active in women's and Aboriginal causes. They were determined that their children should receive an education so that they could make some positive changes to the world.

When Pat was fifteen she became involved in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League. She trained as a teacher at the Queensland Teachers' College in Brisbane where she was the only Aboriginal woman, and enrolled in a Bachelor of Education at the University of Queensland. In 1962 she married another activist, Mick Miller and they moved to Cairns where Pat was active in the Communist Party and Aboriginal political work. They had two daughters.

She taught in Cairns for a number of years but her life took a strange turn when her mother died tragically. Pat became mentally unwell and was in and out of psychiatric institutions. She went to Sydney and almost entered the Chelmsford Hospital for psychosurgery, however she consulted another psychiatrist, threw away her medication and began rebuilding her life. She had left her husband and was working as a typist to support her family.

With the help of a study grant she began a law degree at the University of New South Wales which she completed in 1975. She was admitted to the bar the following year, making her the first Aboriginal person to achieve this status. She worked in Central Australia in the Aboriginal Legal Service before returning to New South Wales to work with the Mental Health Act Review Committee.

Pat then headed overseas before accepting a job in Canberra in the Office of Women's Affairs. In 1981, she was invited to head the new New South Wales Aboriginal Affairs Department, the first woman to head a government department in Australia, and inevitably she found herself in the crossfire of Aboriginal politics. It was an extremely difficult job which she managed until 1986. She found the bureaucracy to be male dominated and met a lot of resistance to change. However she was able to make some meaningful reforms, particularly in the area of housing, employment and education.

From there she was appointed a magistrate, another first for an Aboriginal person. Pat has always fiercely defended the rights of women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and is not afraid to be outspoken on issues. In a paper titled 'Is there any relevance in the Women's Movement for Aboriginal Women?' she wrote, "Sexist attitudes did not wipe out whole tribes of our people - racism did, and continues to do so." In January 1993 she dismissed charges against four women who had defaced a billboard featuring scantily clad women being sawn in half. She decided that the real crime 'was the erection of these extremely offensive advertisements'. In 1995, she was appointed Chancellor of the University of New England, another first for an Aboriginal woman.