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Background to the Scholarship

The John Koowarta Reconciliation Law Scholarship commemorates John Koowarta, a member of the Winychanam community at Aurukun and a traditional owner of the Archer River region on Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. Mr Koowarta challenged the Queensland Government under the Federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975 after its decision to prevent the Aboriginal Land Fund from acquiring a crown lease on a pastoral property for the Winychanam people. The decision by the Bjelke-Peterson Government was based on cabinet policy at the time, which opposed ownership of large tracts of land by Aboriginal peoples. The Queensland Government challenged the validity of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in the High Court and was defeated.

The High Court’s decision was later pivotal in the recognition of native title in Mabo v Queensland (No.2). Mr Koowarta was described by Robert Tickner, the former Commonwealth Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (1991-96), as "an Australian hero who was a courageous fighter against Governments which discriminate against people on the basis of race." John Koowarta died in 1991 without fulfilling his dream of seeing his traditional lands returned. The John Koowarta Reconciliation Law Scholarship Trust was established 1994, with a $200,000 contribution from the Federal Government. The Law Council of Australia helped establish the Koowarta Scholarship and continues to act as trustee and administrator. The Law Council is proud of the outstanding success of the John Koowarta Reconciliation Law Scholarship, which has assisted several Indigenous Australians in completing their legal studies, many of whom have gone on to make valuable contributions to their communities, the legal profession and Australia.

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