A prominent leader in Aboriginal housing
Eric McGuinness, known as Joe, was born on 10 October 1934 at Cootamundra in New South Wales and he passed away on 10 October 1976. Joe was 1 of 6 children born to Arthur Gouger McGuinness and Maude McGuinness Onus-Smith.
Eric was from the Wiradjuri Nations and grew up with his parents and siblings at Brungle Mission near the small town of Brungle at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, 15km from Gundagai. After growing up at Brungle, Eric spent most of his life in Victoria, living at Framlingham Mission for 6 months and then in Warrnambool until 1972-73, after which he and his family moved to Preston.
Eric married Shirley (Clark) McGuinness and they had 5 children. To provide for his family, Eric worked on construction sites around Melbourne, went fruit picking, and in the early 1970s he also worked with the Victorian Railways (known as V/Line since 1983). During this period Eric was travelling back and forth from Warrnambool. Eventually, he secured employment in Fitzroy and this was the start of a new life for him and his family.
Eric and his brother, the late Dr Bruce McGuinness, became two of the most prominent leaders in Aboriginal health and Aboriginal housing at both state and national levels. Both Eric and Bruce worked tirelessly towards community control for the Aboriginal community and to empower community members, leaving a legacy that continues to benefit community today.
After coming to Melbourne, Eric was asked by the Directors of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) to take up the permanent position of Administrator/Secretary of the Victorian Aboriginal Cooperative, established in 1973 because of the urgent need for organisations within Aboriginal communities. The Cooperative fought to provide safe, secure and affordable housing that, most importantly, met the cultural needs of Aboriginal tenants and communities. The Cooperative’s site in Collingwood is now known as the Eric McGuinness Study Centre.
Eric’s first priority in this role was advocacy with government officials, outlining conduct and actions adversely affecting Aboriginal people. Eric fought for better conditions in the areas of housing, welfare supports, legal aid, health, employment, education, land rights, and community control.
Advocacy for better housing was always Eric’s focus and so he then became Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Housing Cooperative. Under Eric’s leadership, the Aboriginal Housing Cooperative was granted the first round of Federal Government funding of $56,000 as part of a 10-year plan to buy 300 homes for Aboriginal families across the metropolitan Melbourne region. Eric’s further aim was to buy another six houses in the northern suburbs. Eric hoped that this scheme would be open to all Aboriginal people throughout Victoria: he wanted to provide healthy living standards for the large numbers of widows, invalids, large family groups, people experiencing long-term illness, and others who found it difficult to pay rent.
With Eric’s leadership the Cooperative instigated a range of housing initiatives. Today, the Aboriginal Housing Cooperative is known as Aboriginal Housing Victoria and is located in Fitzroy North.
In 1975 Eric worked with the late Aunty Elizabeth Hoffman, who established the first Aboriginal Women’s Refuge accommodation in Australia. Eric and Elizabeth worked together to improve housing conditions and opportunities across Victoria, especially for Aboriginal women and children experiencing family violence.
Eric was also an elected member representing the Western District of Victoria of the Victorian Government’s Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Council in the early 1970s, and he travelled extensively to attend meetings with local communities and government agencies, including to South Australia, New South Wales and Canberra.
Eric came from a family with a musical background, where he learned how to play the guitar left-handed. His family were renowned for providing encouragement and entertainment for people to join in at community functions and get-togethers. In the early 1970s, Eric started up an Aboriginal band called the Wiradjuri Band. He was its lead member, singer and guitarist alongside band members Desmond Smith, Uncle Herb Patten, Raymond ‘Buster’ Thomas, Bindi Williams and Lyn Young.
The Wiradjuri Band played at community functions throughout Melbourne and Victoria, as well as New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Canberra. Eric wanted to help raise money for the Fitzroy Stars Football Club and Aboriginal Funeral Funds and devoted his time with the band to play at cabarets at every opportunity. Music was very important to Eric and he always enjoyed playing for everyone and seeing people dance and be happy. Eric always stated that it made his night to get the community together and see everyone having a great time.
Eric went on to become the Chief Executive Officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League, then located in Northcote. He also served as a committee member of the Fitzroy Stars Football Club and was a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Football Club and of the Bundoora Golf Club.
Eric was a devoted family man and a community man, who cared and became an inspiration to all those who knew him. He provided a voice to all people of Aboriginal communities who needed someone who they could trust and respect. Eric was a staunch advocate and had the respect of those who knew him and believed in him.
Eric passed away in Adelaide in 1976 at the age of 42 years at an interstate football carnival, where the Wiradjuri Band last played together. His passing had a large impact on all who knew him and his family: he was a leader and activist known for his brilliance and a man of knowledge. Eric was wholly committed to his community.
Eric’s daughter Joanne said: "Eric died for us at a young age: doctor’s orders were for him to take it easy but he never stopped working, he would always be busy, travelling, meetings, addressing Aboriginal Affairs with government ministers and helping our mob in any possible way."
Eric ‘Joe’ McGuinness’ legacy of dedicated and determined advocacy during the struggles for Aboriginal people in the 1970s is recognised by the Aboriginal communities of Victoria and New South Wales. Eric is honoured for his significant place and contribution as part of the timeline of Aboriginal history.
Reviewed 29 April 2021