Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1927 - Jimmy Clements, John Noble, and the Opening of Parliament House
by Mark McKenna and Peter Read
Jimmy Clements in foreground of Parliament House, 1927 (NLA).

O n 9 May 1927, a Western Australian journalist stood on top of Capital Hill in Canberra ‘under the branches of an ancient redgum,’ looking down on the scene that accompanied the opening of Parliament House, which he could see below him ‘lying like a huge squat wedding cake.’ There it stood, ‘the crisp, sugar-like whiteness’ of Parliament House alone in the paddock; even the trail of 30,000 spectators, who had come to view the Duke and Duchess of York open the parliament, appeared tiny on such an immense canvas.

Although no Indigenous Australians were officially invited to the ceremony, two Wiradjuri elders, Jimmy Clements and John Noble, walked over ninety-three miles (150 km) from Brungle Aboriginal station near Tumut in southern New South Wales to attend the opening of Parliament House in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of York. Clements and Noble, who walked for three days, were first in what would become a long line of Indigenous petitioners to the Commonwealth parliament. They were both around eighty years of age. A reporter from the Melbourne Argus described them as ‘very old and grey and raggedly picturesque,’ while another reporter from the Canberra Times saw them as ‘lone’ representatives ‘of a fast vanishing race’ who had come only to salute ‘visiting royalty.’

Far from disappearing, New South Wales Aboriginal people were both active and politically savvy. In 1883 the just-created Aborigines Protection Board established a number of reserves. One of the largest was Brungle, twelve miles (20 km) from Tumut. The local white population resented its establishment. The Wiradjuri came to resent it even more. At first they had regarded reserves like Brungle as a convenient places to leave one’s children or the elderly while away working for wages or on ceremony business. But the board, charged with controlling and overseeing the slow demise of the State’s Aboriginal population, hardened its methods. Young men were denied entry. Children were removed first to Singleton, then Cootamundra. Older men were forced to work—for no wages. Brungle soon acquired its reputation as a difficult place to control. Its manager asked for a gun to control people like Jimmy Clements who were thoroughly fed up with the board’s autocratic and unnecessary methods.

Jimmy Clements on the steps of Parliament House (National Archives of Australia).
So Clements and Noble had walked from Brungle Aboriginal station, whose residents for a full fifty years had opposed the board’s control and worked out strategies to defeat it. Far from saluting visiting royalty, the two men had come to declaim the injustices they had endured all their lives. But nobody in authority listened.

One photograph of Clements taken that day at Parliament House shows a bearded man sitting in the dust, surrounded by his sleeping dogs, clutching an Australian flag. On seeing Clements, a policeman immediately asked him to leave, but Clements did not want to be moved on, as the Argus made clear:

Immediately and instinctively the crowd on the stands rallied to his side. There were choruses of advice and encouragement for him to do as he pleased. A well-known clergyman stood up and called out that the Aborigine had a better right than any man present to a place on the steps of Parliament House and in the Senate during the ceremony. The old man’s presence won him an excellent position, and also a shower of small change that must have amounted to 30/ or 40/.

The following day, 10 May, prominent citizens were paraded before the Duke and Duchess as they stood atop the steps of Parliament House. Clements was among those who passed before them. As the Melbourne Argus reported, ‘an ancient Aborigine, who calls himself King Billy and who claims sovereign rights to the Federal Territory, walked slowly forward alone, and saluted the Duke and Duchess.’ The photograph of Clements appeared under the headline ‘Demanded his Rights.’ Despite this recognition, the prevailing culture of white Australia was unwilling to question its own superiority. The Sydney Morning Herald supplement on the opening ceremony chose to highlight the words of the Prince of Wales, made during his Australian tour in 1920: ‘You are determined that this nation shall be pure of race, and that all citizens of your Commonwealth shall have an equal chance.’

Jimmy Clements and John Noble had made the trek to Canberra to remind Australia that equality for white citizens was built on the exclusion and exploitation of Indigenous Australians. Their rights were not recognised. Their sovereignty had not been extinguished. Their protest at Parliament House bore the pathos, perseverance and tenacity of Aboriginal people in the wake of invasion and dispossession. While newspaper reports emphasised the virtue of the white audience—the preacher who stirs the sympathy of the crowd, and the coins of meagre charity thrown at Clements’s feet—they also revealed that Clements and Noble had walked nearly one hundred miles to claim their sovereign rights at the very moment the sovereignty of the Crown and the Australian parliament was asserted.


left arrow 1901: Indigenous Australians and the Constitution
1928: Mary Alice Harris right arrow