Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1937 - William Cooper's Petition
by Bain Attwood

I n August 1933, the Yorta Yorta leader William Cooper (1861–1941) set about having a petition to the British King drawn up. It asked the monarch to intervene on behalf of the Aboriginal people in order to prevent their extinction, provide them with better conditions, and grant them the power to propose a member of the Commonwealth parliament to represent them.

The last of the petition’s requests was, or became, the most important. We might call it a voice in parliament rather than a voice to parliament.

Cooper was seeking a means by which government could be informed of the views of Aboriginal people. He believed this was important because he knew that those who governed them acted without any consideration of Aboriginal people’s views. He knew that those views differed from the ones held by white Australians. This was so because only Aboriginal people could, in his words, ‘think black.’

William Cooper
‘You may read the views … of sympathetic white men. But they are not our views,’ Cooper told a white journalist in September 1937. ‘We are the sufferers; the white men are the aggressors.’ Blackfellas, Cooper was saying, had different views to whitefellas because of their historical experience of dispossession, death, decimation, displacement, deprivation, and discrimination. This was a matter of what Cooper once called ‘racial memory.’ It was, he said, something ‘in the blood … which recalls the terrible things done to them in years gone by.’

Cooper was acutely conscious that what he was seeking had been granted to other Indigenous peoples, such as Māori, many years ago. At one point he told a Federal minister:

We have got nothing definite except the refusal of our claim for representation in the federal parliament … 80,000 aborigines in Australia … refused one representative in parliament. Yet in New Zealand the same number of natives have four members and one minister for Native Affairs.

The petition itself was an expression of an Aboriginal voice in that Cooper acted on behalf of an organisation, eventually called the Australian Aborigines’ League, in which only Aboriginal people could be full members, and the petition could only be signed by Aboriginal people.

Cooper submitted the petition to the Federal government in September 1937, but in February 1938 the cabinet decided that no action be taken on the grounds that a government minister could represent Aboriginal people and that there was nothing to be gained from forwarding it to the King. With that, it appears the petition roll was consigned to a dust bin, never to be seen again.


left arrow 1933: Joe Anderson's Speech
1938: Day of Mourning and Protest right arrow