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speech by Gatjil Djerrkura, 26 January 1998

Djerrkura, G. 60 Years On, Another 10 Point Plan 1998

60 Years On, Another 10 Point Plan

Gatjil Djerrkura OAM

ATSIC Chairman

(published in various metropolitan newspapers on 26 January 1998)

To the best of my knowledge, there is no reference to Australia Day 1938 in the oral history of Arnhem Land but it is quite possible that mission staff and government officials organised some form of celebration. If they did, it is unlikely that Aboriginal people would have paid more than polite attention to events marking the 150th anniversary of European settlement on the east coast.

Even today, I feel that the enthusiasm in the Australian community for the significance of January 26 diminishes the further you move away from Sydney.

But in 1938, groups of Aboriginal people in NSW and Victoria deliberately chose Australia Day to make a political statement that remains relevant.

At that time, Australia was a nation that aspired to an idealised view of British civilisation. The White Australia policy had overwhelming support – multiculturalism was not an option.

The popular view was that non-European races were genetically inferior and so were limited in their potential achievements. In the mainstream press, cartoonists drew indigenous Australians and other non-Europeans as clowns or brutal primitives. State governments classified indigenous people according to parentage – commonly using terms such as "full-bloods", "half-castes", "quadroons" and "octoroons".

The policy of removing children of mixed parentage and training them to be white was fully in progress. As the Bringing Them Home report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission shows, this policy would continue for at least another 25 years.

There was no attempt to provide economic opportunities for our communities. In reserves and missions with no access to traditional hunting grounds, they were made dependent upon government rations and the charity of pastoralists.

It was in this context that William Cooper, a retired shearer from the Victorian community of Cummeroogunja, called for a Day of Mourning and Protest on the same day that white Australia was celebrating its success. Cooper, secretary of the Australian Aborigines' League, was an energetic campaigner throughout his retirement, writing letters to Ministers and newspapers to call attention to the conditions faced by indigenous communities throughout the country.

While a Day of Mourning meeting was held in Melbourne, Cooper traveled to the Sydney meeting organised by the Aborigines Progressive Association and led by Jack and Selina Patten of the La Perouse community in Sydney and William Ferguson from Dubbo in rural NSW. Patten, a labourer, and Ferguson, a shearer, had produced a pamphlet – Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights! – to coincide with the anniversary of settlement. They dismissed as a "scientific lie" the idea that indigenous Australians formed an inferior race. They called for education, equal opportunity and "full citizen rights".

The Sydney gathering of about 100 people endorsed "a long range policy for Aborigines" that was presented to the Prime Minister, Joe Lyons, his wife, Enid, and Minister for the Interior, John McEwen, in a two hour meeting on 31 January. It was a 10 point plan that called upon the Commonwealth to take control of indigenous affairs with the appointment of a Minister and department to oversee a national policy.

The policy also sought immediate "civil equality" through equal educational opportunity, equal wages (in cash, not rations) and workers compensation, pension entitlements, the right to own and transfer property, the right to have personal savings accounts, the right to marry partners of choice, access to a land settlement scheme similar to that available to immigrants and soldier settlers, and an end to discrimination in hospitals against pregnant indigenous women.

The campaign by Cooper, Patten and Ferguson dealt with discrimination by stressing equality and justice. William Cooper, in particular, believed in appealing to the "spark of human kindness in nearly every human heart" and that knowledge of the problem would result in action by the mainstream "to bring the relief long sought and now much overdue".*

The activists of the 1930s believed that Australia's political and legal structures, derived from the British, would deliver justice if only enough of the right people could be persuaded. They believed in petitions, letters, public meetings and publications–but lost heart when they saw very little response.

Today, things are not entirely different. Indigenous leaders continue to appeal to Australia's legal and political institutions to provide improvements to the health and economic opportunities in our communities. We have made some advances since 1938, but many of the underlying issues remain.

Multiculturalism means our society is far more tolerant than 60 years ago, but indigenous culture is still treated with less respect than many other cultures in the community. We no longer hear references to "quadroons" and "octoroons", but talk-back hosts and newspaper columnists love to compare the claims of "real Aborigines" with those in the "Aboriginal industry".

As a traditional Yolngu man, heading a government agency, I presume I fall under both descriptions. I find it disheartening to hear these sentiments sometimes used by our political representatives, showing their empathy with talk-back hosts.

Indigenous people still lag behind the rest of the community in educational and economic prospects. While we still want the federal government to take the leading role in indigenous affairs, it is showing signs of wanting to reduce its range of responsibilities.

In the late 1930s, William Cooper decided that one way to improve indigenous opportunity was by indigenous Members of Parliament. In the late 1990s, many of us believe that this is essential next step. We simply cannot depend upon governments to be consistent in their treatment of our needs.

Cooper, Patten and Ferguson represent a largely unnoticed but – nonetheless highly significant – period in Australian history. Like them, indigenous Australians today might question the value in celebrating a national day that is significant for the wrong reasons.

But events in recent years offer hope that, in future, a national day will be a celebration of a more inclusive history. We have seen changes that the activists of the 1930s could not anticipate.

The establishment of representative, democratic bodies like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the Torres Strait Regional Authority are great advances in involving indigenous people in the socio-economic and political life of our country. We have the series of decisions in the High Court that recognise indigenous rights and our place in Australian history.

The reconciliation movement has become a true people's movement in the mainstream community that no politician can deny. We have seen spontaneous apologies for the stolen generations from communities across the country.

And in the growing appreciation for indigenous history, art and culture – especially in schools – we see more understanding and interest in the place of indigenous people in a modern Australian community.

These are national events to celebrate, but there is a lot more ground to make up before indigenous Australians will feel that a national day of celebration includes us. A day that celebrates the national history of Australia needs to acknowledge the role and contribution of all its peoples.

On this Australia Day, it is worth reflecting on what our history recent and distant really represents, and how we should go about building a nation in which all Australians can freely share in a celebration of the achievements of our country.

Quotes and some other material on William Cooper are from Blood from a Stone: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines' League, edited by Andrew Markus, published by Allen & Unwin.

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