Petition to the King – the Commonwealth is stumped

We might say William Cooper was the cat, and the entire Executive and Bureaucratic branches of the Commonwealth were the pigeons. As these documents from the National Archives of Australia show.

The business, started with William Cooper and his Australian Aborigines’ League. Cooper had initiated the collection of signatures as early as 1933. No doubt the development had been watched carefully at the Commonwealth level, as it was an appeal to the Head of State. What the NAA can’t locate is the actual petition. But we do have this official copy of a letter from Cooper.

The whole discussion was significant enough to have included the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons; the Minister for the Interior, John “Jock” McEwan; and the Attorney General, Robert Menzies.

Cooper states his case - page 1

Cooper states his case – page 1

Cooper states his case - page 2

Cooper states his case – page 2

As usual, Cooper is polite, business-like and strangely positive. Thanking Prime Minister Lyons for his “promise of fullest sympathy” and his “definite interest.” We can only assume Cooper had some reason for believing this.

Cooper then goes on to rebut some misconceptions that Lyons must have expressed. Namely, that Indigenous affairs were strictly a matter for the states. Cooper makes a good point that the monarch himself, of course, had a responsibility, because black or white, all in the land were the King’s subjects. Hence, a petition to the King made absolute sense.

Polite he was, but he didn’t pull punches. He makes plain that the state control was “always to our detriment” and is “hurting us”. Worse, that the recent conference of Chief Protectors was something from which he “scarcely expected relief”, in fact is “was only a waste of time.” The only thing they got from proceedings was “a confirmation of our humiliation.”

The government is soundly warned off the idea of taking policy ideas from South Africa or the United States. Cooper was quick to defend the few freedoms that Aborigines did enjoy, such as using the same footpaths as white people. Instead he points the Commonwealth to look across the Tasman to New Zealand, where Maori enjoy direct representation.

Cooper's initiative needed to be handled carefully.

The dossier cover on the Cooper move

Opinion document held by the AG department on Cooper's initiative

Opinion document held by the AG department on Cooper 1

The constitution seen to be not able to handle this initiative

Opinion on Cooper page 2

Concluding legal remarks on the Petition to the King

Opinion on Cooper page 3 (conclusion)

Correspondence like this started a whirl of discussions, the main body of this was collated by the Attorney General’s office and is now held by the NAA. We can see here that the AG needed to bring in expertise from the Department of the Interior and, it seems, independent legal counsel.

Much thought is given to the constitutionality of implementing Cooper’s requests. This may have been the first time that the serious inadequacies of the founding document were shown up – at least with regards good government for Aboriginal people.

For a start, the legal counsel (who remains anonymous) bluntly points out that Section 51 of the Constitution enables the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to any race, “other than the aboriginal race in any State”. So even if Lyons did want to reverse the trend towards “extinction” of Aboriginal people, there was naught, legally he could do about it. This matter had already been tested in a case known as “The King v Bernasconi.” The writer of that judgement, Isaacs had written, rather hopefully, that those races which were in territories occupied by Australian could rely on “Parliament’s sense of justice fair dealing.”

The only opportunity to accommodate Cooper was towards his request for direct representation. It seems that “Porter v The King” had made it clear that, indeed, the Commonwealth could make up whatever law it wants for the Northern Territory. So there was no reason why they couldn’t legislate for there to be an Indigenous MP to represent Indigenous people.

For all that, as we shall see, not even that was acted on.

So, while, a reply was sent to William Cooper, a very cordial reply, of course, and one that offered some general support for the aims of the AAL, it gives no undertaking as to supporting the specific requests of the petition.

Letter to William Cooper and the AAL from the office of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons

Letter to William Cooper and the AAL from the office of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons

However, in the backrooms of Parliament, the decision was being made to kill the whole endeavour, which we can see in a departmental message. Strangely, there’s only one page of this letter written to the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s department. It’s an internal memo, and it’s not entirely clear who it’s from.

One page of a memo (the second page appears to be missing in the NAA records) suggesting nothing be done about the Petition to the King

One page of a memo (the second page appears to be missing in the NAA records) suggesting nothing be done about the Petition to the King

Tags: , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply