On the road to referendum

Matt Busby Andrews honours the work of William Cooper and Sir Doug Nicholls.



Matt Busby Andrews honours the work of William Cooper and Sir Doug Nicholls.


William Cooper died in 1941, essentially seeing none of the things that he had worked so hard for being achieved – with the exception of Aborigines Day, which became NAIDOC. He is like a Moses, the Jewish community says, because he saw into the land but he did not enter it. He never saw the government have a referendum to count all Aboriginal people as you’d count anybody else. He didn’t see federal legislation which gave Aboriginal people the vote automatically. He didn’t see the land given back to the Indigenous people, which people like the Atkinsons have today down in Cummeragunja.

But the person who did see it – if you will, his Aaron – was Pastor Doug. So he, reluctantly at first, picks up the baton that William Cooper has left when he’s died in 1941, and he forms the Australian Aborigines League as FCAATSI, eventually. And yes, it’s still these big players, people like Margaret Tucker, who wrote If Every[one] Cared – which by the way, becomes the basis for “Bringing them Home,” the Stolen Generation’s reports.

But for Doug Nicholls, it becomes this overwhelming, overriding mission to bring in the referendum. And it took him 20 years. And it wasn’t at all easy. There was a state branch, and they had no federal funding, no state funding. But this had massive grassroots support, because they had to raise the money themselves – poor Aboriginal families in the urban areas and in the country. And he was a patient man, and a strong negotiator. William Cooper got him his first meeting back in 1938 with Prime Minister Joseph Lyons – thanks to his wife, by the way, Enid Lyons – and they just kept at it.

The big opportunity was with Menzies and with Black Jack McEwen of the Country Party, now the National Party, which we would all see as being almost redneck and right-wing. But Doug Nicholls, they knew how to get on with these guys. You can’t really place them, whether they’re left-wing or right-wing; they’re just good guys who know how to kick a footy, and you don’t want to turn them away from your office. And through sheer grace – and he was a very gracious man – through sheer grace and persistence, he forced Menzies to put in this referenda. In 1965 is the legislation, and then, of course, it went to the people on May 27 1967 and became the single most successful referendum in Australian history, with 90 per cent of us saying, “Yes, we do want you to be counted; we see you as valuable as any other Australian.” Pastor Doug and the people he worked with captured the imagination of the whole country.