This is a cabinet paper created by the Australian government to describe a petition it received from Yorta Yorta man William Cooper.
William Cooper was a political activist and community leader. He spent his life lobbying state and territory governments on behalf of First Nations people. Cooper was the founding secretary of a lobby group called the Australian Aborigines League.
On behalf of the Australian Aborigines League, William Cooper sent the Prime Minister of Australia a petition for the attention of King George VI. A petition is a written request for change, addressed to someone in authority – in this case, the King of England – and signed by a number of people.
According to this cabinet paper, Cooper’s petition asked the king to intervene in Australia ‘to prevent the extinction of the aboriginal race; to secure better living conditions for all; and to afford aboriginal representation in parliament.’
William Cooper travelled Australia for several years collecting signatures and thumb prints for his petition. Over 1,800 First Nations people from across Australia gave the petition their support.
The Australian Cabinet reviewed the petition to decide whether they would pass it on to the King. Because the federal parliament did not have the power to make a law for Aboriginal representation in parliament under the Constitution, they decided that ‘no good purpose would be gained by submitting the petition to his Majesty the King’. They recommended that ‘no action be taken.’
The original petition, including 1,814 signatures from First Nations people, was lost by the Australian government. This cabinet paper describing the petition is the only archival record we have of this significant work of activism.
The petition’s call for Aboriginal representation in Parliament is still relevant. In 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart recommended that a referendum be held to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Constitution. The current Australian government plans to hold a referendum as soon as 2023.
William Cooper’s petition is one example of the decades of First Nations activism that leads to the Uluru Statement’s call for Voice, Treaty and Truth.