Moment of Truth

Moment of Truth

History and Australia’s Future

Mark McKenna


Walk across the vast open spaces of Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle and there is more than enough room to reflect on Australia’s future. Nature has been ironed out. It’s all grass and sky. Standing in the strip between the Tent Embassy and Lake Burley Griffin, the invented nature of the place hits you in the face. And the silence.

It is not only the absence of any acknowledgment of the country’s violent foundation that makes the silence palpable, but also 65,000 years of Indigenous occupation. If it were not for the Tent Embassy and the easily missed Reconciliation Place, Indigenous Australia would have no obvious presence within the Parliamentary Triangle. More than a century after federation, Australians still struggle to include Indigenous people in our vision of the nation.

Since the doors of Old Parliament House opened on 9 May 1927, Aboriginal people have beaten a path to Canberra to remind the Commonwealth that their rights and sovereignty have not been extinguished. First in a long line of petitioners were Jimmy Clements and John Noble, two Wiradjuri elders who walked over 150 kilometres from Tumut in southern New South Wales to attend the opening ceremony at Parliament House in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of York. When it came time for officials and dignitaries to be paraded before the royal couple, Clements insisted on his right to be presented. As Melbourne’s Argus reported, “an ancient Aborigine, who calls himself King Billy and who claims sovereign rights to the Federal Territory, walked slowly forward alone, and saluted the Duke and Duchess.” Clements was eighty years of age. One photograph of him taken that day shows a bearded man sitting in the dust, surrounded by his sleeping dogs, clutching an Australian flag. When he died three months later, a newspaper reported that he was buried in Queanbeyan cemetery, “outside consecrated ground.”

Clements walked to Canberra to claim his “sovereign rights” at the very moment the sovereignty of the Crown and the Australian parliament was asserted. One year later, on behalf of the Aborigines Progressive Association, Fred Maynard wrote to the Royal Commission on the Constitution of the Commonwealth to remind the nation’s leaders that the constitution and laws that governed the lives of “Aborigines . . . were an insult to the intelligence of our people.” Since then, the line of petitioners is long, yet their names barely register in the memory of most non-Aboriginal Australians. They include the leaders of the 1967 referendum and the founders of the Tent Embassy, and the authors of both the 1988 Barunga Statement and, of course, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, transmitted from the country’s spiritual centre to its political centre – all of them hoping, like the Yirrkala petitioners in 1963, that they would not be “completely ignored” by the Commonwealth government, “as they have been ignored in the past.”

If the voice of one Indigenous leader resounds more than any other, it is surely that of Yorta Yorta activist William Cooper. In 1934, Cooper drafted a petition to King George V. The message was unambiguous. Indigenous lands had been “expropriated” by successive Australian governments and their inhabitants’ legal status unjustly “denied.” He wanted a voice for Aboriginal people and he asked the King that they be granted the power to “propose a member of parliament.”

Cooper delivered the petition to the Commonwealth government, led by Joseph Lyons, in September 1937. It carried over 1800 signatures. Two months later, with fellow campaigners Doug Nicholls and William Ferguson, Cooper called for a “Day of Mourning” on Australia Day, 1938, to protest the white man’s seizure of their land and to demand full citizenship rights. In March, the Lyons government informed Cooper that it would neither support his demand for parliamentary representation nor forward his petition to King George VI. Incensed by the hypocrisy of a supposedly Christian nation’s refusal to accept the equal humanity of Indigenous Australians, Cooper wrote a stinging response to Lyons.

White men . . . claimed that they had “found” a “new” country – Australia. This country was not new, it was already in possession of and inhabited by millions of blacks, who, while unarmed, excepting spears and boomerangs, nevertheless owned the country as their God given heritage . . . Every shape and form of murder, yes, mass murder, was used against us and laws were passed and still exist, which no human creature can endure. Our food stuffs have been destroyed, poison and guns have done their work, and now white men’s homes have been built on our hunting and camping grounds. Our lives have been wrecked and our happiness ended. Oh! Ye whites! . . . How much compensation have we had? How much of our land has been paid for? Not one iota. Again we state that we are the original owners of the country. In spite of force, prestige, or anything else you like, morally the land is ours.

Much of what Cooper said bears a remarkable resemblance to the demands of Indigenous leaders today. He asked for recognition and acknowledgment. He petitioned for a voice in parliament. And he wanted the truth told. At the heart of his campaign was what he called the “horror and fear of extermination” that in one way or another had touched every Aboriginal community in the country.

Yet today, if one scans the monumental landscape of Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle, there is no acknowledgment that such events ever took place. The nation simply rises unencumbered from the ground.

Like every place in Australia, Canberra has its whitefella creation stories. Among them is one told by the “father of Canberra,” journalist and NSW MP John Gale. Probably apocryphal, it tells of a day in the late 1850s when Gale, “travelling across country,” was helped by a local squatter to cross the flooded Molonglo River. To gain a clearer view of the country, he “rode on to the top of a hill.” From there, standing “under a giant kurrajong tree,” he gazed out “in delight over a magnificent panorama” and foresaw a new Jerusalem.

“What a site for a city!” he exclaimed. Sixty-three years later, in 1920, “Gale was present to see the Prince of Wales, under the same kurrajong, set one of the foundation stones of the city of Canberra.”

Gale’s recollection, tailored after Canberra’s foundation, was typical of the Biblical narratives that settlers told to sanction their taking up of an “empty” land. Kurrajong Hill, the site of Gale’s epiphany, has since been renamed Capital Hill, where Parliament House stands.

For the Ngunnawal, however, Kurrajong Hill was one of several campsites in the Canberra area connected by traditional pathways that saw “local and regional Aboriginal people . . . come together” for important seasonal ceremonies, like their Bogong festivals that celebrated the arrival of moths in the mountains.

Today, the two histories that coexist on the hill have yet to find a way to meet. And William Cooper’s words go unanswered. At a fundamental level, we have failed to see, failed to listen, failed even to hear.

In 2014, “Uncle” Boydie Turner – determined that his grandfather’s words be delivered to the house of their original addressee – submitted Cooper’s petition to Queen Elizabeth II via Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove. It had taken eighty years to arrive. How long before it receives a response?


This is an extract from Mark McKenna's Quarterly Essay, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Mark McKenna is one of Australia’s leading historians, based at the University of Sydney. He is the author of several prize-winning books, most recently a biography of historian Manning Clark, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark, which won the Prime Minister’s award for non-fiction and the Victorian, NSW and South Australian premiers’ non-fiction awards.


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