House debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Constituency Statements

Cooper, Mr William

4:12 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to congratulate the Australian Electoral Commission on its recent decision to rename the federal electorate of Batman after Yorta Yorta activist William Cooper. National symbols matter. They are the way we project our sense of national identity; they show how we see ourselves, and they are the prism through which others see us. The symbols that we choose tell us something about the kind of country that we are.

William Cooper was an outstanding Australian, someone who every Australian can be proud of. In the early 20th century, he helped establish the Australian Aborigines' League to advocate for a fair deal for Indigenous Australians, including land rights, enfranchisement and a direct voice to parliament. William Cooper also pioneered the establishment of National Aborigines Day. First established in 1940, it's now celebrated nationwide as NAIDOC Week. Importantly, he was an advocate for human dignity wherever he saw injustice. He is famous for leading a protest to the German consulate in Melbourne again the Nazi persecution of the Jews during Kristallnacht, recognised by Yad Vashem as the only protest of its kind to take place anywhere in the world.

As the Australian Aborigines' League first offices were located in Footscray and Seddon, within the boundaries of my electorate, I had been running a community campaign to rename Gellibrand—named for John Batman's lawyer—after William Cooper. While I'm disappointed that I won't be able to represent an electorate named after William Cooper in this place, I am ecstatic that he is getting the symbolic recognition that he so richly deserves.

While I am firm in my belief that symbols matter and that this decision by the AEC will make a difference, substantive decisions matter too. And in this way we should also learn from William Cooper's example. William Cooper was a strong advocate for an Indigenous voice in this building. Cooper drafted a petition to King George VI, signed by thousands, asking for this Indigenous representation in this parliament, only for the Prime Minister at the time, Joseph Lyons, to reject it out of hand and refuse to pass it on to the monarch. We clearly hear the echo of that moment in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the current government's response to it. The fact that the substance of William Cooper's petition 80 years ago is so similar to the substance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is telling.

While the naming of a federal electorate after William Cooper means that 80 years after his petition to this place William Cooper's name will be regularly heard in the debates of this building, we need substantive reforms to ensure that the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are also heard in this building. The people in this building need to spend more time listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We need to get to work on delivering constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and on implementing the Indigenous Voice to Parliament called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.