Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Commemoration of the protest of William Cooper

Location: Parliament House, Melbourne

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I would like to begin by acknowledging the peoples of the Kulin Nation and their elders who are with us.

My thanks to Aunty Caroline Briggs for her welcome to country.

My thanks also to Rabbi Dovid Gutnick for his blessing.

I also want to acknowledge the Consul-General for Germany – Dr Anne Marie Schleich who is here with us tonight.

Tonight is a reminder of the ties that bind us.

Seventy years ago, on the other side of the world a brutal campaign was unleashed to destroy a people because of their race.

Here in Australia, in this very city and near this very place, one old man – himself the victim of racism and whose people were under threat – took up the cause of these unknown strangers.

No personal benefit. No direct gain.

Just an ability to care about others during terrible tormenting times.

William Cooper, a 77 year old Yorta Yorta man who had never left Australia, could see what so many others around the world could not, or would not, see.

That when others are hurt, we all bear the pain. That when others are hurt, we all have a duty to act.

Human compassion – the bond that ties us all.

Seventy years ago on Saturday, William Cooper, campaigner for Aboriginal rights, gathered a delegation and walked from his home in Footscray to the German consulate in South Melbourne.

He wanted to present a resolution to the German consul condemning the persecution of Jews. He was refused admittance.

So few, anywhere, protested against the horror of the Night of the Broken Glass – an early warning of the Holocaust to come.

Yet William Cooper of Footscray did.

They may have been strangers he had never met, in a country he had never seen. He may have had persecution to fight at home.

But he would not shirk his moral responsibility.

He sensed the ominous danger and he acted.

Today, William’s family and so many others continue the ancient Yorta Yorta tradition of compassion and action. I pay tribute to them, to his grandson and other family here today, to their ancestors and the generations to come.

L.P. Hartley famously wrote that ‘the past is a foreign country’. But it’s not. The past is no stranger. It’s with us at all times. A constant presence that shapes and binds us all.

We need the past to make sense of the present and to guide the future.

The presence here tonight of the German Consul-General shows how the German people understand this.

Here in Australia, we are learning to make peace with the past to lay claim to the future. The national apology to Indigenous Australians, in particular the Stolen Generations is helping us build new relationships founded in mutual trust and respect.

So we can give William Cooper’s great grand-children the place in our nation they deserve.

Making peace with the past is the way all our children can find their way to a future shaped by respect and trust.

Making peace with the past is how our children value the bonds that bind us all.

Seventy years ago in this city, a wise, courageous man stood up and was counted while millions chose to look away.

His actions, in response to events on the other side of the world, bind us all tonight.

Yes, we are many, but we are also one.

William Cooper knew this. An inspiring leader. A great man.

Someone the world can learn from.