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Dr H C Coombs and Australia's First Nations

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are respectfully advised that this page contains the names and images of people who have now died.

Dr H C ‘Nugget’ Coombs is remembered as a powerful and effective advocate for Indigenous Australians. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to establish deep and trusting relationships with Indigenous communities, to listen to and respect their priorities, and to mediate between those communities and institutions of government. This gave him a position of remarkable influence in policymaking on Indigenous affairs.

Whilst the majority of Coombs' legacy in Indigenous affairs relates to the period after his Governorship of the Reserve Bank, his commitment to Indigenous communities over this extended period of his life guides the Bank today. This feature outlines some of the most significant of Coombs' involvements in Indigenous affairs, namely the issue of the use of David Malangi artwork on the $1 banknote, Coombs' Chairmanship of the Council on Aboriginal Affairs, his role in the ceremony handing back Gurindji lands at Wattie Creek, his chairmanship of the Australia Council for the Arts, his advisory role to several land councils and his role in the creation of Kakadu National Park. It also notes his leadership of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee and his engagement with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory through his involvement with the Australian National University's Northern Australia Research Unit and Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. This feature provides a broad outline of Coombs' contributions. To provide more information on Coombs' involvements and the beliefs and values that underlay them, a listing of his major published works on Indigenous affairs is included in the Further Reading section.

David Malangi and the $1 banknote

Whilst his Governorship of the Reserve Bank of Australia did not directly engage him in Aboriginal affairs, a significant episode relating to Aboriginal culture took place during this tenure. During the preparation of Australia's first decimal banknotes, it was decided that Aboriginal artwork should be integrated into the design of the $1 banknote. The banknote's designer, Gordon Andrews had been shown a photograph of a bark artwork by Yolngu artist David Malangi Daymirringu. Along with two examples of ancient rock art, Malangi's work Mortuary feast of Gurrmirringu was incorporated into the banknote's design. The Bank did not trace the copyright ownership of the work nor seek permission to reproduce it prior to the distribution of the new banknotes on which it appeared. It was only in January 1966 (shortly before the release of the new banknote series) that the Bank established through intermediaries that Malangi was the artist responsible for the work.

Photograph of Funerary rites of Gurrmirringu, reproduced from negatives supplied by
                                Karel Kupka, 1963. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-013745.
Back of the $1 banknote, showing designs based on the bark painting by David Malangi Daymirringu.

Coombs directed that Malangi be recognised and compensated for the use of his work. However, this was not a straightforward matter in 1966. Under Commonwealth laws of the time, most Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory were regarded as ‘wards’ of the Director of Welfare under the Welfare Ordinance of 1953. This ordinance restricted the financial and legal rights of Aboriginal people. It meant, for instance, that the copyright for Malangi's work resided with the Director of Welfare; that any significant amount of money owed to him had to be held in trust; and that he could not buy or sell goods worth more than ten pounds (such as his artwork) without the Director's approval. In May 1966, Dr Coombs wrote to the Northern Territory Director of Welfare Harry Giese seeking guidance on what form of recognition and payment Malangi could be offered to acknowledge his contribution to the banknote.

In September 1966, under the required trusteeship arrangements, the Bank made a payment of $1,000 to Malangi. This was in line with the payments made to other external contributors to the design elements of the banknote. In August 1967, Coombs met with Malangi in person to present a specially struck medallion honouring his contribution to the $1 banknote. Following enquiries being made as to what would make for a meaningful and useful gift to Malangi, Coombs presented him with a fishing kit and tackle box. Malangi used the money to buy a boat with an outboard motor and a fishing net. Coombs' gesture of restitution was well received by Malangi, who proudly showed the medallion to important visitors. When Malangi died in 1999, the medallion was incorporated into his headstone. Malangi became widely recognised as the artist whose work is represented on the $1 banknote. This resulted in him being informally known as nickname ‘Dollar Dave’ for the rest of his life – a nickname that he enjoyed greatly. He also spoke of the importance that the controversy resulted in greater community awareness of his culture, as this 1972 documentary Bark Painters recalls. A subsequent meeting between Malangi and Coombs in Darwin in 1968 is a further indication of the goodwill and ongoing friendship that existed between the men. Surviving records suggest that Malangi offered a selection of paintings to Coombs in a gesture of reciprocity.

Whilst Coombs did not acquire any bark paintings for the Bank during his Governorship, his interest in them motivated his successor Governor Sir John Phillips to acquire a small collection of Aboriginal bark paintings of which the Bank continues to be custodian.

Coombs presenting Malangi with a fishing kit and medallion, August 1967. Reserve Bank of Australia archives, PN-002895.
The medallion presented to Malangi in acknowledgement of his contribution to the $1 banknote. Reserve Bank of Australia archives, PN-002686.

The episode brought issues of intellectual property, moral rights and Indigenous culture to a higher level of prominence. It drew attention to the need to recognise the legal rights of Indigenous artists on the same terms as non-Indigenous artists. It also highlighted significant inequalities faced by Indigenous Australians in exercising financial and legal autonomy.

Council on Aboriginal Affairs

Following his retirement from the Bank in 1968, Coombs directed his energies to several public roles in which he could use his understanding of government, economics and policymaking to advance the interests of Indigenous communities.

In 1967, a national referendum conferred upon the Commonwealth Government the power to enact legislation specifically relating to Aboriginal people. Ensuing from this decision, an advisory body – the Council on Aboriginal Affairs – was established in the same year. It was envisaged that the Council would consult with Indigenous communities on their needs and aspirations and formulate proposals to government. Coombs was appointed by Prime Minister Harold Holt to act as its inaugural chair, a position he held between 1967 and 1976.

Coombs' outlook on Indigenous culture differed from many in government and the public service at the time, causing his ambitions for the Council to be frustrated in many instances. Assimilation of Indigenous people into non-Indigenous society remained the government's official objective, whereas Coombs argued that the distinctiveness of Indigenous culture should be protected and valued rather than denuded. He proposed that the Council would ‘strengthen the sense of Aboriginal Australians as a distinctive group within our society, with a distinctive contribution to make to the quality of our national life’.

Above all, he believed in the right of Aboriginal people to be different, rather than be assimilated into non-Indigenous society. He argued that Aboriginal people should:

… be able to conduct their society in accordance with their ways of thinking, educate their children in relation to that and to conduct their own ceremonies.

The Council argued that Aboriginal economic self-determination would best be achieved by supporting the Aboriginal agency over traditional lands to the greatest extent possible. This advocacy had a significant effect on the policy agendas of the major political parties. It laid much of the intellectual and policy groundwork for the legal recognition of land rights that came about with the passage of the Land Rights Act 1976 and further reforms in the decades that followed. The Council eschewed an approach that presumed the existence of a single Aboriginal constituency and instead worked to build the capacities of individual Indigenous communities to articulate their specific local needs and preferences.

Under Coombs, the Council advocated for the legal rights and economic interests of the Yolngu people and other Aboriginal communities of Arnhem Land in their dealings with the Nabalco mining company which had begun bauxite mining activities on the Gove Peninsula in the late 1960s. Despite his chairmanship of a government agency, Coombs was critical of the government's handling of the case. He criticised the exclusion of Aboriginal stakeholders from legal negotiations over the use of the land and the economic benefits that would flow from it. In 1969, he commented that ‘what happened in Sydney Cove in 1788 is being repeated on Gove Peninsula – not a story in the history book but a living event in our own time’. The matter ultimately resulted in the Milirrpum vs Nabalco Pty Ltd case being heard by the High Court of Australia in 1971. The case was significant in that it considered the question of native title for the first time. Whilst the judgement did not establish Indigenous sovereignty over the lands in question through native title, it spurred the establishment of the Woodward Royal Commission whose recommendations formed the basis of the Land Rights Act 1976.

It was through his involvement in this matter that Coombs became a close friend and frequent correspondent of Roy Marika, the president of the Yirrkala Village Council. The two worked closely together to resolve problems faced by the Yirrkala community. Coombs acted as an intermediary between the Aboriginal leaders of Yirrkala and government agencies whose decisions affected their lives. Coombs learnt through Marika the importance of understanding the sense of community sovereignty and authority that characterises Aboriginal communities in that area. This was particularly important when determining the most effective approach relevant government agencies should adopt when relating to these communities.

Wattie Creek handback

Coombs was a close advisor to Labor Party Leader Gough Whitlam on Aboriginal affairs. His contribution to the party's thinking influenced its 1972 policy platform on legislating Aboriginal land rights. Soon after its election, the Whitlam Government established the Woodward Royal Commission, which proposed methods by which Aboriginal land rights might be recognised in the Northern Territory. The recommendations of the Royal Commission were accepted by the government, which introduced the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill to parliament in 1975.

One of the most high-profile campaigns for Indigenous land rights in this period was that led by Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people. The Wave Hill ‘walk off’ of August 1966 and the longstanding strike that followed did much to put Aboriginal land rights on the political agenda. As a signal of its intentions on Aboriginal land rights, pending the passage of the legislation, the Whitlam Government resolved to return part of the Gurindji people's tradition lands.

Coombs accompanied Whitlam on his historic visit to Wattie Creek on 16 August, 1975. A ceremony had been arranged to formally transfer the deeds of ownership of the lands from the Commonwealth to the Gurindji people. On the flight to Wave Hill, Coombs counselled Whitlam to keep his remarks concise. He recounted to Whitlam a story told to him by the anthropologist Bill Stanner. When John Batman appropriated the lands of the Wurundjeri people in establishing the settlement of Melbourne, the process was symbolically formalised when Wurundjeri elders passed a handful of earth into Batman's hands. It is doubtful that the meaning and consequences of this supposed ‘treaty’ were fully discussed with the Wurundjeri. It was at Coombs' suggestion that Whitlam performed a symbolic reversal of Batman's gesture by pouring red earth through Vincent Lingiari's hands at the ceremony at Wattie Creek. This ceremony has come to be remembered as one of the defining moments in the land rights movement in Australia. Mervyn Bishop's photograph recording the event has become one of the most iconic in Australian photography.

Dr H C Coombs accompanying Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the Wattie Creek hand back ceremony in August 1975. National Archives of Australia: A8598, AK6/5/80/3
‘Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory’, 1975, Mervyn Bishop, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 58.2000. Reproduced with permission of the National Indigenous Australians Agency 
‘Batman’s Treaty with the Aborigines at Merri Creek’, John Wesley Burtt, c. 1875, State Library of Victoria, H92.196.

Australia Council for the Arts Aboriginal Arts Board

Another of Coombs' involvements following his Governorship was his chairmanship of the Australia Council for the Arts. Under his leadership, the Australia Council formed an Aboriginal Arts Board. This body was constituted entirely of Indigenous artists and it determined which Aboriginal arts projects and initiatives should be prioritised and funded. This was one of the very earliest instances in which the principle of Aboriginal self-determination had been integrated into the functioning of a government agency.

The Australia Council's Aboriginal Arts Board prioritised support for arts projects centred on cultural maintenance for Aboriginal communities and the revival of traditional forms of cultural expression. These objectives were contrary to the objective of cultural assimilation that had been government policy for several decades. Under Coombs' tenure, the Australia Council became one of the biggest customers for Aboriginal art in the country. The Aboriginal Arts Board arranged extensive international exhibitions of the works it acquired. This raised the level of awareness and appreciation of Aboriginal art both within Australia and overseas, which significantly contributed to the development of the market for Aboriginal art.

Dr Coombs in conversation with with Dick Roughsey, Chairman Aboriginal Arts Board, Australia Council for the Arts, 1974, National Archives of Australia, M2153, 19/44

Land councils

Given his formidable knowledge of the processes of government, Coombs' advice was often sought in the formation of enterprises and representative bodies for Aboriginal people, such as land councils in the Northern Territory. He offered guidance and support to the Northern Land Council during its negotiations over uranium mining and contributed to the designing of governance structures for the Central Land Council. These tasks required the ability to mediate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous structures of authority and notions of accountability.

Kakadu National Park

In his role as President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Coombs intervened to ensure that the objectives of the conservation movement and the traditional owners of the land comprising Kakadu National Park were harmonised. As a general principle, Coombs believed that the conservation movement should not act contrarily to the objectives of the Indigenous land rights movement. Coombs had, in 1970, described Aboriginal people as the original conservationists, owing to the extent of their adaptation to and relationship with the land.

In 1977, a land rights claim was submitted on areas covered now by Kakadu National Park by the traditional owners of that land. The Land Rights Act allowed conservationists (or any other group) to object to the land rights claim on the basis that such a claim would cause ‘detriment’ to the land. Coombs called a meeting of the Northern Land Council, Central Land Council and Friends of the Earth to discuss an approach that would satisfy each of the parties concerned. Unanimity was reached, allowing for public commitments for cooperation to be issued that confirmed the compatibility of the land claim and conservationists' objectives. Coombs himself appeared before the Aboriginal Land Commissioner in support of the land claim. He stressed the need to ensure that there was not an ‘antagonistic and adversary relationship between the Aborigines and the wildlife authority’, as a collaborative rather than regulatory relationship between Aboriginal people, conservationists and government agencies was more likely to produce the best environmental outcomes. Coombs argued that unanimity was more likely to flow when Aboriginal people participated in discussions empowered as legal owners of the land. Coombs argued that the future management of the area should be predicated on Aboriginal ownership of it as the starting point.

To deny Aboriginal title because of lack of faith in Aboriginal integrity, understanding or capacity is to rely upon law and compulsion. To grant Aboriginal title and then to negotiate agreement is to rely upon consultation, mutual education and collaboration in agreed plans.

Kakadu National Park was proclaimed in stages, in 1979, 1984 and 1987. The park continues to be managed jointly by the traditional owners of the land and the Director of National Parks.

Aboriginal Treaty Committee

In 1979, Coombs established the Aboriginal Treaty Committee to advance a proposal for a formal treaty between the Australian government and the Indigenous people of Australia. He advocated for a formal treaty, believing that it was necessary to safeguard the progress of Aboriginal self-determination from the effects of changing political circumstances. He stated that a formal instrument of mutual understanding would contribute to this. The Committee proposed that a treaty be drafted which would include provisions relating to:

  • the protection of Aboriginal identity, languages, law and culture;
  • the recognition and restoration of rights to land by applying, throughout Australia, the recommendations of the Woodward Commission;
  • the conditions governing mining and exploitation of other natural resources on Aboriginal land;
  • compensation to Aboriginal Australians for the loss of and damage to traditional lands and to their traditional way of life;
  • the right of Aboriginal Australians to control their own affairs and to establish their own associations for this purpose.

The Committee's advocacy was a major factor in the referral of the matter to the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs which reported in 1983. Whilst the resulting report did not lead to direct political outcomes, it did establish the legal process by which such constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians' rights and connections to country could be secured. Importantly, it placed the concept of a treaty and constitutional recognition on the political agenda for the first time and shaped opinion on the subject in political circles and non-Indigenous society.

Later life

In later life, Coombs moved from public life to the academic domain. He was closely involved in two research units of the Australian National University – the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies and the North Australia Research Unit, the latter he had been instrumental in founding. Coombs held a visiting fellowship jointly established by the two which saw him spend several months a year in the Northern Territory from the late 1980s onwards. This role involved extensive engagement with Aboriginal communities throughout the region. This consultation informed a significant body of published work in this period of Coombs' life, which centred on the means by which imperatives such as Aboriginal self-determination, land rights, environmental conservation and economic development could be reconciled. Coombs argued that non-Indigenous Australia stood to gain as much from advances in Aboriginal self-determination as Aboriginal people themselves would. Coombs' major works on this area are listed in the ‘Further Reading’ section below.

Coombs' extended visits saw him become a trusted associate of a number of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, particularly the community of Yirrkala. It was during one of his visits to the Northern Territory that Coombs suffered a stroke, in 1996, from which he never fully recovered. He died on 29 October 1997. Coombs had two funeral services, one at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney on 14 November 1997, and the other at Yirrkala on 12 October 1998. At the ceremony at Yirrkala, Coombs was accorded full Aboriginal funeral rites. He was the only non-Aboriginal person to have been honoured in this way by that community. The ceremony was a unique combination of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal rites. The Yolngu funeral rite was conducted by Galarrwuy Yunupingu. Half of Coombs' ashes buried at Yirrkala, the other half at University House, Australian National University, Canberra.

In an interview given in 1992, Coombs was asked to nominate the greatest disappointment of his life. He responded by referring to the lack of equality and self-determination accorded to Aboriginal people and the failure by non-Indigenous Australians to respect Aboriginal people's ‘right to be different’. Coombs lived through, and contributed to a period of significant progress in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. However, the pace of that change, the volume of unfinished business and the ongoing injustice faced by Indigenous Australians was a source of deep frustration to Coombs. That frustration, shared by so many, continues to provide the impetus for the transformation of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

Enduring memory

The memory of H C Coombs and his legacy in Indigenous affairs is a source of ongoing inspiration to the Bank. Following a Reserve Bank Board meeting in Darwin in July 2019, Governor Philip Lowe visited Yirrkala, Northern Territory as a way of honouring Coombs' strong connection with that community. Lowe met with Yolngu elders and community members – many of whom had personal connections and memories of Coombs. Lowe took the opportunity to discuss economic issues affecting them. He also unveiled a plaque at the place in which Coombs' ashes are buried at Yirrkala. He was accompanied on this journey by Susan Moylan-Coombs, the adopted granddaughter of H C Coombs. Lowe later commented on the warmth of the welcome he and the Bank's party received in Yirrkala and the high esteem in which Coombs continues to be held there.

Coombs had consistently spoken of the importance of meeting and spending time with Indigenous communities in order to understand their concerns and perspectives. In reflecting on his time in Arnhem Land, Lowe similarly commented on the importance of directly consulting with Indigenous communities –

My visit to Northeast Arnhem Land provided us with valuable insight into the challenges facing remote lndigenous communities, as well as the achievements of the corporations we visited in Yirrkala and Gunyangara, and the great work being done at the boarding school in Nhulunbuy. There is no substitute for seeing these communities first hand.

Afterword: Dr H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs was my grandfather.

By Susan Moylan-Coombs

Susan Moylan-Coombs. Photographer: Karen Watson

As a child I had no idea the influence that he had in Australia as an iconic public servant, a role that he believed in and was committed to. He had a quiet determination to shift the country's consciousness, to recognise our inherent rights and deep spiritual connect to this land, as First Nations people.

I was born Susan Calma and became Susan Coombs after being adopted at the age of three after being removed as part of the practices of the day, we are known as the Stolen Generations.

Through my eyes he was a man of honour and integrity, a ‘white warrior’ as the Yolngu people referred to him, to me he was grandpa. He was an advocate for an inclusive nation, one that embraced the rich heritage and narrative that pre-dated 1788; he wanted an Australia where there was prosperity for all.

Grandpa's unique style was to gathering people to collaborate and shape our society and his legacy lives on through all the institutions that he helped create. He was before his time with regards to us as the ‘Original’ people of this land pushing for a Treaty and Native Title, well before it was fashionable and decades before the Reconciliation movement. One question is whether he would have approved of it or not. It has certainly kept us busy for the past 3 decades and now we are trying to find our ‘Heart’ with a statement written in Uluru.

What I do know is that grandpa was broken hearted in his later years of life that not enough had been done to change the situation that we face as the First Nations people of this land and I guess we are still trying to find our way.

Further reading

  • Coombs, H C (1994), Aboriginal Autonomy: Issues and Strategies
  • Coombs, H C, Brankl, M M and Snowdon, W E (1983), A certain heritage: programs for and by Aboriginal families in Australia
  • Coombs, H C (1978), Kulinma: Listening to Aboriginal Australians
  • Coombs, H C (1981), Trial Balance
  • Coombs, H C (1972), The future of the Australian Aboriginal
  • Coombs, H C (1993), Issues in Dispute: Aborigines Working for Autonomy
  • Rowse, T (2000), Obliged to be difficult: Nugget Coombs' legacy in indigenous affairs
  • Rowse, T (2002), Nugget Coombs: A Reforming Life