Mr John Landy

The Governor of Victoria, John Landy AC, MBE


This statement is an extract from Governor John Landy's address at Reconciliation Gayip, held at the Rod Laver Arena on 15 May, 2001. The extract is reprinted with permission.

A Tribute to Doug Nicholls - A Pioneer of Reconciliation

We are used to thinking of Reconciliation as a new idea. But there have been many over the last two hundred years who have worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life of Aboriginal people and to improve relations between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

I would like to talk about one of these people. A person with whom I have a few things in common. His name is Doug Nicholls. I first met him when I was an athlete in the 1950s.

Doug Nicholls was born in 1906 at Cumeragunja, just over the Murray River in New South Wales. He was Aboriginal, descended from the Djadjawurung and Yorta Yorta peoples.

Doug was a born sportsman who loved football, swimming in the Murray and running. He was one of the smallest players to play league football, playing for Northcote and then Fitzroy in the 1930s. He played for the Victorian interstate side in 1935.

Doug was also a professional runner. In 1929 he won the Nyah and Warracknabeal gifts, came second in the Shepparton and Wangaratta gifts, and fourth in the Melbourne Thousand. In 1969, in recognition of his sporting prowess, he was made chairman of the new National Aboriginal Sports Foundation.

In 1932 Doug joined the Church of Christ and became more active in Aboriginal issues. He gave a talk in Melbourne in 1938, saying that Aboriginal people were 'the skeleton in the cupboard of Australia's national life' and 'outcasts in our own land'. He asked that Aboriginal people be given the chance to 'become useful citizens in the land that was ours by birth'.

In these sentences I think Doug Nicholls has identified the three key parts of Reconciliation - the past; the present; and the future. The silence about events of the past is the skeleton in the cupboard Doug was referring to. In the present he referred to Aboriginal people being outcasts in their own land. The present state of Aboriginal was then, and still is now, unacceptably low compared to non-Aboriginal people. And finally, he referred to the chance to become useful citizens. This is a reference to the future, the third key feature of a true and lasting Reconciliation. In addition to acknowledging the past and redressing current disadvantage, Reconciliation also involves building a positive future for all.

Indigenous people need to feel part of strong local communities who have an understanding of their traditions and customs. They also need to feel that they are a part of a wider, diverse Australian community in which they have a special and proud place.

In 1951 Doug organised an event that generated great interest and respect for Aboriginal culture. That year, Victoria was celebrating 100 years of self-government. A Commemoration Committee had arranged some celebratory events. But there was no role for Aboriginal people, so he started a campaign of protest and was eventually given a seat on a sub-committee to organise an Indigenous event for the celebrations.

The show was staged at the Princess Theatre for four nights, plus a matinee. It was written, rehearsed and produced within three weeks. The show was called 'Out of the Dark, an Aboriginal Moomba'. The word 'Moomba' means a kind of camp concert. It was later adopted as the title of Melbourne's annual festival.

The show was expected to be a failure. As it turned out, it was a fantastic success. Good reviews in the papers led to long queues and standing room only for the rest of the shows.

For the audience this was their first taste of the vibrant, rhythmic, artistic culture that is Aboriginal Australia. They loved it, and in the process they gained a new understanding of themselves and of Aboriginal Australians.

By now Doug had a career as a social worker in the Fitzroy Aboriginal community. He set up the Churches of Christ Aboriginals Mission in Gore Street, with himself as pastor. Pastor Doug was also one of the founders, and the first field officer, of the Aborigines Advancement League in Thornbury.

Doug Nicholls' achievements are diverse. And they are remarkable when you consider that he left school at 14.

These achievements did not go unnoticed. He was awarded the MBE in 1957 and the OBE in 1968. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. He also managed to balance his public and private life, and was named Victorian Father of the Year in 1962.

In 1976 he became Governor of South Australia. But ill health forced him to retire after only five months. Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls died in 1988.

Sir Doug was an early promoter of Reconciliation, identifying its breadth and the important element of respect. We can all learn from this and we can all, individually, do more to increase our understanding and respect for Aboriginal culture.