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Black and white portrait of a man. - click to view larger image
HC Coombs

1906 to 1997

In 1967, not long before his disappearance in the Portsea surf, Prime Minister Harold Holt announced a new responsibility for the retiring Governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Herbert Cole 'Nugget' Coombs.

A council for Aboriginal affairs would be formed to advise the federal government and Coombs accepted the invitation to chair it.

Over his long life of public service (he advised seven prime ministers in all), Nugget Coombs (as he was generally known) had not, until this time, worked in Aboriginal affairs.

With fellow councillors — diplomat and senior public servant Barrie Dexter, and professor of anthropology Bill Stanner — Coombs set out to consult with Aboriginal and Islander Australians, to learn of their ideas for the future and to present these ideas to government as persuasively as possible.

Nugget Coombs opened the 1968 Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) conference in Canberra, assuring those present that his 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'.

This was at a time when the Liberal Country Party government was still espousing assimilation as its policy in Aboriginal affairs and did not favour such an outlook.

For the rest of his life Nugget Coombs would be involved as an advisor to governments and supporter of Indigenous organisations, whether they be land councils or business enterprises.

He was highly regarded by both black and white Australians for the relentless support shown in his writings and speeches for the encouragement of autonomy and pride in identity of Indigenous Australians.


Tim Rowse, Nugget Coombs: A Reforming Life, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2002.

Tim Rowse, Obliged to be Difficult: Nugget Coombs' Legacy in Indigenous Affairs, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2000.

Explore more on Collaborating for Indigenous Rights 1957–1973

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