The images on our postage stamps have rarely strayed beyond John Howard’s “mainstream”. The boundaries of philatelic correctness in the representation of Aborigines are being surveyed in “Postmark Post Mabo”, an exhibition at the Post Master Gallery (La Trobe and Exhibition streets).

Terra nullius need not mean that there had been no one here before the British. Rather the legal doctrine that the High Court overturned in 1992 had depended on the absence in Aboriginal society of structures of government and property compatible with English practices. Yet the impression given by our stamps remains closer to the narrowest interpretation of terra nullius because Aborigines have been few and far between. Only four named individuals – Albert Namatjira, Truganini, fighter pilot Len Walters and Kathy Freeman – have been honoured in the ninety years during which the Commonwealth has issued its own stamps.

That quartet, along with David Unaipon on our fifty dollar note, does not exhaust the Aborigines who should be commemorated. Guerilla fighters up to the 1930s, writers, and recent activists merit recognition. For instance, the Bicentenary stamps in 1988 should have included the organisers of the “Day of Mourning and Protest” fifty years earlier.

Rather than just count heads, the tenth anniversary of Mabo calls for consideration of the philatelic treatment of the relations between traditional possession and settler land use.

Labor’s erstwhile postmaster-general [or Minister for Posts] told house of representatives in 1913 that the almost blank map behind the kangaroo on the initial definitive series expressed the national ideal of “a purely White Australia”.

The first commemorative stamp came in 1927 on the transfer of the parliament to Canberra. Despite the Aboriginal-derived name for our national capital, that stamp, as with so many other issues, gave no hint of the Ngunawal owners.

The earliest recognition on a stamp of Aboriginal presence came in 1930 when artifacts framed a portrait of Charles Sturt who had encountered warriors using similar weapons in defence of their country. Although the prime cause of dispossession was the spread of sheep, no Aborigine trespassed onto the 1934 commemorative for John Macarthur. Equally, the stamp for Major Mitchell’s exploration of Queensland in 1846 gave no sign of the locals who alternatively guided and harassed his progress. 

The centenary of Victoria issue (1934) took up the cliché of a dying race by making the Yarra impersonate the river of life separating a dignified old black man from the civilization of Melbourne’s CBD. The stamps for South Australia (1936) and New South Wales (1938) depicted whites arriving into a land devoid of people.

The 1970 Cook Centenary series was unique for showing, albeit in miniature, Aborigines brandishing spears in an effort at border protection. That vignette contrasted with the refusal shortly afterwards to attach a plaque to the Brisbane GPO to mark the execution of black patriots there in the 1850s.

The generic Aboriginal male head depicted in 1950 was based on a 1935 photograph from Walkabout Magazine of Gwoya Jungarai (“One-pound Jimmy”), whose relatives the police had massacred at Coniston in 1928.

No more Aborigines appeared until 1961 when a black stockman represented the Northern Territory cattle industry. Would a Country Party Minister have endorsed that choice after 1966 when the Gurindji walked off the Lord Vestey’s Wave Hill station, bringing land rights to the center of debate?

Gough Whitlam, in his book, The Whitlam Government (1985), alleges that the Fraser government scotched the proposal for a stamp with one hand pouring earth into another, as he had done with Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari, at Daguragu (Wattie Creek) in August 1975.

A 1989 series illustrated five aspects of the Pastoral Era: immigrants, pioneers, squatters, shepherds and explorers. Missing was one essential for pastoral expansion, namely, “dispersals”, also known as massacres. [DELETE??? In The Squatter’s Dream (1890), police magistrate and novelist “Rolf Bolderwood” had spelt out the stages that “pioneer civilization had followed. One of the stockmen had been speared: a score or two of blacks, to speak well within bounds, had been shot”.]

In 1998, another stamp for the cattle industry included a black stockman, in a stereotypical red shirt, but this time trailing behind his white boss. By then, the probability was that the boss would have been on a motor bike or in a chopper while the black stockmen would be working on a station owned by their own communities.

From 1982, indigenous art and crafts replaced Aborigines as people on Australian stamps. Our governments have found it easier to promote the paintings of Aborigines overseas than to meet claims for land at home.

Yet the division between art and land is never clear-cut. In 1963, the Yolngu pasted their land rights petition onto bark paintings. The seemingly abstract works selected for postage stamps, and included in the “Post Mabo” exhibition, could be tendered before land rights tribunals as maps of disputed country.

Although reconciliation is proceeding beyond commercial designs, Australia Post has yet to produce a Christmas stamp with an Aboriginal Madonna nursing a black infant Jesus, the image that the Vatican put on a stamp for the 1970 Papal Tour.