July 9, 2013
By Reconciliation Australia Co-Chair, Dr Tom Calma AO
This year NAIDOC honours the Yolngu Elders of North Eastern Arnhem Land who created the famous bark petition which called on parliament to consult with them as owners of their land.
They were decrying a decision of the Menzies Government to excise a large part of their lands for a bauxite mine; a decision taken without any consultation with the Yolngu people, indeed without them even being informed.
The Yolngu petitioned the Parliament to “hear the views of the people of Yirrkala” and asked that no “arrangements be entered into with any company which will destroy the livelihood and independence of the Yirrkala people”.
Although Parliament refused to act on the Yolngu’s request their bark petition set in train the long process of social, legal and legislative change towards recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights which continues today.
All Australians are indebted to the courage and creativity of the Yolngu who fought to defend their homelands in the face of Government and mining industry refusal to recognise their rights. Their sophisticated strategy which included both a legal case before the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory and a direct bark petition appeal to the Australian Parliament was the fore runner for the so-called Mabo High Court decision three decades later, which finally overturned the infamous doctrine of terra nullius.
Faced with the imminent loss of large tracts of their land to bauxite miner Nabalco the Yolngu stood by their own law and established an important precedence when their petition, in the form of bark paintings, became the first traditional documents recognised by the Australian Parliament.
Another groundbreaking outcome of the Yolgnu’s defence of their country was Northern Territory Supreme Court acknowledgement for the first time in an Australian higher court the existence of a system of Aboriginal law.
Yet another legacy of the Yolgnu’s Yirrkala petition has been the significant advancement in the relationship between Australian mining companies and First Peoples over the past fifty years.
The Yolngu bark petition was sparked by a mining company intrusion onto their country; today some of Australia’s biggest miners are partners with Aboriginal land owners in a way that was almost unimaginable back then. Miners are the biggest private sector employers of Aboriginal people and mining has provided valuable economic development opportunities to our communities across Australia.
While Australia has come a long way in the past 50 years the continuing lack of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a reminder of our colonial past and that the reconciliation journey still has some way to travel.
It is not surprising that Yolngu descendants of the bark petitioners are today still in the forefront of national efforts to secure constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Australians. Yolngu leader, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and his brother, the late Dr Yunupingu, both advocates for constitutional change, are the sons of one of the Yirrkala petitioners.
A strong Yes-vote for recognition in the future referendum will be the greatest mark of respect we can pay the memory of these pioneers.