Speech at 50th anniversary of Yirrkala bark petitions

WED 10 JULY 2013

Prime Minister




I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans of the Yolngu people, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Fifty years ago, in this small community, in this remote part of paradise, two of Australia’s most important founding documents were drawn up.

Four thousand kilometres from a Canberra winter, and the bricks and mortar that represent our system of parliamentary democracy.

Far from the Houses of Parliament and from the formal courtrooms where our grievances are settled.

The Yirrkala Bark Petitions were drawn up using the ochre of the land. The bark of the trees.

The Yolngu used art in those founding documents, because that is the language of their law.

Exquisitely drawn images,

That tell the story of their relationship to the land.

And through that relationship, proclaiming their title to that land.

Their right to have a say over what happens to the land they have cared for, for thousands of years.

Then, to be doubly secure, the signatories translated that proclamation into language for people 4000km away to understand.

The language of ‘honourables’ and ‘excisions’, ‘humble petitioners’ and requests for committees of enquiry.

Two languages, but one message – of inalienable title.

The Yirrkala Bark Petitions were a documentary bridge between two noble legal traditions.

They became the first traditional documents to be recognised by an Australian Parliament.

Fifty years on, they stand among the founding documents of our nation.

Friends, we know that the hopes the signatories had of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions were not realised.

The excision of land was upheld. The bauxite mine went ahead.

A subsequent court challenge to secure land rights failed.

The bridge between our two cultures, our two laws, and our understanding of this ancient land was not yet strong enough.

Justice Blackburn himself, in refusing to recognise Aboriginal title in this place in his 1971 judgement:

“The question is not one of fact, but of law”.

One law. But not Yolngu law.

The Bark Petitions may not have effected their immediate aims.

But these crucial documents triggered a chain of historic events.

The beginnings of an understanding that there was another, older, law in place on this land.

Perhaps the most significant part of Justice Blackburn’s judgment was his statement that:

“If ever there was government by law rather than government by man then this is it.”

Because it was this understanding that was the catalyst that led first to the Woodward Royal Commission.

Then, in 1976, to the passage of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

A process that culminated – three decades later – in Mabo, and the overturning of the doctrine of terra nullius.

Important changes to our nation’s laws.

But perhaps more importantly, changes to our national story.

It has been these changes that, piece by piece and over time, propelled us, compelled us, to deliver the national apology.

On that day, it was my privilege to say sorry.

And with that word, so long needed, and once heard, to continue to strengthen the bridge between our cultures.

That bridge, which provides the foundation for our work to Close the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Today, it is the same path to change that is helping us to build support for Constitutional Recognition of Australia’s first peoples.

Another campaign, incidentally, that is deeply rooted here on the Gove Peninsula, with another bark petition.

As Prime Minister, I was proud to accept that petition from Galarrwuy Yunupingu in 2008.

From that petition, the movement for recognition has grown.

So that now, thanks to the hard work of the Expert Panel the Government appointed, we have clear recommendations for what recognition could look like.

The Parliament has passed an Act of Recognition, and established a parliamentary committee to continue work towards a referendum.

Because constitutional change must be a part of a journey that makes all Australians proud.

We must tread that path to change, together.

As I speak to you today, Australians are also gathering in Alice Springs, as the latest stop in the ‘journey to recognition’.

This long walk began in Melbourne and will culminate here in Arnhem Land at the Garma festival.

Along the way, people across Australia have become part of the movement for change.

People like Haydon, a property owner in Murray Bridge in South Australia.

As he saw the journey pass past his gate, Haydon asked what it was all about.

And when Haydon was asked whether he would vote yes, he simply said:

“Oh hell yeah.”

Fifty years on, that is the footprint of the original Yirrkala Bark Petitions.

The legacy of a group of courageous elders who spoke up for their people and against injustice.

Who asserted title to their own lands. And set out their claim in images of great power and symbolism.

Fifty years on, some of those elders are here today.

Wali Wunungmurra, Dhunggala Mununggurr, and Manunu Wunungmurra, all signatories  to the Yirrkala Bark Petitions.

And Dr Gawirrin Gumana, one of the artists who recorded the elders’ eloquent claim for land title on panels in the Yirrkala Methodist Mission Church.

Respected leaders of their people. Welcoming us onto their lands today.

Secure in the knowledge that the rights they asserted all those years ago are now recognised in the law of their country and the laws of this nation.

And their rights translating now into concrete outcomes for their people.

Since the signing of the Gove Mining Agreement with Rio Tinto in 2011 the traditional owners have a stake and a say in the bauxite mine on their land.

Importantly, local businesses and enterprises are leveraging the presence of the mine to deliver jobs and prosperity.

Today, I am pleased to announce that the Australian Government will also be supporting these efforts by traditional owners to drive local economic development, with our own $4.3 million investment in the Laynhapuy and Mangarr homelands, to make housing safer, and improve infrastructure.

An investment that will draw on the skill and energy of locals to deliver these works, to build stronger communities and a stronger local economy.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great privilege to be here today to mark the fiftieth anniversary of two remarkable and precious pieces of our nation’s documentary heritage.

Documents that proved to us all that no bridge between traditions is too hard to build.

No translation is too difficult to attempt.

And that courage and conviction can prevail.

Source: https://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/79983/20130830-1433/www.pm.gov.au/press-office/speech-50th-anniversary-yirrkala-bark-petitions.html