Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


Aboriginal Land Rights and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013, Yunupingu, Dr M

11:58 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Thursday in this chamber, during the time in which we deal with non-controversial legislation, the Aboriginal Land Rights and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 was passed. Tonight I want to provide my contribution to the passage of that legislation. I do so by congratulating the Mirarr people of Kakadu and the Australian government in successfully enabling the handing back of the land of Jabiru township to its traditional owners. That bill signified many things—the government's commitment to recognising Aboriginal people's unique connection to the land, the right of their ownership of that land and their right as traditional owners to protect and manage the land. Importantly, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, it is through the management and protection of that treasured heritage landscape known as Kakadu that this agreement will enable economic advancement and continued development for Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders alike.

Unlike most Western relationships with land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have an affinity with particular areas. The traditional owners of a certain area gain their identity from their country. Their cultural identity and connection to the land might flourish in that area. So, without reasonable and legal recognition of that cultural connection to land, Indigenous people have essentially had that identity illegitimately withheld from them. For the Mirarr people, this illegitimate disconnection with their land can now be resolved. Their rightful ownership of Jabiru and the surrounding region will signify a resolve we can all be proud of. The Aboriginal Land Rights and Other Legislation Amendment Bill has seen the Mirarr people and all tiers of government work towards finding a solution. The native title claim that the Mirarr people can now settle with the government through this agreement was the longest running native title claim in the history of the Northern Territory. It is pleasing to note that the opposition supported this legislation, because doing so continues to nurture reconciliation and the important recognition of Indigenous Australians' rights.

I want to take the time also to thank the current Northern Territory government for working towards realising this solution and I want to sincerely thank the former Northern Territory Labor government for its support during the negotiation processes. The bill and Aboriginal land rights recognition enable change to happen with respect. Land rights recognition benefits everyone through the clear appreciation of what is truly Aboriginal land, and this recognition is, in essence, a further step towards reconciliation with Australia's first peoples. This bill and its amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 complete what the Australian Labor party has been working with traditional owners to do since Whitlam introduced the legislation to parliament in 1975. It absolutely completes what was the first attempt by an Australian Labor government to legally recognise the Aboriginal system of land ownership.

I commend the fact that, through many years of listening and learning, the Mirarr people's application for a determination of native title lodged in the Federal Court in 1997 has now been respectively resolved. The amendment bill that was passed last week will see the land in and around the Jabiru township area itself finally, and rightfully, granted as Aboriginal land and it will revive certainty and security for Jabiru and its constituents.

What will this mean in the end for people at Kakadu? What is it all about? It means that this long-running native title claim by the Mirarr people, of course, has successfully been resolved. With the Australian Labor government's scheduling of Jabiru as Aboriginal land it means a very clear step forward for everyone. This is indeed an economic win for the Mirarr people and for the non-Indigenous stakeholders within and around the township of Jabiru. Through this resolution, business operators will continue to operate with existing leases and subleases preserved and secured, and residents will enjoy continued economic and social development within the town to provide the necessary infrastructure and the services. Traditional owners will find new economic developments in a township that already thrives as a service to the breathtaking Kakadu National Park tourist destination. It is a significant step forward for the community as a whole.

It also means that this land will be rightfully joined in with other wonderful parts of Kakadu National Park and will be managed by the Kakadu Aboriginal Land Trust. The trust will serve to hold the land in trust for its traditional owners. More importantly, the amendments that this bill makes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act mean the town will also enjoy the park's World Heritage protection. It will allow for sustainable development of the town while protecting and preserving the natural and cultural values associated with Jabiru and surrounding land.

I have always vehemently supported native title and I understand the significant bond this creates in mutual understanding and respect between non-Indigenous people and the first peoples of this land. In the case of the settlement of Jabiru, it allows for the continuation of community and process with the clear respect and recognition of the people who originally owned the land. While the township of Jabiru can confidently continue to exist and develop as usual, now the Mirarr people will legally own the land, lease the land and have the opportunity to retain or re-establish their cultural identity on the land. The Mirarr people will be able to contribute to the responsible development of the Northern Territory. They will never have to be threatened by the pressures of mining and pastoral industry groups or conservative politicians who may have their own economic interests at heart. My congratulations to Yvonne Margarula and her family and the traditional Mirarr people, and I acknowledge the wonderful work that has been done by the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.

The second part of my speech this evening is, ironically for me, almost closing a circle in the chapter of my political career. In giving one of my final speeches in this chamber, I want to rise this evening to pay tribute to Dr Yunupingu. He will be remembered as a great and important man, a man who Australia has lost too soon, but a man who has left with us a legacy of progress, inclusion, change and respect on the road to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across the world. I want to speak tonight about Dr Yunupingu, a member of the Gumatj people, who passed away on 2 June, surrounded by his family. I must put on the record the great loss of this wonderful member of society not only because he was a leader in the community, not only because he was an educator who transcended the cultural divide and not only because he was an incredible musician in the international arena but also because he was a very dear friend of mine.

When I arrived at Yirrkala in 1981 from the suburbs of Melbourne—and I have talked about that experience many, many times in this chamber—I taught at Yirrkala community school. I had a composite grade 4 and 5 class at the time. That is the point in time in a child's schooling in that community when they move from their Gumatj language into having 90 per cent of their day in English in bilingual education. It was there that I learned a lot about Yolngu life. It was there, in fact, that I learnt a lot about myself through living with Yolngu people.

It was there at that school, on the day I arrived, that I was lucky enough to get to know Mr Yunupingu. He was one of three assistant teachers in my classroom in the middle primary school years. Mr Yunupingu and I worked together at that school and our friendship grew. Although I know we had a genuine respect for each other's work, we would often tease one another as the years went on. I recall his long hours down in the camp on the guitar, singing, and I used to bowl him up for spending too much time plucking strings instead of getting back up to school and helping out with the kids! He would pull me up many times and say, 'You're always obsessed about union work, young girl—playing too much politics.' I remember one day when we teased each other and I said to him, 'I just can't believe after 10 or 15 years of our friendship you went on to become one of the most fabulous entertainers in this country and then strutted your strings, your songs and your band on the world stage.' He turned around and looked at me and said, 'And I never believed you would become a senator, either.' We both had a really good chuckle.

We did tease each other, but we had a mighty respect for each other. Respect is a big thing in remote community life, and I am blessed to have been invited into that world of respect. I do also want to pay my respects to his wife, who has, since his death, changed her first name, as you do out of respect. Gurruwun was a librarian at the school. She is a magnificent educator as well. I know that, in years gone by, she has also been awarded significant awards and recognition for her contribution to education.

It was Mr Yunupingu who I watched leap from one great success to the next. He was a role model in the community as an educator and throughout the 1980s he went on from being an assistant teacher under the Remote Area Teacher Education Program to become a teacher, assistant principal and then principal of Yirrkala school. As a matter of fact, he was the first Indigenous Australian to be appointed as a school principal. He was a role model, a born leader, and that was very, very obvious and everyone could see it. He conducted the review of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in 1995-96. After the implementation of the first 21 goals of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy, he headed up the review of the implementation, of how those 21 goals were tracking. He was granted an honorary doctorate in 1998 for the work that he did on this review.

I must say that, unlike many people who find themselves in a position of power, Mr Yunupingu knew his calling, and he strived at that calling relentlessly, carefully and respectfully. In the education arena, Mr Yunupingu must be remembered for his introduction of what was known as the 'both ways' system of learning. This system was desperately needed in remote communities. It recognised traditional Aboriginal teaching alongside Western methods. He was an incredible champion of this successful approach to education in remote communities, and his promotion of bilingual and bicultural education has improved the education sector and clearly improved the lives of students who have been able to be involved in this unique approach.

He will also be remembered for his incredible ability to meaningfully broach the uncomfortable divide between Yolngu and Balanda people and actually build bridges of understanding through his music. Leading his band, Yothu Yindi, through the eighties and nineties was just one of Mr Yunupingu's ways of straddling Yolngu and Balanda differences and finding a harmony between them, quite literally. He reached audiences at home and abroad. The dichotomous nature of Western rock and Indigenous Yolngu music was beautifully fused into his band's songs. Treaty is one example of that, reaching No. 1 on Australian charts for 22 weeks, an outstanding achievement. Not just memorable for its rhythmic delight, this song spoke a clear and serious message. It really demonstrated his capability to encourage all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to find the space to recognise and reconcile differences through the bonding of musical styles. I will always remember fondly his natural penchant for music, as will the international audience who love and remember him—a man singing for meaningful change.

Mr Yunupingu's fame on the music scene with Yothu Yindi only bolstered his tenacity to advance important cross-cultural understanding in Australia and overseas. Instead of being swept up by fame he continued to use the curriculum of 'both ways' learning through his music. His prominence as an Indigenous high-profile leader enabled him and other Yolngu to establish the Yothu Yindi foundation and now the infamous Garma Festival, an Indigenous cultural festival on the Gulkula plateau, which I look forward to attending again in August of this year, sadly for the first time without this noble elder. Gulkula is the place where, this coming Sunday, this man will be buried along with his other family members.

The Garma Festival is an important annual event in the Territory, and for many years I have been able to attend the celebrations alongside Yolngu and Balanda alike. The Garma Festival invites mainstream Australians into the world of remote Indigenous living, teaching through the day and overnight in a live-in almost retreat-like camp where they get to actually experience and thoroughly immerse themselves in Yolngu ways and Yolngu traditions. It is a fabulous initiative that has continued to grow and get stronger each year.

Mr Yunupingu's continued success as a musician, educator and friend was welcome to so many people. His career of varied leadership eventually led him to becoming Australian of the Year in 1992 for his unrelenting drive to build bridges of understanding between people. Last year, he and his band were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, and never once did any limelight distract him from his vision. I make note that, even during his acceptance speech, Mr Yunupingu used that moment of fame to call on Australians to vote yes to a referendum which will recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution.

As that referendum approaches, we all in this house are working alongside each other to garner support and understanding about the important need for this change. I would call on people in this parliament—and in the next parliament, when I will not be here—to perhaps use this opportunity of his death as a way of this country finally recognising the importance and significance of this man. To achieve this recognition in the Constitution would be his ultimate dream, and I think, for us as a country, it would be the ultimate respect that we could pay him. That man took the issue in his hands and held it up to Australians. His vision for a truly united Australia never faltered, and he saw constitutional change as a milestone in national reconciliation.

It was evident in his final years that he was tied down by illness. Mr Yunupingu used his connections and prominence to continue promoting the arts, languages and culture, all with a means to reconciling the evident divide between people. Although his health was fading, his tenacity was resolute. He was indeed a man who gave credit to the meaning of his names. His surname, Yunupingu, translates as 'rock that will stand against anything'—and indeed he was a rock to many. His totem, Baru, is the saltwater crocodile. His father was one of the original signatories of the bark petition, which we house so prominently in this building and which this year has achieved its 50th anniversary since it was signed. Mr Yunupingu stood up for what was right. He stood strong in the face of adversity. His middle name meant 'roots of the paperbark tree', which still burn and throw off heat even after the fire has died down. This name that he carries encapsulates the spirit of this wonderful person. I and many other Australians would all agree that, while this man's external fire has died, his spiritual strength still burns through his legacy.

Mr Yunupingu was a man of many talents, a man of respect and compassion, and in a difficult world where Yolngu and Balanda still struggle to find a peaceful path, he always believed there could be a balance between the two worlds—and he used his music to try and achieve that. I think we all hold hope, and I thank him for highlighting it to the Australian people and to the world for so long. He has been a wonderful leader for the Territory and for this nation, as well as for the international community of music lovers, educators and those fighting for cross-cultural understanding. I will sadly miss my friend, and I mourn alongside his wife, Gurruwun, his six daughters and his many grandchildren, as well as the nation which has lost, but remembers, a wise and wonderful individual.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013