As the nation celebrates NAIDOC week at events and gatherings across the country, the proud Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land are gathering at Yirrkala to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the presentation to Parliament of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions.
It was 1963 when local heroes on behalf of the 13 Yolngu tribes signed the petitions calling on the Australian Parliament to right a wrong. When making decisions about Yolngu land the government of the day had ignored their interests completely.
To my mind this was one of the most significant turning points in the history of relations between the Government of Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since European settlement. It may not have produced the immediate hoped for reaction from the Parliament but it set the scene for a long list of breakthroughs from the 1967 referendum, to land rights legislation in most jurisdictions , to native title and the apology. Indeed the petitions have a direct link to the notion of informed consent which lies at the heart of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act and should be at the heart of how we engage with Indigenous Australians today.
Fifty years on, about 20 per cent of the Australian land mass is now owned by Indigenous Australians. Beyond this the ongoing process of reconciliation has developed a much deeper understanding in the community of that truism ‘always was, always will be Aboriginal land’. The way in which Australian people acknowledge traditional owners and elders at events throughout the country is testament to that growing understanding and sense of mutual respect.
Following the battle for land rights the battle for economic development and independence from welfare is just beginning. I believe that 50 years on, we are at another turning point when we should look to the Bark Petitions for inspiration today for a new way forward for remote communities.
Tony Abbott a few weeks ago announced the 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia which would feed into the development of a policy white paper if the Coalition wins the next election. We must make sure that indigenous Australians this time are at the centre of the process. Certainly, indigenous people must be able to benefit from the opportunities from the very beginning. They must have a say in the nature of the development and how they wish to be involved. It would be a tragedy if we let economic opportunities in years to come pass Aboriginal people by again. We simply cannot let this happen.
The Australian government needs to be far more engaged in supporting the economic aspirations of indigenous people and not simply offer bureaucratic platitudes without results. We need real jobs rather than make-work government programs. We need to encourage mobility. We need to overhaul the instruments of government meant to support Aboriginal economic development and in particular overhaul the operations of Indigenous Business Australia and the Indigenous Land Corporation.
Without a decent education the prospects for full engagement in future economic growth will be diminished. The NAPLAN results for remote indigenous communities are appalling. We need to be much more serious about quality schooling in remote areas and children must attend school if we are to turn this around.
We must get smarter about the way in which programs and services are delivered to remote indigenous communities. The billions spent in recent years on indigenous housing is a textbook example of bureaucratic waste and mismanagement. Indigenous people and the Australian public deserve better than this. It is time that we got the experts in housing to deliver the goods rather than high cost inefficient government bureaucracies. It is also time to get serious about home ownership on Aboriginal land and we need to begin exploring the potential for establishing a private rental market on some of the larger communities.
Governments also must get better at engaging with Aboriginal people in a meaningful way. Governments should be dealing directly with law men and law women and respected elders to seek guidance in the development and implementation of policy and programs on their land. In the spirit of the Bark Petitions we should be talking as leaders to leaders, reinforcing traditional authority as we go.
The message of the Bark Petitions of 1963 has echoed across the decades and will continue to do so for decades to come. If there is to be an historic resounding yes vote for the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our Constitution it will be due in no small part to those magnificent documents and the leadership that inspired them.
I congratulate the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee for making the Yirrkala Bark Petitions this year’s NAIDOC theme.
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Scullion op-ed -yirrkala bark petitions.pdf