The Yolŋu people of Arnhem Land have begun a new push for a treaty with the federal government that recognises their sovereignty.
Yolŋu leader Yingiya Mark Guyula of the Yolŋu Nations Assembly concluded his national tour for Treaty awareness in Sydney this week.
He told the audience at Sydney Trades Hall a treaty should not only give his people legal rights, but recognise the Yolŋu Nation’s own law system and create a new state within the Australian federation.
“Such recognition would be consistent with the principles of Mabo’s case,” Mr Guyul said.
The Yolŋu want a treaty which “protects legal rights” but Mr Guyula insisted “we must go beyond that”. His campaign is based on the belief that Indigenous Australians should have a say over their own community, their own land and their own lives.
Speaking from his perspective as a Yolŋu leader, Mr Guyula described the long-established traditions of Madayin law and governance, systems that pre-date the Westminster system, and how they are being “pushed aside”. He said the leaders of Indigenous communities are being “disempowered” and that a treaty is the answer.
The Yolŋu have raised issues of Treaty and sovereignty with the Australian government on numerous occasions.
They were the authors of the Yirrkala Bark Petition in 1963 – the first traditional documents prepared by Indigenous Australians that were recognised by the Australian parliament.
Similar appeals were made in the Barunga statement of 1988, a petition to former Prime Minister John Howard in 1998, and a petition to his successor Kevin Rudd in 2008.
“The message is clear,” Mr Guyula said.
“But for non-Indigenous Australians, our continuous demand for a treaty often invokes blank faces, disbelief, confusion, or thoughtless rejection… or a bit of everything.”
To pursue Treaty, Mr Guyula said we need to address the “extreme ignorance” of non-Indigenous Australians. His week-long national tour in Darwin, Adelaide, Geelong, Melbourne, Redfern and Sydney hopes to raise awareness to combat these attitudes.
For Mr Guyula, Treaty is a matter of survival.
“It is self-determination and self-governance… or it is impoverishment, exile, chains and death,” he said.
He pointed to successive government interventions that have failed to make a difference in the lives of Indigenous Australians.
By contrast, he believed the Madayin law system protects and defends community members. He also rejected defenders of the Intervention as “trying to create a moral argument to take over and control”.
Mr Guyula is not waiting for a response from the federal or Northern Territory governments. He has decided to advance the cause of Treaty by running as an independent candidate for the seat of Nhulunbuy at this year’s Northern Territory elections.
The outcome of that seat will be closely watched as he has received the endorsement of the Yolŋu Nations Assembly.
The Uniting Church in Australia is committed to exploring the issues of Treaty and sovereignty with its partners in the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Congress.
At its 14th Assembly meeting in Perth in July last year, the Uniting Church in Australia agreed to support constitutional recognition as a “step towards and not a blockage to the larger issues of sovereignty and Treaty.”
The Assembly also committed to work with Congress to “educate members of the Church about the need for a treaty” and to highlight issues faced by First Peoples.
In his Survival Day message on 26 January and his soon-to-be released Easter message, the President of the Uniting Church Stuart McMillan has called for a wider national conversation about sovereignty and Treaty.
This article was first published on the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly website.