Wednesday, 16 March 2016

To Treaty and beyond

The Yolŋu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory have begun a new push for a treaty with the Federal Government that recognises their sovereignty in their land.

Semisi Kailahi reports.

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 that the treaty should not only give his people legal rights, but recognise his 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,” says Guyula.

The Yolŋu want a treaty which “protects legal rights” but Guyula insists “we must go beyond that”. The reason for going further than established legal protections is based upon the idea which underpins his whole campaign - “We should have a say over our own community, our own land, our own lives.”

Speaking from his perspective as a Yolŋu leader, Guyula describes the long-established traditions of Madayin law and governance, systems that pre-date the Westminster system, and how they are being “pushed aside”.

The leaders of Indigenous communities, he says 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 to be 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,” said Guyula.

“But for non-Indigenous Australia our continuing demand for a treaty often invokes blank faces, disbelief, confusion, or thoughtless rejection… or a bit of everything.”

To pursue treaty Guyula says we need to address the ‘extreme ignorance’ of non-Indigenous Australians.

His week-long national tour of speaking engagements in Darwin, Adelaide, Geelong, Melbourne, Redfern and Sydney is about raising awareness to combat these attitudes.

Guyula sees treaty as a matter of survival. “It is self-determination and self-governance… or it is impoverishment, exile, chains and death”.

He points to successive government interventions that have failed to make a difference in the lives of Indigenous Australians.

By contrast he says the Madayin law system protects and defends community members. and he rejects defenders of the Intervention as “trying to create a moral argument to take over and control”.

Mark Guyula isn’t waiting for a response from the Federal or NT Government either.

He’s 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’s 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 2015, the Uniting Church of 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 in Australia Stuart McMillan has called for a wider national conversation about sovereignty and Treaty.

The Guardian Australia has also reported on Yingiya Mark Guyula's treaty awareness raising tour