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Petitions made and petitions that never were. Messages in bottles.



Before the ex Prime Minister Julia Gillard started what has now become her last question time as Prime Minister, she mentioned petitions.

Ms GILLARD (Lalor—Prime Minister) (14:02): On indulgence, I remind members of an important anniversary in coming weeks which deserves mention in this place. Early in 1963 land was excised from the Arnhem Land reserve to allow bauxite mining on the lands of the Yolngu people. It happened without consultation; it happened without compensation. Fifty years ago the Yolngu brought their grievance into the home of our great democracy. They crafted two elaborate bark paintings into the centre of which they pasted typewritten petitions. Beautiful and painstaking as the ochre images are on those sheets of bark, they were not intended as decorative. For the Yolngu they constituted a legal document, an assertion of their title to the land rendered in images of deep significance and power. The pasted typewritten sheets bearing the names of the petitioners simply articulated the same claim for land title in a language a parliament 4,000 kilometres away might understand.

The presentation of the Yirrkala bark petitions to this House and the Senate in August 1963 was the first time an Aboriginal legal document was recognised by an Australian parliament, a bridge between two noble legal traditions: the laws of our young Commonwealth and the ancient laws of an ancient people. The Yolngu did not succeed in stopping the mining but the political and social processes those petitions set in motion led to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, culminating three decades later in Mabo and more recently in the apology and the historic Gove agreement that I was privileged to witness being signed two years ago.

Today the Yirrkala bark petitions are rightly counted among the founding documents of our nation, so we honour this anniversary and we honour the memory of those proud Australians who came to this parliament in the name of justice. They were right to come. Our nation is more whole and healed because they did.




Tony it seems understood the message. But questioned if the PM would act.


Mr ABBOTT (Warringah—Leader of the Opposition) (14:05): I support the words of the Prime Minister. The Yirrkala bark petition was the first traditional Indigenous petition ever to be received in this parliament. The petition was acknowledged but not actually acted upon. As the Prime Minister has noted, that which the Yolngu were complaining about went ahead. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of this parliament’s consciousness that there were and are in this country Indigenous cultures and Indigenous peoples whose traditions should be respected. Since then we have seen the 1967 referendum, land rights legislation, native title legislation and the national apology. And who knows? If we are our best selves we may soon see Indigenous recognition in the Constitution. This event which we remember today was a small step but it was a first step in a long journey which I hope our nation can soon complete

Petition whispers it seemed was acted upon. A vote ensued. And the rest is history.


A. Ghebranious June 2013

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