SUBMISSION REGARDING ‘THE INDIGENOUS VOICE’ PROPOSAL
My name is Yingiya Mark Guyula and I represent the Electorate of Mulka in the Northern Territory.
In addition to being an elected member of the Legislative Assembly of the NT, I hold the title of Djirrikaymirr (senior
traditional leader) from the Liya-dhalinymirr people of the Djambarrpuyngu clan or mala group.
Mulka covers a vast area of land in Northeast Arnhem Land, almost all of which is Aboriginal land under the
Commonwealth Government’s Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, excepting the small town of Nhulunbuy, a
mining town held under lease by the Rio Tinto Corporation. While some Aboriginal people live in Nhulunbuy it has
always been a predominantly non-Aboriginal town. The great bulk of the Aboriginal population (who we call Yolngu)
live in towns and homeland centres scattered across the region. The Yolngu towns are almost all former missions,
while the many homeland centres represent a direct move to assert traditional values.
The primary focus of this submission is to address the proposal for a Regional Voice, and provide advice and
comment specifically relevant to a Regional Voice for Northeast Arnhem Land (NEAL), most of which is my
electorate. Part of this is to make the connection between a Regional Voice and local voices.
A secondary focus is to comment on some aspects of the proposal for a National Voice.
A NATIONAL VOICE
At the outset, I wish to state my strong view that any proposal for a national voice for Indigenous people, founded as
it must be on the facts of prior occupation of Australia and the inherent rights and interests which under
international law form part of that, should most appropriately be included in the Constitution of Australia, and not
merely legislated. I appreciate that this topic may be outside the defined scope of the current ‘Voice’ proposal, but
nevertheless state it here for the reason that, in my experience, it is a view held by Yolngu people and organisations
in my electorate. Our reasoning is that our land was never conquered or occupied by foreigners in the colonial
period, nor succeeded by a foreign jurisdiction through a treaty. Our lived experience, until relatively recently at
least, has been that the Australian system of law plays a secondary role in our social organisation and daily lives. Just
as my people have always had their system of law and governance, so we recognise that mainstream Australia has
its system of law and governance and that the Constitution is at the top of this.
Further, it has long been my view that the most appropriate way to pursue a respectful reconciliation and ensure a
meaningful national voice for Indigenous people in Australia will be to develop a Treaty. This Treaty process should
be at a national level for the same reasons, stated above, that I prefer Constitutional recognition over legislative
recognition. To relegate a Treaty process to the States and Territories is to demean the entire process. Of course I
am aware that the Northern Territory Government is currently pursuing a Treaty, and personally I have great respect
for the Commissioner. But I am also aware that our status as a Territory renders any such document subject to
immediate over-rule by the Commonwealth, and is therefore an inadequate way to express the concept of inherent
rights for the Indigenous people of my electorate and of the wider Arnhem Land region. In 2021 we should be doing
better than this.
I wish to emphasise that Constitutional recognition leading eventually to a process of Treaty development is by no
means a radical or destructive proposal. On the contrary, it is in accordance with international precedent, and acts to
build rather than destroy. I refer to the extensive analyses and reports of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commission in the Human Rights Commission. For the immediate purpose of this submission, I
highlight the Canadian situation. The explicit recognition in 1989 in the Canadian Constitution of the rights of its
Indigenous people paved the way for an inclusive process of Treaty-building in the Nunavat region, a process
consciously facilitated and supported by the national Government of Canada. As a remote region where traditional
structures and ways of being remain strong into modern times, parallels can be drawn between the Nunavut region
and aspects of my electorate. The Canadian Treaty-building process has been extensively described1, and I refer the
Commonwealth to these and other readings on this subject.
A REGIONAL VOICE
I applaud the Commonwealth Government for appreciating that a national Indigenous voice cannot by itself
accurately reflect the diversity of situations of Indigenous people in Australia. I emphasise two broad points – firstly
that voices calling for some degree of regional autonomy have a long history in my electorate, and secondly that the
development of a regional voice must come from these voices – a grassroots foundation which while connected to
our governance systems also meets the Commonwealth expectations of: inclusive participation, cultural leadership,
and transparency and accountability. I wish to propose some core principles associated with this.
Defining a region
In order to ensure that our Indigenous nations truly have a voice, the way forward is to recognise regional
voices that are based on ‘like communities’. That is, Indigenous communities which are ‘alike’ in such aspects
as culture, geography and history can be linked, for the purpose of an Indigenous voice, to form coherent
regions. Doing this, it is apparent that many more than two regional voices will be needed to account for the
diversity of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
In the case of the communities with which I am most familiar – a regional voice that represented Yolngu
speaking country would be ideal but if this were deemed too small, a coherent region exists for all of
Arnhem Land based on culture, history, travel and trade links and other geo-political factors. I suggest that
this be considered as one region for the purpose of a regional voice.
Maintaining a unique voice for homeland communities
It is imperative that attention is given to the need to include homeland centres as an explicit and unique part
of a regional voice. Homeland centres and their residents play a unique role in my electorate – a role not
duplicated by the major towns – yet their importance is sometimes downplayed. The homelands movement
For instance in:
Jull, Peter, “Reconciliation and Northern Territories, Canadian-style: the Nunavut process and product”, Indigenous Law Bulletin
(1999) 4 (20).,
Jull, Peter, “An Aboriginal Northern Territory: creating Canada’s Nunavut” (1992), Discussion paper, Australian National
University, North Australian Research Unit, No. 9.
represents a move by Yolngu to assert their cultural autonomy and maintain culture in the face of its white-
anting by other vested interests.
In my electorate, and indeed across Arnhem Land, the homelands movement has been the backbone of
culture. Its importance is far greater than its population numbers. The unique voice of these homeland
communities must be identified and ensured, and not drowned by the voices of the larger Aboriginal towns.
Linking a regional voice to local voices
To be a genuine form of participation, regional delegates must connect with a decision-making process that
stems from local governance structures. The manner in which a regional voice is created is fundamental to
its ability to meet the criteria of ‘cultural leadership’ and ‘inclusive participation’.
Properly understood, Yolngu Rom, or law, in my electorate is a process of bringing together the various
interests, defined by Gurrutu (kinship), in a properly-constituted forum. Representation is designated
primarily through clan (bapurru) conventions, not by individuals, and decisions are by consensus not by
voting. In the case of Yolngu, governance structures comprise many clans that are led by clan djirrikaymirr
and dalkarramirr (men) and gong- ganmirr (women). These leaders, or their delegates, are the appropriate
people to be regional delegates, and these leaders must then connect with a more local ‘voice’. Yolngu
communities that have a local Makarr Dhuni (a central decision-making forum) or similar, that has proper
representation from clans and a connection back to the Ngarra’ (law, in a constitutional sense) institution
are best placed to have a Yolngu local ‘voice’ and determine delegation to the regional ‘voice’.
At the individual community level, the situation for Yolngu can be set out in a diagram as follows:
Concept by Mr Dh. Gaykamangu, former Convener of Yolngu Nations Assembly
While this diagram illustrates the disconnect that governments and their organisations have between their business
and Yolngu structures and governance, it also suggests an opportunity to develop ways to overcome this disconnect.
My understanding is that ‘the Voice’ is an expression of self-determination and Indigenous rights. To this end, a
regional voice must not be another form of colonisation or assimilation. Our regional voice must connect to our local
system of governance that exists on our country. This is fundamental to a genuine process.
Yingiya Guyula MLA