Yolngu elders want their own voice

AAP - Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Author: Tara Ravens

Powerful Aboriginal leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu does not speak for all Yolngu people and the federal government could face legal action if it ignores the region's elders, says a lobby group from north-east Arnhem Land.

Almost two months after Mr Yunupingu described Canberra's intervention in the Northern Territory as "worrying and sickening", the former Australian of the Year appeared to backflip last week.

He said the radical and sweeping reforms provided an opportunity to "empower" his people, as he announced plans to establish an elders group to facilitate talks with Canberra. Mr Yunupingu also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would see people from his home country surrender control of their land, Ski Beach, under a 99-year lease.

The moves follow a meeting several weeks ago between Mr Yunupingu, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough and Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson .

But elders from six of the region's clan groups, who met at the coastal community of Yirrkala today, have released a statement expressing concern with the approach taken by the government regarding the 99-year lease on their neighbour's land. "It is unacceptable for the government to be party to an agreement/MOU which an individual TO (traditional owner) has sought to enter into on behalf of their clan," the Laynhapuy leaders said. "All the affected TOs must be afforded the same opportunity through processes under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act NT to receive information, consider proposals and seek independent legal and financial advice."

The elders said that while they respected the right of the Ski Beach clan to make its own call on the matter, they did not want the process to be repeated in other parts of the region.

"If the government seeks to circumvent these processes we expect the NLC to vigorously contest such moves, including thorough court action if necessary," the statement said.

The group said they supported moves to create a group of elders to consult with the federal government over the intervention, but they want it to involve all Yolngu leaders and "not just a hand-picked few".

They also want the clans be free to nominate their own leadership without influence from either the government or Mr Yunupingu. "Government and the NLC must recognise that Mr Yunupingu's status in this forum must be as one amongst equals, and not the purported leader of Yolngu people," they said.