Closing the Gap Part 2 – A Yolŋu petition and an Ivory tower.

Prime Minister Rudd and cabinet in Yirrkala, before the presentation of the Petition for rights
Prime Minister Rudd and cabinet opposite Yolŋu leaders, before the presentation of the Petition for rights








I was in Yirrkala on the 23rd July 2008 when the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his cabinet visited the community. Yirrkala is an Aboriginal Community near Nhulunbuy, a mining town in north east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. It is populated by 13 or so different Yolŋu clans from the surrounding region as well as Balanda personnel. On this day about a dozen key Yolŋu Indigenous leaders presented to the Prime Minister a petition mounted on wood and surrounded by paintings and feathers. The petition requested that the Federal Government begin the process of negotiation with Aboriginal people in order to recognise and protect Aboriginal rights in the constitution. The petition specified these rights as:

  • Their right to maintain the diversity of their ‘systems of life’ (eg. linguistic, cultural and legal practices – my interpretation),
  • Their property rights to land and seas,
  • Their right to use all the resources on their land for their economic development
  • Their right to have control over their own lives.

Although there is much that could be discussed about what these rights might be and the legitimacy of such claims, I would like to consider the Prime Ministers response to this petition. Prime Minister Rudd recognised the importance of moving toward a process to recognise Indigenous rights, but identified this process as secondary to the process that the Government has defined as ‘closing the Gap’. The Prime Minister stated that their first priorty right now was to close the gap in education and health between wider Australia and Indigneous people.  Does the Prime Minister really know better than the Yolŋu leaders what is best for their people?  This demonstrates the arrogance and distance of Government from the Indigenous peoples real experience.  The Yolŋu leaders did not ask for housing, or even better education.  Their primary concern was their peoples rights.  Yet it seems that the Government believes it has the clear view on the matter, perhaps they have an Ivory tower, while the local leaders can only see what is happening on the ground?

From this gentle act of protest  we all should ask the question.  Is ‘closing the gap’ a process that can occur seperate to the real recognition and protection of Indigenous legal and human rights?  The real recognition of such rights must be part of  this process, as dis-empowerment, the devaluing of cultural knowledge and language,  and lack of control over their social space, their economy and their land is part of the real reasons that the ‘Gap’ still exists.

I will look at this question of the role of rights in effecting underlying cause another time.

1 Comment

Add your comment:

  1. » When Indigenous Advocacy Does Damage > Cultural Worlds

    […] the Gap” campaign, is being used widely by NT and Federal Governments as a catch cry to deny Indigenous rights and force things on communities, such as English only education and land leases, without […]