Australians will be asked to embrace the idea of an Indigenous Voice to parliament in a historic call from Northern Territory land councils to mark the 35th anniversary of the landmark Barunga Statement.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney will travel to the Northern Territory later this week to attend the Barunga festival – more than three decades after then-prime minister Bob Hawke was handed the famous treaty request by esteemed rights activist, the late Yunupingu, at the same event.
A historic meeting of all four Northern Territory land councils is on Wednesday expected to finalise the wording of what will be called the Barunga Declaration, which its authors hope will capture the attention of Australians and channel Yunupingu’s spirit toward winning this year’s referendum.
Burney said she was honoured to speak at the festival on an important anniversary of the Barunga Statement.
“To do so at a defining moment in our country’s history, ahead of the Voice referendum, makes it even more special,” she said.
“I’m looking forward to renewing the promise of Barunga in 2023, as we walk together to a better future for all Australians.”
The Northern and Central land councils hailed the meeting of the groups as historic and said the gathering of more than 150 land council members helped show the grassroots support for the Voice, which has been questioned by Voice opponents who have described Yes campaigners as elitist.
“We are talking strong, as cultural people elected to represent our land and sea country, our communities and our families,” a statement from the councils said. “We are the voice from the bush and we support the Voice to parliament.”
Djawa Yunupingu, a senior member of the Gumatj clan and a brother of Yunupingu, is involved in the preparation of the declaration.
The annual Barunga festival, held in a small community on Jawoyn land east of Katherine, involves cultural events, Australian rules football matches, music and dance.
Burney will travel to Barunga as the Yes campaign – which has been criticised for lacking momentum – prepares to ramp up its efforts after multiple polls showed dropping support for the referendum, which is likely to be held in October.
Speaking at Yunupingu’s funeral last month, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton described the trailblazing land rights activist and 1978 Australian of the Year as a giant of Australian history.
Albanese has spoken with emotion when citing a conversation he’d had with Yunupingu at last year’s Garma Festival.
The elder, whose name means “sacred rock that stands against time” in a dialect of the Yolngu Matha language, took Albanese aside after the Labor leader announced the words he proposed to add to the Constitution.
According to Albanese, Yunupingu took his hand and asked if he truly intended to pursue constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. Albanese promised he would follow through, unlike leaders including Hawke who were unable to fulfil promises to Yunupingu.
When Hawke was deposed by Paul Keating in 1991, he insisted his final act must be to keep an old promise to Yunupingu to unveil the Barunga Statement in Parliament House.
The bark painting now sits in parliament’s Great Hall, carrying 11 dot points and a handful of paragraphs that call for a treaty, self-determination, and a “national elected Aboriginal and Islander organisation to oversee Aboriginal and Islander affairs”.
“And we call on the Commonwealth parliament to negotiate with us a treaty recognising our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty and affirming our human rights and freedom,” it states.
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