Part One: 1963 to 1997 When the Queen died in September last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave her a respectful but formal eulogy, saying: “With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, an historic reign and a long life devoted to duty, family, faith and service has come to an end.” However, when the Aboriginal identity Galarrwuy Yunupingu died in April this year, Albanese could hardly contain himself. This once plain-speaking politician plunged into poetics:
Now Yunupingu is gone, but the gurtha—the great tongue of flame and truth with which he spoke to us—is still here. And it lights the path ahead for us. We will never again hear his voice anew, but his words—and his legacy—will keep speaking to us … He lifted us up and held us there so that we could see as far as he did. And what a vision he shared with us …
Yunupingu’s admirers among the Aboriginal political elite were even more complimentary. Melbourne academic Marcia Langton declared him to be “the greatest leader Australia had ever known”. This was reported by the Australian’s indigenous specialist reporter Paige Taylor the day after he died, and has not been retracted since. So this exorbitant quote was not an error. Langton thought Yunupingu not just our greatest Aboriginal leader but Australia’s greatest leader ever.
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The news media worked hard to sustain this degree of adoration. The Australian devoted the entire front page of its April 3 edition to a close-up photograph of Yunupingu’s face. Most other newspapers in the capital cities did much the same.
What did Yunupingu accomplish to deserve such acclaim? Albanese said he was the founder of the movement for Aboriginal land rights and a long-time symbol of the uncompromising persistence that was needed to win the cause. In 1978 he was made Australian of the Year for his contribution. Most news stories in April dutifully followed Albanese’s claims. He said:
He made sure with the sheer power of his advocacy for land rights. He made sure when he helped draft the Yirrkala Bark Petitions, which delivered such a powerful message that resounded within the walls of the nation’s parliament.
However, none of Albanese’s claims above were true. When broadcast at Yirrkala, they must have generated infuriated expletives among those who actually did conceive and draft the famous bark petitions. Moreover, the idea of making claims for land rights was not founded by Yunupingu and, when he did have a significant role in the movement years later, there was a stench of corruption about his distribution of the royalties, both to other clans and among his own. He attracted bad publicity in sexual politics too. In 2006, he stood in a Northern Territory court accused of a violent sexual assault that threatened the life of one of his four wives. To cap this list, on his watch and close within his family there was an awful killing of a woman for which the male culprit got off lightly.
Now, I’m not raising these distasteful topics just to disparage Albanese and the news media for the mythical creature they have created. Yunupingu’s career also has implications for the constitutional change these parties are now promoting. If their referendum gets up, its romantic ambition of restoring traditional Aboriginal culture will preserve the careers of indigenous men like Yunupingu. Not only will the Big Men of clans remain dominant over many communities in remote Australia but the Voice will embed new generations of these indigenous oligarchs. Their constitutional protection will make them a law unto themselves, no matter how badly they serve their dependent constituents. So let me outline here, and in our following edition, aspects of Yunupingu’s career that the mainstream media coverage of his death largely omitted or got completely wrong.
The Methodist mission and the mining company
In 1935 a Methodist mission for Aborigines was established at Yirrkala on the north-east coast of Arnhem Land. Before the white men arrived, the monsoonal deluge from November to April always made it difficult for local clans to hunt, fish and gather plant food. They were glad to come, voluntarily, to the mission to get three free meals a day and sleep in dry beds. Most who came in regularly for food eventually decided to stay. This included Yunupingu’s father, Munggurawuy Yunupingu, then the Big Man of the Gumatj clan, who brought into the mission his eleven wives and twenty-four children. The Gumatj were one of thirteen clans on the Gove Peninsula who identified as Yolngu. Galarrwuy Yunupingu was one of the sons educated at the Yirrkala mission school, where he learned to speak English.
In the Second World War the Gove Peninsula became one of the strategically important sites in the Northern Territory. As well as army roads into the peninsula, the Royal Australian Air Force constructed a runway there (on the site of the present mining town of Nhulunbuy), and built a causeway to connect Gunyangara, an island in Melville Bay, to the main peninsula, creating a base for Catalina flying boats. In short, before Yunupingu was born in 1948, the war had opened up the region to the modern world and the local Aborigines had accommodated themselves to it.
The pace of change accelerated in the 1970s when the Swiss and Australian company Nabalco gained a lease from the Commonwealth government over a swathe of land on the peninsula and began constructing an alumina mine and processing plant. It also built the township of Nhulunbuy to house three thousand employees, plus a range of modern facilities, including a hospital and three schools.
All of this took place close to Yirrkala and took up much of the peninsula’s land. Yunupingu’s father had accepted the Christian mission and the wartime industry, but he resented the transformation of the peninsula by the mine and industrial plant. In the early 1970s he decided his clan would make an exodus. He left the old mission at Yirrkala and took the clan to Gunyangara on Melville Bay, where he settled on Drimmie Head, a promontory in the bay, also known as Ski Beach. They were joined there by some of the Galpu clan. They were only thirteen kilometres west of the mining town of Nhulunbuy, which allowed them to keep in touch with the services there. The wartime causeway built by the RAAF meant Gunyangara was no longer an island, so access to the town was comparatively easy. Hence, the clan’s exodus was anything but a complete break with the white colonialists.
However, the emigration never amounted to much. After his father’s death in 1979, Yunupingu became the Big Man of the Gumatj clan and, even though he was then funded by Commonwealth and land rights money, only a small number of his people joined him. By 2011, the Australian census recorded that Gunyangara housed only 155 people. By 2021, the population had grown to just 207 persons living in twenty-seven households. At the same census, those remaining at Yirrkala, a mixture of Rirratjingu, Galpu and Gumatj clans, totalled 657 people in 187 private dwellings. In short, the Gumatj exodus could hardly be regarded as a feat of great leadership.
Most of the news stories about Yunupingu’s death repeated heroic claims about his role as a founder of the Aboriginal land rights movement. In the 1960s he was supposedly one of the originators of the symbolic Yirrkala bark petitions to Canberra. In the 1970s he purportedly launched the first legal claim for land rights at Gove against Nabalco. In the 1980s he persuaded Prime Minister Bob Hawke to agree to a treaty for Aboriginal self-determination. And over this whole period he was allegedly loved and respected by his own people while his persistence and fortitude purportedly set an example for other clans to pursue the great cause of Aboriginal rights.
The Yirrkala and Barunga bark petitions
Now, it is true that when the two Yirrkala bark petitions were presented to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1963 they had a powerful symbolic effect by telling the Australian public that Aboriginal land rights were a political demand to be reckoned with. However, any suggestion that Yunupingu was one of the petitions’ authors or creators is fanciful. In 1963, he was fifteen years old and his ambition to become a Christian missionary saw him leave Yirrkala to spend two years at the Methodist Bible College in Brisbane. Despite claims today by journalists that his artistic father produced some of the artwork on the bark petitions, there is no credible evidence that he did.
The petitions were actually conceived and drawn up by the Marika family of the Rirratjingu clan. Even though the Rirratjingu and Gumatj clans spoke similar languages and were deeply intermarried, they were long-standing bitter rivals and, at times, outright enemies. In the 1960s, and still today, Rirratjingu people were the largest clan of the community at Yirrkala. The authors of the original bark petition to Canberra were five brothers of the Rirratjingu clan: Mawalan Marika, Mathaman Marika, Milirrpum Marika, Dhunggala Marika and Dadaynga “Roy” Marika. They were the traditional occupants of the land that the Commonwealth leased to Nabalco. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra, which has published a detailed history of the bark paintings, also noted that the Marika brothers were assisted in the petition’s drafting by Wandjuk Marika (Mawalan’s son, who later became the first chairman of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board). Neither Yunupingu father or son rate a mention.
Twenty-five years later in June 1988, when Prime Minister Bob Hawke visited the Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival at Barunga, to the east of Katherine, Yunupingu presented him with a bark petition of his own. This became known as the Barunga Statement. It had artwork similar to the original Yirrkala petitions, and advocated a treaty to recognise Aboriginal “prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty” and to demand self-determination and compensation for loss of lands. On the day of the festival, Bob Hawke declared himself an enthusiastic supporter of a treaty and said he would sign one before the end of his term in office. However, when he got back to Canberra, and took advice about the full text of what Yunupingu wanted, he dropped the idea and never revived it. So the Barunga bark petition did not amount to an effective addition to the cause.
The Gove Peninsula land rights case
Much the same was true of the legal case in the Northern Territory Supreme Court in 1970–71 in which Yunupingu, then twenty-three years old, played a very minor role. The case was Milirrpum v Nabalco, which is frequently heralded today as the first land rights case in Australia. Aboriginal clans from the Gove Peninsula argued the Commonwealth government was wrong to grant mining leases to Nabalco Pty Ltd without consulting the local Aboriginal clans.
The Milirrpum in the title of the case referred to Milirrpum Marika of the Rirratjingu clan, one of the authors of the original Yirrkala bark petition. The two other plaintiffs were Galarrwuy’s father Munggurawuy Yunupingu representing the Gumatj clan and Daymbalipu representing the Djapu clan and eleven other groups. Most of the evidence about Aboriginal land was given by white people, especially local missionaries and the anthropologists Bill Stanner and Ronald Berndt. The judge of the case, Justice Richard Blackburn, also heard evidence in person from local Aborigines. Ten witnesses from eight different clans appeared before the hearing. When those who couldn’t speak English were called, Galarrwuy Yunupingu translated their words for the court. He did not give any evidence himself and his opinions were never consulted by the judge. It was obviously important for the justice of the case that people from the Gove Peninsula clans should be called to appear and have their evidence quoted. But, as is normal in court cases where translators are used, they are not treated as important members of the team. Hence, in the 294 pages of the Blackburn judgment, Yunupingu does not rate a mention.
Moreover, Paige Taylor’s claim in the Australian that he was “central to the introduction of Australia’s first land rights laws in 1976” is also mythology. It downplays the fact that the Gove case was a failure and Nabalco’s right to the land it leased was endorsed. Moreover, the case produced plenty of first-hand evidence from Aboriginal witnesses who admitted that, before the whites came, none of their clans had an exclusive identification with one particular territory. Not one of them agreed with the white anthropologists about the structure of their bands or their clan organisation, or of their notion of exclusive identification with a particular territory. Blackburn’s judgment reported:
None of the witnesses said that in the days before the Mission he lived chiefly in his clan territory … The people of each clan were deeply conscious of their clan kinship and of the spiritual significance of a particular land to their clan. On the other hand … it was of no importance whether or not the members of a band had any relationships to each other, or conducted their food-gathering and communal living upon territory linked to any particular clan.
In short, the indigenous culture of the clans of the Gove Peninsula did not have any equivalent to the British notion of land or land ownership. Blackburn found there was no native title there at all. Rather than a great leap forward for the concept of land rights, the Gove case was, in effect, a setback that adherents had to overcome.
The clans’ contest over land rights royalties
The push for land rights, however, did not stop. It continued in Canberra in the hands of white politicians and bureaucrats. Five years later, they accomplished what the Aboriginal plaintiffs could not. The Fraser government enacted the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. This was a piece of legislation largely drawn up by the previous Whitlam Labor government in order to capitalise on the popularity of reforms for Aborigines. This appeal had been demonstrated by the 90 per cent Yes vote in the 1967 constitutional referendum. Whitlam was keen to claim the sentiment for Labor.
The main connection between the 1976 Act and the Gove case was that it was largely drawn up by Edward Woodward QC. As a barrister, Woodward had been legal counsel for the Aboriginal clans in the Gove case and Whitlam appointed him to conduct a commission of inquiry in 1973–74. Woodward brushed aside Blackburn’s judgment about the absence of Aboriginal ownership and recommended the establishment of land councils of Aboriginal people who would themselves govern land claims. Their other main role would be to distribute the funds generated by rentals and contracts from mining companies operating on Aboriginal land. Initially, two land councils were established: the Central Land Council, with an office in Alice Springs, and the Northern Land Council, with an office in Nhulunbuy.
The inaugural chairman appointed by the board of the Northern Land Council was Galarrwuy Yunupingu, then aged twenty-eight. At the time his ailing father, who died in 1979, nominated his son to take his place as head of the Gumatj clan. The available literature does not reveal how Galarrwuy won enough support from the other board members to be appointed to the chair, nor how he was able to remain in the job for as long as he did. Nonetheless, Yunupingu gained the numbers to support him as chairman for twenty-five years, from 1976 to 1980, and 1983 to 2004. This was despite the fact that for much of this period he was engaged in a bitter conflict with the Rirratjingu clan about who had what rights to which pieces of Gove land. As chairman of the land council and head of the Gumatj clan, Yunupingu had a big say about how much each clan received.
When the mining began at Gove, Nabalco paid royalties to the Commonwealth government, which transferred some of these funds to the Northern Land Council for distribution among the traditional owners. The land council itself decided what proportion of the funds each clan should receive. Almost all of it went to the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans. In the early years of royalties, the Rirratjingu did not contest the share they received because “royalty payments were relatively low then”, and the distribution of shares and how the board decided the breakdown was not known by outsiders. However, the Rirratjingu gradually regretted they did not take active steps to measure the difference. By the 1990s, royalties had grown to around $2 million a year. The Rirratjingu clan formed a corporation to investigate the accounts and found that, with Yunupingu as its chair, the land council was giving his own Gumatj clan the lion’s share of the proceeds. The Gumatj were getting more than three times the amount given to the Rirratjingu, a ratio of 76 per cent of the spoils to 24 per cent.
In 1993, complaints by Rirratjingu people and others to both the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments about the distorted distribution of royalties eventually led to an investigation by the federal auditor-general. The subsequent audit found that, under Yunupingu, the Northern Land Council’s budget had suffered serious over-runs and improper use of mining royalties. The eighty-two-page report, tabled in the Senate, recorded large cash advances taken by the chairman and repaid only belatedly. The land council’s rejoinder was that Yunupingu was not spending the money he took on himself. Rather, his position “placed extraordinary demands on him, particularly in relation to his cultural obligations”.
Conspicuous consumption and superfluous ceremony
What gave a bitter taste to these concerns was the fact that, at this time of his life, Yunupingu was displaying numerous signs of conspicuous consumption. When journalist Elizabeth Wynhausen interviewed him at home in 1995 (Weekend Australian, January 6-7, 1996) his choice of car was the Territory’s most coveted vehicle, a top-of-the-range Toyota Landcruiser, the same as those of the senior executives at the Nabalco plant. He had a boat as good as any of those anchored at the Gove Boat Club in Nhulunbuy. Wynhausen was shown around his best property, a mansion on Drimmie Head in Melville Bay, the prime location on the coast. “Like the well-to-do whites in Gove,” she wrote, “he has all the latest gadgets, from a new icemaker to the big bathroom’s spa bath, a big TV set, which covers half the wall.” Nhulunbuy locals told Wynhausen he employed white gardeners and Filipino servants.
On one issue, however, Yunupingu easily outdid all the highest paid of the white mining managers. As well as his own home and office, he had four houses for his four wives. They were at different locations on the east coast, another on the north coast of Arnhem Land, plus an apartment in Darwin. In front of the Drimmie Head property was a helicopter pad with a pilot and helicopter (hired for $1400 per hour) waiting to take him to whichever of his wives’ houses he chose to visit that night. Yunupingu told Wynhausen that the Gumatj clan had signed to buy a helicopter of its own.
The distribution of mining royalties amounted to only about half the income the clans at Gove received. The rest came from the pensions and handouts that all local Aborigines received from the Commonwealth government. They displayed no desire to work at the mine or processing plant, despite the best efforts of management to recruit them.
The Commonwealth paid pension money directly into individual Aborigines’ bank accounts. Yunupingu decided this was far too impersonal a process and no way to generate loyalty. So he decided to hand out clan royalties publicly, doling out personal gifts of cash at a public ceremony. At one of these quarterly ceremonies she attended, Wynhausen said Yunupingu looked like the lord of the manor handing out money to humble subjects. To collect their share of the takings, four or five dozen people attended from both the local Gunyangara community and clans at Yirrkala. Wynhausen writes:
Yunupingu has a lazily commanding presence that comes alive as he works the crowd that has gathered at Ski Beach for the distribution of the mining royalties … he talks and talks, repeating phrases, like a preacher, to wring a response from the crowd. The task is made easier because closest to him are several of his own sisters. Strong women in colourful print sundresses, they call out “yo, yo”, the Yolngu for “yes”.
However, at the function she saw, only a fraction of the annual royalty payment was handed out. Yunupingu took a batch of envelopes from his secretary and handed them to his older brother Joe. In turn, Joe handed out fifteen or so envelopes. Wynhausen observed: “It looks as if most contain several hundred dollars rather than the thousands the division of a little less than $500,000 might lead one to expect.” She was referring to the fact that one quarter of the annual royalties of $2 million was due to be distributed but the envelopes obviously held much less than that. “This made it very difficult,” she remarked, “for bureaucrats trying to regulate the use of public money.”
Throughout the 1990s, complaints about Yunupingu’s methods continued to mount. By 1997 they reached the point where the new Coalition government, pressed by its own constituents to modify the previous Labor government’s legislation, decided to do something about land councils. John Howard appointed a Darwin QC, John Reeves, to review both the finances and the politics of the land councils and advise what should be done to either fix the system or close it down.
Part Two: 1998 to 2008
By the late 1990s, the claims by Galarrwuy Yunupingu and his Gumatj clan to be the traditional and exclusive owners of the land they occupied on the Gove Peninsula had been shown, both historically and legally, to be dubious. As Part One of this article recorded, long before Galarrwuy was born in 1948, the land where the Gumatj and other clans lived had been settled by whites, with the pragmatic consent of the clans.
After the Commonwealth government granted a lease to the Methodist Church in 1935 to establish a mission at Yirrkala, Galarrwuy’s father brought his eleven wives and twenty-four children into the mission to live off its more consistent food supply and its shelter in the wet season from the monsoon rain. Most of the other twelve clans that inhabited the region followed suit. The mission soon evolved into a sizeable settlement of several hundred Aboriginal people. There was nothing unusual about this. Much the same procedure had been followed by Aborigines across the continent over the previous 150 years. They gave up their dependence on a hunter-gatherer way of life for an easier and more reliable means of survival, either on missions, government welfare stations or white pastoral and farming properties. The practice was long known as “coming in”.
During the Second World War, the Royal Australian Air Force built an airstrip on the site now called Nhulunbuy. The RAAF also dredged a causeway between the Gove Peninsula and an uninhabited island in Melville Bay to create a base for flying boats. The latter is still listed today on some maps and landing lists as the “Melville Bay Flying Boat Base, Melville Bay”. Its Aboriginal name is Gunyangara but most locals, white and black, call it by its wartime name, Ski Beach.
A settlement by Aboriginal people was not established there until the 1970s when Galarrwuy’s father emigrated from Yirrkala to get away—though not too far away—from the new mining and industrial town of Nhulunbuy. The Gumatj clan initially occupied abandoned pre-fab houses originally built at Ski Beach in the 1960s for Nabalco managers and contractors while Nhulunbuy township was under construction.
In 1970-71, in the case Milirrpum v Nabalco, the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory rejected the claims by the Rirratjingu, Gumatj, Djapu and eleven other clans that they were the rightful owners of the land occupied by Nabalco at Nhulunbuy. Judge Richard Blackburn found, mainly through Aboriginal witnesses, that none of them had exclusive identification with that or any other specific territory. None of them “conducted their food-gathering and communal living upon territory linked to any particular clan”.
Nonetheless, in a bid to satisfy sympathetic white voters in the south of the continent, the Whitlam Labor government persisted with the issue. Determined to revise Blackburn’s finding, Whitlam established a commission under barrister Edward Woodward QC. The Woodward Commission sat during 1973-74 and delivered the desired outcome. It recommended that local clans should be paid royalties by Nabalco or any other non-indigenous venture that gained such a lease. At least two land councils, one in the Territory’s centre, the other in the north, should be established to decide which clans should be paid royalties for which land and what proportion of those royalties should be distributed to each clan. This eventually became law when the Coalition government, under Malcolm Fraser, passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
The first chairman of the board of the Northern Land Council was Galarrwuy Yunupingu. He held that role for most of the next twenty-five years, from 1976 to 1980 and from 1983 to 2005. During that time, he exploited his vested interests by giving his own clan the bulk of the available royalties. However, there was nothing in the Land Rights Act that rendered this favouritism illegal. As recorded in Part One, by the 1990s complaints from the more numerous Rirratjingu clan and others about Yunupingu’s distorted distributions eventually led to an investigation by the federal Auditor-General. The audit found the Northern Land Council’s budget had suffered serious over-runs and improper use of royalties. With Yunupingu as its chair, the land council was giving his Gumatj clan the lion’s share of the proceeds: a ratio of 76 per cent to the Rirratjingu’s 24 per cent.
The Reeves Report and the white man’s economy
The Howard Coalition government that came into office in 1996, especially its Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, John Herron, took a very dim view of what Yunupingu was doing. Herron regarded land councils, like the one headed by Yunupingu, as rent-seekers who wanted the benefits of modern society without working for them. In the wake of the complaints surrounding Yunupingu’s role in the Northern Land Council, Herron decided that it and the other land councils were appropriate political targets. In October 1997 he appointed the Darwin QC John Reeves, a disillusioned former Labor politician, to review the legal rights and powers of Aboriginal land claims, including the finances and politics of the two biggest land councils.
Reeves delivered his report in August 1998. It opposed almost every aspect of the existing land rights system. Drawing on the Blackburn decision on the Gove Peninsula case in 1971, Reeves said there was no such thing in Aboriginal culture as a “corporate land-owning group” which matched the definition of “traditional owner”. He said the Central Land Council and the Northern Land Council were both unsuited to properly represent Aboriginal interests. The population group best suited to making decisions about land was not the dominant clans like the Gumatj and Rirratjingu, but what he called the local “regional community”. Existing land councils focused almost entirely on making land claims, distributing royalties from mining companies and charging fees for permits to come onto Aboriginal land. The large land councils had abused the right to veto mining, and the royalties they received had “largely been dissipated in Land Council operational costs and cash payments to individual Aborigines”. Reeves recommended abolishing the large land councils and creating a chain of smaller indigenous councils, collectively managed by the Northern Territory government, to handle the more familiar roles of local government such as health services, education, housing and road repairs.
Reeves also wanted the Territory government to establish one overarching organisation, the Northern Territory Aboriginal Council, to use the available royalties from mining for the economic development of Aboriginal communities. It would have “responsibility for developing Aboriginal skills, assets, culture, employment and self reliance”. Its “major function will be to assist the long-term social and economic advancement of Aboriginal Territorians”. Instead of the Big Men of the clans spending the money on themselves, Reeves wanted Aboriginal culture to take a different path: the introduction of private ownership of land and the development of commercial local economies.
When it was published in August 1998, the Reeves Report received strong endorsement from the Northern Territory’s Country-Liberal government under First Minister Shane Stone. However, the Aboriginal political class and most of its white supporters were outraged. In a submission to the Commonwealth Parliament by the Northern Land Council, Yunupingu said, “Reeves has fundamentally failed in the execution of his task.” At Yuendumu, supporters of the Central Land Council publicly burned the report. In Canberra, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs decided to conduct its own inquiry into the Reeves inquiry.
A number of former Liberal politicians, Malcolm Fraser, Ian Viner, Ian Wilson, Peter Baume and Fred Chaney—by now acting virtually as lobbyists for the Aboriginal industry—made their own submissions against Reeves. A long line-up of white left-wing academics also joined the fray. This last group were especially hostile to Reeves’s suggestion that the development of a white man’s capitalist economy on Aboriginal land was in the interests of Aboriginal people.
In the end, although it supported Reeves’s recommendations, the Howard government found they would not be accepted by the left-dominated Senate. None of Reeves’s recommendations were enacted into law. So Yunupingu survived this, the only serious challenge made by a government to dethrone him.
Yunupingu’s riches and the poverty of his relatives
The failure of the political system to rectify the situation was recorded again in 2005 by another investigative journalist who filled in more of the picture initially exposed a decade earlier by Elisabeth Wynhausen. By this time, it was clear that Yunupingu was not only Australia’s richest Aboriginal person but also a strong candidate for the national rich lists of the financial press. His total annual funds had gone from $2 million a year in the 1990s to almost $5 million. The journalist who revealed this was Jennifer Sexton of the Weekend Australian who wrote (June 11-12, 2005) a devastating expose of where Yunupingu’s money came from and where it did and didn’t go.
“Many in his own clan,” Sexton wrote, “live in squalid and impoverished conditions while Mr Yunupingu has the use of a helicopter, four houses and a fleet of cars, including a Range Rover.” She interviewed his fourth son, Sammy Yunupingu, his sister Gayili Marika Yunupingu and cousin Dhanjah Gurruwiwi, who said only some chosen members from his immediate and extended family had benefited from Yunupingu’s distribution of Gumatj clan royalties.
At the time, Yunupingu was living with the second of his four wives, who bore three of his eleven children. Sexton compared them with their shunned relatives:
They occupy the newest of about 40 houses on Ski Beach, on the turquoise waters of the Gove Peninsula. A few kilometres away lives Mr Yunupingu’s sister Gayili in a tin house with a leaking roof and a fridge perched on the verandah. She lives just metres from Alcan’s Bauxite Mine processing plant … Mr Yunupingu’s cousin Dhanjah lives at the eastern end of the beach in similarly poor accommodation with her brother.
To rub in the contrast, Sexton observed that Yunupingu’s helicopter had a pilot routinely at his disposal. He used it to reach the four houses of his wives on the Gove Peninsula and another on the northern coast. On the weekends, he would visit his newest and youngest wife, Valerie Ganambarr, at an outstation he kept at Nyinyikay, prompting local whites to dub the chopper the “Honeymoon Taxi”. In the 2004-05 financial year the helicopter alone cost the Gumatj Association some $190,500 for maintenance and fuel.
Audit reports obtained by Sexton showed that, for the four years prior to 2005, there was no evidence that clan distributions of royalties and other funds to the value of $4.14 million had been “properly allocated” by the Gumatj Association when Yunupingu was in the Land Council chair. Of that sum, clan distributions worth only $1.822 million and $5,345 for community support were recorded. Sexton quoted chartered accountants J.C. Smith and Associates saying: “The recipients of some payments for ‘clan distributions’ and ‘ceremonies and community culture’ were not identified in the association’s transaction records. Therefore [we are] unable to determine if all these payments were made in accordance with the objects of the association.”
According to Sammy Yunupingu, this situation had been in existence for a long time. He was finally stirred enough to prepare a statutory declaration stating how over the previous decade almost $50 million worth of grants and royalty payments had been allocated but not clearly accounted for. He said most people who knew of this had been afraid to speak out because of their cultural reluctance to question elders, their fear of reprisal, and an inherent lack of accountability in the distribution process.
Sammy sent his information to the Commonwealth Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Amanda Vanstone, and the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Clare Martin. Both governments had been party to the various funding provisions active in the Territory and, at the time, both gave positive responses to Sammy’s correspondence. The Northern Territory government investigated his claims. It confirmed Sammy’s complaints about the lack of transparency in the accounts over the distribution of royalties. However, it found no evidence of legal fraud. Sexton summed up the problem: “It is up to the Gumatj clan to determine how the money is shared, and Yunupingu is boss.”
So, in 2005, when Yunupingu retired after twenty-five years as chairman of the Northern Land Council, his reputation for handling money was left unsullied by any white man’s law. When Sexton tracked him down at the Gove Yacht Club, he could treat her questions with contempt:
It’s family money. How we break it up is our business … It’s none of your bloody business. And as far as we’re concerned it’s peanuts. You can hunt as much as you like, but you won’t find rope to hang me on.
Domestic violence and killings in Yunupingu’s clan
In his recent three-part series for Quadrant Online (reprinted in this issue) summarising the appalling statistics of violence in Aboriginal families today, Tony Thomas also records how major Australian medical and academic institutions charged with monitoring the issue attribute responsibility. They argue that traditional Aboriginal society is blameless: “For thousands of generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities have raised their children strong and safe in their culture,” says a recent report by a consortium of indigenous academics from Monash and UTS universities. Instead, they attribute the violence now so prolific within families to the arrival of the white man: “the consequences of colonisation, intergenerational trauma, and systemic racism continue to cause enduring physical and mental harm and perpetuate inequities relating to the social determinants of health”.
However, the recent history of the Yunupingu family tells a different story. It shows that no matter how privileged some Aboriginal people are, even if they are among the wealthiest people in the country with the best of modern social and medical services at their disposal, they still succumb to what Tony Thomas calls “this scourge of Aboriginal males bashing their partners”. In the last two decades, a time of real wealth for the favoured members of the Yunupingu family, its men have perpetrated some of the most violent cases of domestic violence and its women have been hospitalised and killed.
In 2000, Galarrwuy Yunupingu was following his late father’s example and grooming one of his sons to eventually become the Big Man of the Gumatj clan. The chosen one was Gavin Makuma Yunupingu, then aged twenty-seven. As part of his preparations for higher things, his father had sent him for two years to one of Sydney’s exclusive private schools, Scots College at Bellevue Hill. When his uncle Mandawuy Yunupingu formed the internationally known rock band Yothu Yindi, Makuma became a member of the group and toured the world with them. He also had a role as an actor in the film Yolngu Boy, partly bankrolled by his father.
One balmy night at Ski Beach in August 2000, Makuma found his forty-year-old sister-in-law, Betsy Murrupu Yunupingu, sitting on the back veranda of his home. He walked up and kicked her in the face and neck. She fell backwards onto the concrete veranda. Makuma claimed he only kicked her once and his foot was bare when he did it. However, her injuries were critical: internal bleeding at her brain stem and a broken lower jaw. She lost consciousness and died the next morning in Darwin Hospital. Makuma was arrested and charged with her murder.
At the murder trial, Supreme Court Judge Brian Martin made a point of saying Makuma would not receive “special treatment” because of his well-known and influential family. The jury found him not guilty of murder but guilty of committing a dangerous act causing death. In sentencing, the judge expressed his concern about Makuma’s previous record for violence against women, which included a drunken assault with a beer can on a female bar attendant. However, when his defence discussed sentencing, the judge was told Makuma had already organised two forms of retribution based on Aboriginal customary law. One of his relatives, Sidney Yunupingu, had already suffered, on Makuma’s behalf, a ritual spear in the thigh from his victim’s family as payback for her death. Moreover, after his release, Makuma promised to live in exile in central Australia until Betsy’s family decided he could return to Arnhem Land.
In Darwin these days, taking such “traditional” measures into account is obviously not regarded as “special treatment”. Although the crime carried a maximum penalty of ten years’ prison, Martin gave Makuma a three-year sentence, to be suspended after he had served a mere fifteen months in prison. In the sentencing system of Northern Territory courts, the life of a young Aboriginal woman these days counts for very little.
This was far from being the only fatal assault in the clan at that time. The men of the Gove clans often inflicted this degree of violence on one another. In fact, three months after Makuma killed Betsy, Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s brother, Murphy Dhalpirripa Yunupingu, speared to death a member of the local Djapu clan at Ski Beach, not far from Yunupingu’s mansion on Drimmie Head.
In 2006, Galarrwuy Yunupingu himself was accused of a serious violent crime. That year, he faced Nhulunbuy Magistrate’s Court after one of his wives alleged she had suffered a sustained and potentially fatal attack. The woman was his fourth wife, Valerie Ganambarr, who he had married nine years earlier when she was just twenty. Yunupingu had kept her separate from his other wives on the Gove Peninsula, installing her initially in a flat in Darwin and later at an outstation he provided for her at Nyinyikay on the north coast of Arnhem Land.
Yunupingu went to court after Valerie took out an interim domestic violence order against him. Journalists from the Australian (July 12, 2006), Jennifer Sexton and Ashleigh Wilson, reported the content of her affidavit. During one of his visits, Yunupingu had allegedly grabbed her by the neck, pushed her to the ground, kicked her in the back and pulled her hair. He said he would kill her, declaring “you are nothing but rubbish”. He then took up an electric cord and tried to strangle her.
Yunupingu denied her accusations. He did not deny the incident took place but he told the magistrate his aim was not to kill his wife, but to save her life. It was she who put the cord around her neck, he said, and she was threatening to kill herself. To restrain her, he said he had to shake her, push her onto a nearby couch, and pull her hair. He said to her: “If you want to kill yourself, kill yourself properly, but not here, somewhere else.”
The magistrate said he had “heard enough to establish that a bizarre and somewhat violent incident occurred between husband and wife”. Valerie asked the Nhulunbuy Magistrate’s Court for an extension of the interim domestic violence order she had gained earlier. However, at a later court hearing she agreed to an alternative proposed by Yunupingu that he would formally undertake to the court to keep away from her in future. He was never charged over any of the assaults she listed in her initial affidavit.
In 2009, journalist Nicolas Rothwell visited Yunupingu at his favourite outstation at Dhanaya, on the coast south of Yirrkala. By then the Gumatj leader had turned sixty. Rothwell found that Valerie and their three children were now living there with Yunupingu, in his own house. His second wife, Margaret, was also there, living in a nearby house with her children and grandchildren.
The epidemic of suicides at Ski Beach
Domestic violence was only one of the social plagues endured by the clans of the Gove Peninsula. Another was suicide. In fact, in one two-year period in Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s regime, the community at his homeplace at Ski Beach became notorious for recording one of the world’s highest suicide rates.
In the early 2000s, police in the Northern Territory began to notice a rise in the Aboriginal suicide and attempted suicide rates on the Gove Peninsula. They started to keep count of those affected, including their age and locations. In the two-year period between January 2007 and December 2008 they found the worst-affected group were young people living at or near Ski Beach. Over the two years of the survey, six people at Ski Beach had taken their own lives. Another thirty in the area had attempted or threatened to do the same. This was out of a census count of 155 residents in 2011. It meant that, in just two years, nearly 4 per cent of the population had killed themselves and nearly 20 per cent had seriously thought about doing the same.
How could this happen? How could such a high proportion of the youth of Ski Beach, by then the principal location of the Gumatj clan which boasted its faithful adherence to Aboriginal lore and custom—and which was then receiving much more than its fair share of $5 million royalties per year—find life so depressing that they wanted to end it? When asked for his opinion in a survey of Aboriginal elders in the Northern Territory, Galarrwuy’s brother, Mangatjay Yunupingu, a performer with Yothu Yindi, exonerated his own culture and blamed it all on the whiteys:
Nowhere in Yolngu history has there been any suicide. It came with the Balanda [white people] with the invasion of the Balanda. All kinds of things came with the mining company. One of the main things that pushed our young people over the edge was alcohol and illicit drugs. —Elders’ Report into Preventing Self-Harm and Youth Suicide (www.cultureislife.org), Culture is Life, Melbourne, 2014
It is no doubt true that alcohol abuse and drug-taking very often accompany Aboriginal suicide and other killings, just as they do with white people. Moreover, suicide rates for all societies correlate strongly with child sexual abuse, domestic violence and unemployment. However, to understand the issue properly, the context of each deed needs to be taken into account. Two of those who killed themselves at Ski Beach during the site’s suicide epidemic were close relatives of Galarrwuy Yunupingu. One was his younger sister, whose name and circumstance are no longer recorded. The other’s name was highly publicised at the time largely because of his celebrity connections and the gruesome details of his death.
In July 2008, Nicki Yunupingu, the twenty-six-year-old nephew of Galarrwuy and Mangatjay, was a didgeridoo player in Yothu Yindi, which performed before an enthusiastic crowd on the oval at Yirrkala. The event was a big occasion attended by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Labor cabinet. The traditional dance that opened the show was rarely performed in front of white people and this time was led by Galarrwuy himself, clapping his sacred sticks. The performance was rated a great success and once it finished, most members of the group moved on to celebrate at the Gove Yacht Club in Nhulunbuy where Galarrwuy shouted them all the drinks they could handle.
On the way to Nhulunbuy, Nicki Yunupingu had an argument with his wife and they parted. The drinking party had by then moved on to nearby Ski Beach, and Nicki followed them there. On the beach he met a twenty-three-year-old woman he knew. After some talk, he got into an argument with her too, which quickly turned into a rage. He unsheathed a knife and stabbed her fourteen times. She fell to the ground, apparently dead. When he saw what he had done, Nicki used the same knife to kill himself. The woman he stabbed was seriously wounded and hospitalised, but survived.
It would be hard to pin all the blame of an incident like this on the whites who supplied the venue and the grog. On the personal level, the propensity of this Aboriginal man to fly into uncontrollable rage whenever he had a disagreement with a woman was obviously one factor. On the cultural level, the misogynistic values of the Aboriginal clans and their failure to discipline their males to adopt more civilised behaviour towards women, should be held responsible too.
In fact, the only positive response to the Ski Beach suicides came from Aboriginal women who adopted the methods of the much-maligned white people. Galarrwuy’s sister, Gayili Marika Yunupingu, who set up the community women’s shelter Galupa for domestic violence victims, responded to the epidemic of suicide by broadening her scope. She had assistance from the Wesley Mission’s One Life program. The solutions she pursued for suicide prevention came from an agenda developed by psychological counselling and modern social work: twenty-four-hour phone counselling services, speaker meetings and communal activities for those afflicted, public meetings with their families, and a total restriction on alcohol consumption.
When set up at Ski Beach, most of the staff and volunteers in the suicide prevention group were Aboriginal women. After their therapeutic package had begun functioning for a year, Gayili could pat herself on the back as she told a journalist that the Ski Beach suicide tally for the previous twelve months had been zero. She later won a National Indigenous Human Rights Award for her efforts.
However, in the decade and a half since then, the ideological pendulum has swung heavily in the opposite direction. Indigenous activists looking for therapies for suicide and other Aboriginal social maladies have turned to politics, especially to dogmas now fashionable in North America. One of the recent gurus of the Canadian indigenous movement, the left-wing academic psychologist Michael Chandler, has argued that Western solutions to indigenous problems do not work because their approaches to healing are individualistic rather than collective.
His alternative, a form of indigenous socialism, is made up of ingredients very similar to those now advocated in Australia by the authors of the Voice. Chandler says to reduce youth suicide, communities need a combination of indigenous self-government; title to traditional land; local control over health, education, policing and child welfare services; facilities for preserving traditional culture; and elected councils composed of at least 50 per cent women (never mind that the last of these is an incongruous white addition to indigenous traditions). All of these ideas are now echoed in Australia. The approach recommended in the Elders’ Report on youth suicide by Arnhem Land elder, George Gaymarrangi Pascoe, is “cultural responsibility based on our customary lore”. Like other elders today, he claims suicide is a product of colonisation:
The only way to stop suicide is to fulfil our cultural obligation to our young … One of the biggest problems is that young people are growing up thinking that school is very important. That literacy and numeracy is very important. But what about our culture? Our Lore? We are trying to communicate to them the power of our knowledge and wisdom … It is the white way that is causing the deaths of our young Aboriginal people. The white people are introducing changes in culture and assimilating us so we rot and die.
Part Three: 2008 to 2023
In his eulogy on the death of Galarrwuy Yunupingu in April this year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called him “one of the greatest Australians … What he could see was not the reinvention of Australia, but the realisation of a greater one.” Most of the news media took the same line. Paige Taylor of the Australian said Yunupingu was “honoured for a lifetime of advocacy for Indigenous Australians that enriched us all”.
None of this is true. To paint Yunupingu as a national figure working towards a greater, enriched Australia completely misunderstands what he was on about. The focus of his lifetime was not the welfare of the Australian nation, which he spent most of his life scorning. He did meet eight Australian prime ministers and addressed them politely, but this was only because he hoped to get something out of them. His one true loyalty was to the close group of Aboriginal clans into which he was born. He made this very clear himself. In one his several autobiographical articles he spelt out precisely where his political allegiances lay:
The clans of east Arnhem Land join me in acknowledging no king, no queen, no church and no state. Our allegiance is to each other, to our land and to the ceremonies that define us. It is through the ceremonies that our lives are created. These ceremonies record and pass on the laws that give us ownership of the land and of the seas, and the rules by which we live. —“Tradition, Truth and Tomorrow”, Monthly, December 2008–January 2009
In 1988, in the midst of celebrations for the bicentenary of the British settlement of Australia, Prime Minister Bob Hawke visited Yunupingu. They met at the Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory where Yunupingu gave him the now famous Barunga Statement demanding a treaty. Hawke said he was very happy about the meeting but Yunupingu made it publicly clear he had nothing to celebrate. He did not regard himself as part of the Australian nation. He said:
Instead of forcing Aboriginal people to celebrate the bicentennial, the government should be passing a constitutional amendment which recognises us as the first owners of the country … So we need to begin to talk about sovereignty. We are a people, even if we are classified by languages. Our culture and belief in the land made us a distinct people. —Treaty: Let’s Get it Right, ATSIC, 2003
Yunupingu meant what he said about sovereignty and being distinct. The Barunga Statement itself called on the Australian government to negotiate a treaty to recognise “our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty”. The few writers who discuss what he meant by sovereignty mostly attribute his principal loyalty to the tribal language group Yolngu, which includes twenty-three clans on the north-east coastlines of Arnhem Land. However, when it came to doling out funds under his charge, the only sovereignty he actually recognised was that of the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans on the Gove Peninsula. In fact, as events in Part One of this article recorded, he allocated to the Rirratjingu people only a small percentage of what they claimed as their entitlement. He was also selective about which of the 155 members of his own clan at Ski Beach he rewarded, and which ones he had no qualms about leaving to fend for themselves.
From 1976 onwards, after the Fraser government in Canberra created two land councils in the Northern Territory to distribute royalties from mining companies, Yunupingu became chairman of the Northern Land Council. It was responsible for handouts to the three clans who claimed to be traditional owners of the land on which Nabalco’s mine and smelter stood, and the associated township of Nhulunbuy. In the legal deal to set up royalties, the Northern Land Council gained the right to define what share of the local land each clan owned and, therefore, what proportion of the mining royalties were due to them.
Even though the Blackburn legal case in 1970-71 found there were no clear boundaries of land use in the traditional society on the Gove Peninsula, and no exclusive rights to any land were held by any of the local clans, Yunupingu, as chairman of the Northern Land Council, gained the right to define who owned what. He decided his own clan, the Gumatj, owned 76 per cent of the land taken up by the mine and smelter, while the Rirratjingu owned only 24 per cent, and the Djapu clan less than 1 per cent. Royalties were divided accordingly for the next three decades.
The Rirratjingu clan was very unhappy about this arrangement. But their protests to Territory and Commonwealth governments all ran up against the legal problem that the Northern Land Council, controlled by Yunupingu, was free to decide the structure of traditional ownership, and its word was law. Yunupingu even managed to retain control of this aspect of the deal from 2005 to 2011 when he had ceased to be chair of the land council but when royalty distributions were still based on the share he defined from the outset.
The Gove Agreement of 2011 and the white economy
In 2011, it looked for a while as if the Rirratjingu clan had finally got a fair deal. In June of that year, Prime Minister Julia Gillard went to Yirrkala where she announced the signing of what came to be known as the Gove Agreement. (Gillard called it the Rio Tinto Alcan Gove Traditional Owners Agreement, since by this time the founders of the mine and smelter, Nabalco, had been bought out by Alcan, who were subsequently taken over by Rio Tinto.)
On what she called “this historic day”, Gillard said the new agreement made all the clans happy. It “redresses long standing grievances associated with the commencement of mining”, she said. “Senior traditional owners Galarrwuy Yunupingu of the Gumatj clan and Bakamumu Marika of the Rirratjingu clan are to be congratulated for their vision for their people.” Economic benefits were bound to occur, she said, allowing governments, industry and communities to close the gap in indigenous disadvantage.
In her speech, Gillard spent some time advocating what must have seemed to her left-wing supporters as political heresy. She raised ideas that had not been aired since the Reeves Report urged the Howard government in 1999 to emulate a white, commercial economy on Aboriginal land (discussed in Part Two of this article). She said the Gove Agreement “paves the way for a range of financial, contractual, asset and employment benefits for traditional owners”.
Tacitly chiding the spending habits of Yunupingu, who sat beside her, Gillard said “traditional owner entities” should put “constraints on individual cash payments” and “demonstrate good governance principles including independent directors with relevant professional skills”. She said this would help “provide employment opportunities for Yolngu people across the region and opportunities for Indigenous owned companies to act as contractors”. In short, she claimed that, instead of confining itself to royalties, pensions and Centrelink handouts, her government hoped to encourage an economy based on local Aboriginal businesses and industry.
However, the sentiments she announced for the Gove Agreement turned out to be powerless. In subsequent dispersals of royalties, the Northern Land Council kept largely to its original formula. It gave the Gumatj clan 72 per cent of the royalties, Rirratjingu 26 per cent, and Djapu 0.5 per cent. The Rirratjingu people found they were again stuck with the same deal they had long complained about.
The Rirratjingu clan spent much of the next decade, and millions of dollars from their royalty funds, pursuing legal cases against the Gumatj clan, demanding 50 per cent of current and past royalties for themselves. In 2014 they lost their case before the Federal Court and in 2015 they lost their appeal to the same court. In 2017 they made a second appeal to the same court on a different issue, but lost again. Later that year, the Rirratjingu people applied to the High Court to hear their case, but they were denied that right of appeal.
In every legal avenue the Rirratjingu tried, the judgments against them held that the Northern Land Council was free to distribute land as it saw fit. The land council had argued that if the Rirratjingu people succeeded this would represent an effective shift of power over royalties from the Aboriginal owners to the court. None of the courts wanted to take that step. Federal Court Judge John Mansfield said: “It was not the role of the court to determine how royalties were distributed.”
The outcome, however, was that the Northern Land Council, and the other big land councils that emerged later in the Territory, were content to confine their roles to making claims for land and royalties, and dividing the money from these sources among themselves. That done, the only other incentive they had to generate income from the white man’s economy was to charge visitors for coming onto their land. In east Arnhem Land, they set up tollgates at key sites where, to go any further, travellers had to make hefty payments.
The example set by Yunupingu of using the royalties to deprive his enemies and to empower and enrich himself became the goal for other Big Men in the other land councils. The role that William Reeves had advocated in his failed 1999 report, which argued that the available money should be used to fund loans for local Aboriginal businesses and freehold land purchases for those wanting to own and trade in properties and other assets, was nowhere in sight.
Social dysfunction in the land of the Big Man
In his maiden parliamentary speech in March 2002, the indigenous MP and Minister in the Northern Territory government, John Ah Kit, said it was now “almost impossible to find a functional Aboriginal community anywhere in the Northern Territory”:
I don’t just mean the 10 to 15 communities that my department tells me that, at any one stage, are managerial or financial basket cases … I am talking of dysfunction that is endemic through virtually all of our communities, both in towns and the bush. We cannot pretend that a community is functional when half the kids don’t go to school because they have been up most of the night coping with drunken parents, or because they themselves have been up all night sniffing petrol.
Five years later, after social research in the Northern Territory exposed prolific sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities, the Howard government launched the Northern Territory Emergency Response, better known as the “Intervention”, which remained in force from 2007 to 2012. The statistics that generated this action were compiled in the Little Children Are Sacred report by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild (Northern Territory Government, 2007).
They found that child abuse occurred in every one of the forty-five remote communities they visited in the Territory. Three of those communities were Yirrkala, Ski Beach and Nhulunbuy, where the researchers conducted a total of ten meetings with authorities and residents and gained access to police records. These Gove communities were far from being the worst of those afflicted—Tennant Creek stood out with the highest rate of abuse per head—but they connected with those local incidents of domestic violence and suicide discussed in Part Two to reveal societies that were seriously maladjusted.
What’s more, there were other social problems in these communities for which no statistics have been compiled but where the anecdotal evidence is persuasive. Three of the worst habits among Aboriginal youth on the Gove Peninsula have long been prostitution, petrol sniffing and bingeing on alcohol.
In 2008, after the Intervention had been in operation for eight months, Yunupingu helped organise media coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald (April 4, 2008) about the number of teenage girls in Yirrkala acting as prostitutes. Local residents told Herald reporter Lindsay Murdoch how Aboriginal girls were often picked up late at night and taken to or from Nhulunbuy. Leon White, a former school principal in Yirrkala, said there had been a “conspiracy of silence” about the abuse of vulnerable children and teenagers there. “The indigenous Intervention is yet to produce outcomes that prevent these things happening,” White said.
Aboriginal girls as young as thirteen were being given cash, drugs, alcohol and taxi rides in exchange for sex. Yunupingu’s daughter, Bernadette Guruwiwi, told the Herald she knew of a case where a man working for the Northern Territory government took two girls to his house and paid them for sex with him and another man. Yunupingu himself said he knew seven girls who were ready to give information to the police. “Everybody here knows what has been going on,” he said, “and the time has come for us to put an end to this once and for all.”
In an article in the Australian by Nicolas Rothwell (March 18, 2009) the author treats Yunupingu as the saviour of his people for his actions in curbing petrol sniffing and alcohol consumption. In response to an upsurge in petrol sniffing by local children, Rothwell writes, Yunupingu rounded up as many as he could and transported them to his favourite outstation at Dhanaya, south of Yirrkala, for “hands-on rehabilitation”. “These were scarcely the actions of a high-handed monarch,” Rothwell commented, “for Yunupingu, every member of his clan and its many connected groups is his own flesh and blood.”
In the same article, Rothwell praised the great man for his approach to the rehabilitation of Aboriginal alcoholics. He made efforts to persuade the itinerant drinkers from his clan living on semi-permanent camps in the streets of Nhulunbuy to return to their homelands. “It was he who sat there with the drifters and town campers of his extended family,” Rothwell wrote, “urging and pleading with his kinsmen, while puzzled locals looked on.”
All the above are no doubt worthy acts, but Yunupingu’s responsibilities were far more than those of a novice priest or social worker. He was the Big Man of his clan who decided the economic goals it would pursue. He was also the major beneficiary of the riches that had poured into his pockets over the previous thirty years. Persuading a few kids to give up sniffing petrol, or a few drunks to get out of town, were hardly the chief duties of the man supposed to be the ultimate protector of his clan. They were cheap political stunts, no more impressive than a local MP pausing for a photo opportunity. What Yunupingu displayed most in Rothwell’s examples was not how to rescue people from their addictions, but the skill in which he was most expert: how to get a favourable plug from a journo in the big city news media.
Another domestic killing within the clans
In October 2018, Lena Yunupingu, then twenty-nine years old, was killed by her de facto husband, Neil Marika, at her home in Palmerston, south of Darwin. In a drunken argument he stabbed her three times in the heart and lungs with a kitchen knife, killing her. On the day of the assault, Marika, thirty-six, had been drinking for seven hours beforehand. At his trial, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter while drunk.
At the time, he was subject to a domestic violence order for an assault two months earlier. He served just fourteen days in prison for breaching that order. He should not have been in Lena’s house in October. Yet instead of murder he was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter, that is, unintentional killing, and was given a comparatively light sentence even for that offence. He was sentenced to nine years jail and would be eligible for parole after six years, meaning he is due for release in October 2024.
Last January, the Coroner of the Northern Territory, Elisabeth Armitage, announced that in June 2023 she would conduct a close examination and make public her hearings concerning four recent deaths of Aboriginal women killed during domestic violence. Lena Yunupingu was one of those on her list. The details of Lena’s death, and the long history of assaults she suffered from her husband before he ended her life, have already been revealed at Neil Marika’s trial so any further information Armitage can uncover should further expose this tragic trail of events.
As their surnames indicate, the relationship of Lena Yunupingu and Neil Marika was originally organised by their families. For generations the Gumatj (Yunupingu) and Rirratjingu (Marika) clans had promised their female children to one another. It was almost an exclusive relationship, with only a small number of women from other Gove clans brought into the arrangement.
Lena was the daughter of Gayili Marika Yunupingu, who was Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s sister. Although her mother and uncle arranged Lena’s marriage from the one clan to the other, they should have known it would be a disaster. The Darwin court was told that Neil Marika’s father, and a number of other male relatives from the Rirratjingu clan who arranged their side of the marriage, had served jail terms themselves for serious crimes against women.
Neil’s behaviour replicated that of his father and uncles. Prosecutors told the court that in the twelve years before he killed Lena, Neil had “regularly inflicted brutal assaults” on her. The injuries began in 2006 when Lena was sixteen years old. During a “vicious” attack, Neil punctured her lung and “she came very close to death”. He was jailed for four and a half years for the assault.
After that incident, Gayili retrieved her daughter from the relationship and took her to the Galupa community (above). Gayili had established Galupa outside Yirrkala as a shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence. However, Neil was able to persuade Lena to come back and live with him. Even though they subsequently had a child together, over the next decade Neil’s further assaults on Lena had him convicted and imprisoned four times. His criminal record was notorious for breaching paroles and snubbing restraining orders. The incident in 2018 in which he killed Lena was his second breach of a domestic violence order that year.
In short, Neil was a product of an indigenous culture that left his conscience well beyond the reach of white man’s law. As a chronic repeat offender, his behaviour mocked those liberal Darwin judges who thought such Aboriginal men could be reformed by light sentences and homilies from the bench.
It also mocked the authors of the Uluru Statement of the Heart who complained about Aborigines being “the most incarcerated people on the planet [when] we are not an innately criminal people”. As the record of murders of Aboriginal women in northern Australia proves time and again, rather than being overdone, the prosecution of men like Neil Marika is seriously inadequate. They get very light sentences for horrendous crimes that in southern cities would see them imprisoned for decades. Aboriginal traditions of violent male licence are deeply embedded and will never be changed by the Territory’s current mild-mannered policies of “behavioural management” and rehabilitation. If the Uluru Statement of the Heart was a genuinely civilised manifesto its priority would not be the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal men but the rate of their murder of Aboriginal women.
NB: As I am writing this, the news media reports that a Brazilian man in Sydney who strangled his Australian girlfriend in a rage has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison. Neil Marika’s six-year incarceration values the life of his Aboriginal victim at only a fraction of that of her white Sydney counterpart.
Rent seeking and economic development
In July 2014, Rio Tinto closed down its alumina refinery at Nhulunbuy. A total of 1100 jobs were ended, accounting for 25 per cent of the town’s population. Over the next three years there were major cuts to staff employed by the schools, hospital and local power plant. In August 2015, Qantas cancelled its regular flights between Darwin and Nhulunbuy.
The bauxite mine remained in operation but in 2022 the company said the mine would follow the refinery and would be closed by 2030, “or sooner”. At present, the mining jobs remain intact but they only have, at most, another seven years before they too are gone. By then, most of the familiar services in the modest-sized country town, including the Woolworths supermarket, will be uneconomical and will close down too.
Some of the local businesses in Nhulunbuy, who have built up good assets over the years, believe the town can still survive as a tourist centre. This is possible, since the locale, in the dry season from May to November, attracts a lot of visitors. Sailing remains a popular offshore sport, although swimming in the beautiful azure sea is out of the question because saltwater crocodiles cruise the coastline. For the same reason, tourist fishing is risky too. Grey nomads would probably still come in caravans to this part of Arnhem Land to enjoy the coastal views. However, the landscape is very flat and nowhere near as attractive as the rugged coastline and hinterland of the Kimberley. So, while it is possible that Nhulunbuy could fulfil its shopkeepers’ hopes and turn into another Broome, it is not likely. The odds are that it will suffer the fate of most of the other once-wealthy mining communities in the Australian outback and slowly but surely become a ghost town. Members of the local Aboriginal clans who choose to stay will have the place to themselves again.
Of the two dominant clans, the Rirratjingu people still have the biggest population at Yirrkala. Rirratjingu leaders have long argued for a change of the land tenure by the Northern Land Council. The existing tenure means that, outside of Nhulunbuy, the land cannot be sold commercially, which in turn means that an asset that might be generated over a period by a shop or other small business could not be bought, sold or traded. The Rirratjingu argue that Yirrkala could attract business if the town land was converted to a ninety-nine-year lease which would, in effect, turn it into freehold. However, to do this they need the Northern Land Council to agree. But, loyal to the example of its great helmsman Yunupingu, this is something it will not do.
The result is that, apart from small businesses on Nhulunbuy land, neither the Rirratjingu land at Yirrkala nor the Gumatj land on Ski Beach have any businesses or employment worth noticing. The two clans say on their websites that they provide some contract labour and equipment services to the mine and to a handful of housing projects funded by the Commonwealth. Under the menu item “Business”, each of their websites lists a canteen providing free packed lunches to children at the local kindergarten and primary schools. Apart from that, they have no real businesses that could ever survive on their own.
The result is that the people of the local clans have minimal experience in trading goods and services or adopting something that resembles a work ethic. Most of the handful of small businesses that do exist at Yirrkala and Ski Beach rely upon a white adviser or manager—usually someone connected to the former mission or local church—to keep their little enterprises going.
Although the local clan members were born, grew up and lived for decades alongside a major multinational mining and smelting enterprise, and although managers of the industry tried time and again to employ and train them, the Aborigines were not interested in white man’s work. When journalist Paul Toohey of the Australian Financial Review was at Nhulunbuy in 2014, he asked how many of its employees had been recruited from the local clans. “In all the years that Rio had mined bauxite and refined alumina on the Yolngu lands,” he reported, “the operation has produced only one qualified Aboriginal apprentice.”
The consequences of this lethargic culture were described frankly in 2012 by Steven Etherington, who spent twenty-three years as an Anglican vicar at the Oenpelli community in Arnhem Land:
Tribal Aborigines are a “kept” people: they are no longer required to grow or find their own food, are never required to become educated, never required to build their own homes, or buy their own vehicles. They are never required to accept global human rights standards, or even to adhere, in practice, to many of the laws of the state … The vast majority of adults are never required to learn anything, or to do anything. Erosion of the capacity for initiative and self-help are virtually complete. Most adults spend a large part of their time drinking or playing cards, paid by some form of unemployment or social security benefit. Most buy food from take-away sections of the community shops. The majority do not cook meals any more. They are not under any pressure to learn English beyond the basics needed to interact as dependants of the state.
This is the real legacy of Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the purported hero of the movement for land rights. The economic system he has installed in the Gove Peninsula will come to a dead end once the mine shuts down. Unlike the white miners, managers and tradesmen who can move on to other projects with their skills intact, the Aborigines will be tied to the existing land by their traditional culture and habits.
The Yunupingu view of how to manage economic affairs was based on using politics to gain the right to charge rents to big corporations. He persuaded politicians and the news media to influence the judiciary to support his view of Aboriginal economic activity. Of the rents paid to community organisations under his charge, very little was ever spent on investment and very much on conspicuous consumption by the local Aboriginal elite. Yunupingu acted like an aristocrat from a feudal society, the Lord of the Manor doling out morsels to his grateful tenants.
The concept of land rights, once unknown to Aboriginal culture, should be seen as simply another form of rent-seeking. Everywhere else that system has been in place for long enough it has generated obscene inequalities that eventually turn into economic stagnation. However, Yunupingu and plenty of other Big Men in the remote communities expected their good fortune to last forever.
As the next and final section of this article records, for some of these Big Men, their income from rent and royalties probably will outlast their lifetimes, thanks to some recent decisions made by Australia’s High Court and the Federal Court.
Yunupingu’s $700 million legal claim
In May 2023, barely six weeks after Galarrwuy Yunupingu died aged seventy-four, the full court of the Federal Court of Australia handed down its judgment in the case of Yunupingu on behalf of the Gumatj Clan or Estate Group v The Commonwealth. Yunupingu launched the case in 2019 arguing that, under the Keating government’s Native Title Act 1993, his clan was owed compensation for breaches of its native title rights. Between 1911 and 1978, he argued, the Commonwealth had made a number of land grants and leases on traditional Aboriginal land that caused these breaches. (The claim starts in 1911 because that was the year South Australia surrendered its responsibility for the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth government; it ends in 1978 because this was when the first royalties from Nabalco began to flow to the Northern Land Council.) Yunupingu told everyone, especially the news media, that the Gumatj people should be compensated a total of $700 million for their loss of land over that period.
Finding in favour of Yunupingu this year, the Federal Court applied to Native Title a constitutional point, Section 51 (xxxi). The section says that when the government acquires property within the meaning of that section, it must do so on “just terms”. Whether this section of the Constitution should apply to land held under Native Title has long been a moot point in Australian law. However, early in 2019 the High Court awarded $2.5 million to traditional owners of land at Timber Creek in the Northern Territory for the loss of 179 hectares of land where native title had been extinguished. This was a test case which, once its precedent was set, was quickly adopted by Yunupingu.
At the time, according to the 2021 census, the Gumatj population at Ski Beach amounted to 207 people, and there were another forty or so members of the clan living with others at Yirrkala and some outstations. This meant that the $700 million compensation Yunupingu sought for the approximately 250 members of his clan amounted to $2.8 million per head—assuming of course, the very unlikely outcome that the money would be divided equally.
This was an extraordinary claim, unmatched per capita anywhere else in Australia. At the time of writing this article, the Federal Court judges had not yet decided how much of the claim they would award. The court will probably treat $700 million as an ambit claim and allocate a smaller amount in response. But that will still leave the Big Man with another substantial success. He has persuaded the judiciary and the political class to fulfil yet another of his avaricious ambitions.
Once the total sum is decided, Yunupingu’s closest Gumatj descendants will more than likely emerge from the ensuing legal scrimmages with the lion’s share. They are sure to follow their leader’s example by keeping the distribution within their circle, while the majority of their fellow clan members remain poor, entirely dependent on the Commonwealth and Centrelink. The moneyed aristocracy of the Gumatj clan will continue to be the richest landlords of Aboriginal Australia.
Keith Windschuttle is the Editor of Quadrant. Part One of this article appeared in the July-August edition.