The Voice | by Dr Gwenda Baker

The Voice | by Dr Gwenda Baker

Posted by Bronwyn Newnham on

This week's blog post was written by Dr Gwenda Baker, an historian who consults with Yolngu, people who live on Arnhem Land. She has built relationships with the Yolngu community over many years. The Fair Trader would like to thank Dr Gwenda for generously donating her time to write this blog.

The Voice

Dr Gwenda Baker1

The Voice to Parliament triggers different views among Indigenous Australians2, Aboriginal elder Uncle Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu criticises the voice, Albanese.3

Recent headlines highlight there is not one voice, there are many. There is not one group of Aboriginal people, there are many. When we imagine one people, we run the risk of inappropriate and damaging political activity like the Intervention. Tony Abbot was Prime Minister when the Intervention happened in 2007. He used a report called ‘Little Children are Sacred’ as the reason for what was called Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) - "The Intervention". This included the introduction of the ‘Basics Card’. Legislation was passed which radically changed how Indigenous peoples were viewed and treated by the state. 

Legislation passed by both major parties (Labour and Liberal):

  • removed the permit system for access to Aboriginal land,
  • abolished government-funded Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP),
  • subjected Aboriginal children to teaching in a language they don't speak for the first four hours at school,
  • quarantined 50% of welfare payments,
  • suspended the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA),
  • expected Aboriginal people to lease property to the government in return for basic services,
  • compulsorily acquired Aboriginal land and
  • subjected Aboriginal children to mandatory health checks without consulting their parents, and against the sacred oath of doctors.4

The Intervention was built on the fallacy of a homogenous society. A problem was identified in one area with a group or groups of Indigenous people there. That was enough to target all Indigenous communities because, as we are led to believe, these people and their situations are the same everywhere.  It heralded a dark era of Balanda control, undermining people’s integrity and their work in the community.

At Milingimbi, the army arrived unannounced on the beach. They rounded up the children and started asking them inappropriate questions about their family relationships. No parental permission. No parental presence. The people asked to interpret walked away when they realised what was happening.5 How could we accept this happening to children? Keith Lapulung, who was President of the Milingimbi Council at the time, said it felt like a cloud had descended on the town.6

Several leaders from Milingimbi travelled to Canberra to take their protest there. On the island, protest marches were held with people marching around the town. In 2008 members of the Milingimbi Community made a video called The Intervention - 'Riyawarray: Common Ground’.

The behaviours of the Intervention are a very good reason why we need the Voice.

Yiŋiya Guyula, MLA for Mulka, represents the people from his Arnhem Land electorate. From his latest newsletter comes this comment: ‘But the Government must ensure that detailed information forums are held across all our communities - so that everyone has the opportunity to decide how they want to vote.’7

Many Indigenous people want more from the Balanda system of governance. 8 They want recognition of their own system of governance and more say in local affairs. Local decision making is what is needed to give more control over their lives. Yiŋiya writes to his electorate:

A vote on changing the Constitution will be held this year. The vote will ask you if you want to include a First Nations Voice to Federal Parliament in the Constitution of Australia.

I will be voting YES because it is time for First Nations people to be recognised as the First Peoples of this country. We have never ceded our sovereignty and we will remain sovereign.

By itself, the Voice is not enough, but we have an opportunity to try something that could help raise our voices - and push forward towards Treaty, self-determination, self-governance and Yolŋu Rom Ŋurruŋu.9

The Voice is the messenger - and it must not speak over the top of people but amplify the grassroots voices from across Australia. The Voice must not take our decision-making power - but make sure that we have genuine local decision-making power. Voice, Treaty and Truth are about First Nations people having the power to decide our future. For these reasons I will vote YES.10

We can’t change the past, but we can listen to the voices of the people. We need to listen, we need to see people both as individuals, and as part of ‘a profound knowledge and truth’ embedded in a different knowledge system.11 Lapulung talks about looking for a new pathway. ‘We need to nourish and draw on the old mechanisms. Back in the days of the mission Yolngu stood up and did something.’12 Everyone worked. Now, in different times, the people need recognition and encouragement to rekindle their ‘passion and desire’.13

  1. I am an historian. I write stories from the Northern Territory, and I work in a consultative basis with Yolngu, people who live in Arnhem Land. I am not a Balanda bungawa (white boss person). I am white but I have many relationships with Yolngu. This is a long connection and I have a good understanding of the issues the people face. I help with the writing down of ideas and presentations for the often-confronting white dominated world.
  4. Source: Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) - "The Intervention" - Creative Spirits, retrieved from
  5. Yingiya Guyula told me this story, Milingimbi, 2014. He was one of the interpreters who walked away.
  6. Pers. comm. July 15th, 2023. Keith Lapulung is now the President of the East Arnhem Regional Council (EARC), formed in under the Local Government Act (NT) 2008 to provide core Local Government Services to nine remote communities of Arnhem Land: Milingimbi, Ramingining, Galiwin’ku, Gapuwiyak, Yirrkala, Gunyangara, Umbakumba, Angurugu and Milyakburra. It was widely seen as a withdrawal of local control.
  8. Balanda, old word from a Dutch origin, used to describe whites.
  9.  Yolngu law/governance. Yolngu is the name the people of Northeast Arnhem Land give themselves.
  11. Pers. comm. July 15th, 2023, Keith Lapulung.
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid.

Header image source: Why Warriors

guest writer The Voice

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  • Thank you for this blog post, and thank you to Dr Gwenda Baker for the insights and stories she has shared.

    Jessie W on

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