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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4778

Mr GARRETT (Kingsford SmithMinister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) (14:00): The House would be aware that it is a very sad day for Australia. One of our leading Aboriginal citizens has died. We understand his name is widely known; it will be widely reported today, but in respect of the tradition of his people I refer to him as Mr Yunupingu.

The story of Aboriginal advancement in Australia is not a story of consensus; it is a story of struggle—the bark petition, the 1967 referendum, land rights and native title, the national apology. There was a real and robust and in every sense Australian argument about every one of those steps. It was only ever in hindsight that they became steps no-one could unmake.

Mr Yunupingu knew this, and he lived it. He was first and foremost a Gumach Yolngu man, with totems of fire and crocodile, but he shared his message with all Australians. As our nation struggled to find the contrition which was the necessary beginning of reconciliation his words and music were a challenge. He spoke from the heart. It is now more than 20 years since the music of Yothu Yindi thrilled us with a new artistic fusion and an urgent political intent. When he sang:

Well I heard it on the radio

And I saw it on the television

Back in 1988

All those talking politicians

Words are easy, words are cheap

Much cheaper than our priceless land

he sang something which resonates to this day. I can say to you and through you, Speaker, having been there on the occasion when those words were sung, it makes today even more moving for me.

He dreamed that Australians could be better, and he demanded that Australian politics be better—and so it became. Today, on behalf of all Australians, I honour all his work over the years; in the arts and in education, with the Yolngu people in East Arnhem Land, with so many Aboriginal and Australian communities right across our country.

He was the first Yolngu person to gain a university degree, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Education from Deakin University in 1988. In 1990 he became the Principal of Yirrkala Community School, becoming Australia's first ever Aboriginal school principal. He used his own education to make sure Aboriginal people could do what he did and more. He was also committed to the education of all Australians, and with his family and his wife, Gurruwun, he established the Yothu Yindi Foundation and the Garma Festival, helping to bridge the gap between two cultures, bringing us closer day by day.

This is a day of sorrow, but also a day of pride—for the pride all Australians feel in his creativity and character, so strongly informed by his culture; and the pride we feel in his achievements, a foretaste, I hope, of what we will feel when the first Australians take their place in the first document of all Australians. Not just respect but self-respect. But that is to contemplate on a future day.

For now, he is gone and, like so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, gone too young. He was right; often, words are cheap, but his death shows us what a high price is paid by Aboriginal people for Indigenous disadvantage. As we sit in this House on the hill and mourn what the nation has lost today, let us recommit to closing the gap that so diminishes us all. We pay tribute to a leader, the tribal voice of his people, who gave so much and who will be remembered so well.