07 March 2016
by Paul Daley
Murrumu: one man's mission to create a sovereign Indigenous country inside Australia
Murrumu Walubara Yidindji and his son, Thoyo, seven, who was enrolled in school using a Yidindji birth certificate.
In 2014 the former press gallery journalist officially ‘quit’ Australia to form his own nation in Queensland. Almost two years later he is the Yidindji foreign minister, and it’s clear he’s doing much more than making a symbolic point.
It’s not easy being a foreign affairs and trade minister when travelling overseas from the country most of us know as Australia is as complicated as it has become for Murrumu Walubara Yidindji.
Murrumu announced he was officially quitting this country in 2014 to live under the tribal law of his Yidindji people in north Queensland. When he did so, he surrendered the documentary chattels that accompany citizenship for most of us – a bank account, drivers’ licence, Medicare card, superannuation and a passport.
Murrumu might perplex and confuse everyone, from the prime minister down to the local policemen in Queensland and Canberra who have arrested him twice in the space of a year, including on matters relating to driving on a Yidindji licence in a Yidindji numberplated car. Some assumed he’d have quit what they might initially have considered to be something of a charade involving the former 40-ish, successful journalist who changed into the “old as time” tribal leader, Murrumu.
But almost two years after he bailed from what he calls the Australian “citizen ship” (to know Murrumu is to be involved in a constant game of verbal cryptography) there seems little doubt he is doing much more than making a merely symbolic point about Indigenous sovereignty, the destructive legacy of invasion, and the urgent need for the commonwealth to strike treaties with the first nations.
Murrumu has talked the talk, all right. But he’s also, undeniably, walking the walk.
Some 60 former Australians have now pledged loyalty to the sovereign Yidinji nation, which incorporates all of Cairns (“Gimuy”), extends from the Russell River in the south to the Mowbray in the north, and reaches from beyond the Malbon Thompson range and out into the Coral Sea, past the Frankland Islands. Another 40 people are preparing to take Yidindji citizenship in June.
The fledgling government has four ministers, including its leader, Gudju Gudju, one ambassador and a special envoy to Latin America. Three more ministers – for the arts, fisheries, parks and wildlife – will be announced this month.
Certainly the Yidindji nation is proving to be a state of much more than just the mind. Murrumu is working the diplomatic circuit in Canberra and having renounced Australian currency, he barters his artwork and relies on donations and gifts in kind to fund travel and expenses.
Murrumu Walubara meeting the Russian ambassador to Australia, Vladimir Morozov
He has met with ambassadors from Argentina, Cuba, Venezuela and Russia – yes, the Russians need all possible friends – and is in formal contact with others.
He is also planning to travel overseas on official Yidindji business – an act that could well perplex Australian immigration and customs officials in much the same way as Murrumu has tested the police and emerged, so far, without conviction.
“We are planning to attempt to travel in the international law realm. We’ve had various conversations with UN member states ... the most important thing to remember is we do have a government now and it has been created with correct procedure in terms of international law ... people will know that Yidindji has its own language, it has its own laws, its own authority,” he says.
“We have been contacting the federal government since 2014 ... and revealing our intentions to travel overseas and so, because there is an international airport on Yidindji territory – which is the Gimuy [Cairns] international airport – we will also be reminding the commonwealth of Australia that it doesn’t have a treaty or consent to be in our territory yet. But also article 36 of the United Nations declaration of rights of indigenous peoples says that indigenous people have the right to travel overseas for religious, economic or political reasons and the state must assist in that process.”
Even though the person formerly known as Jeremy Geia handed back his Australian passport in 2014, Murrumu says “it might be as simple as something like Murrumu Walabara the Yidindji person using an Australian passport simply for international travel purposes but the jurisdiction of that person would still belong and remain under the sovereign Yidindji government which would be pursuant to Yidindji law”.
Certainly the federal governments of both Tony Abbott – who Geia knew well from his work in the Canberra press gallery – and Malcolm Turnbull, have been appropriately respectful of the declared Yidindji government. While speaking to a national development summit in Cairns recently, the federal Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, formally acknowledged the Yidindji cabinet.
Yidindji attorney general Gaarn-Yarra Yalmabara (left), Murrumu Walubara Yidindji (centre) and Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion
Murrumu is on close terms with Scullion and regards him as a friend.
Scullion first acknowledged Murrumu by tribal name, in writing, last June. During their recent meeting in Cairns, the broad prospect of a treaty between the commonwealth and the Yidindji was discussed. But a spokesman for Scullion later said the minister told the Yidindji leaders that “sovereignty was a difficult issue to deal with and that his ongoing discussions with the cabinet led to a greater understanding of what may and may not be possible”.
While Scullion’s language is temperate, it does not change the fact that the federal government has not formally responded to a Yidindji initiative of late last year to enter into a memorandum of understanding to work towards a treaty.
“That is the endgame. Last year we offered the commonwealth of Australia the chance to enter negotiations basically setting up a memorandum of understanding with an end goal that would result in some sort of formal agreement of a treaty. They didn’t respond to that. We don’t know the reasons why – but now Australian citizens are writing to federal members asking: did the sovereign Yidindji government offer it and if it was offered why hasn’t it been taken up?” Murrumu says.
While the federal government and opposition appear locked into bipartisan support for an ill-defined act of recognition in the Australian constitution for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a significant proportion of Indigenous Australians believe treaties are far more urgent.
“The Yidindji are of course only observers to this process. Sitting back as an observer, it’s probably in the best interests of Australians to vote ‘yes’ because if a majority of Australians ... haven’t voted yes to recognise Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people yet, how did all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders end up in Australia? Have they been forcefully assimilated into Australia when Australians haven’t voted yes?”
Yes. Forced assimilation has largely dominated Indigenous policy since federation, just as an incorrect assumption of the vanishment and destruction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people drove European thinking from the first days of the colonial frontier.
Still, Murrumu’s qualified support for constitutional recognition will be controversial among the many Indigenous Australians who believe “recognise” offers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people nothing and that treaties are a minimum starting point.
Murrumu, however, says any act of recognition must be coupled with contemporaneous – not subsequent – treaties.
“Well I’m not too sure if the recognise campaign does that yet because no one really has a question or a model ... but we, the Yidindji, feel it’s important that treaty and recognition are concluded together.”
Late last year the Yidindji government passed the Protection of Australia Act, which outlined its proprietary interest – as original owner and custodian – in protecting the commonwealth. The act, say the Yidindji, reflects their view that “ee have been telling them [tribal nations] exactly the same thing: act in good faith, and in peace, and hand out the olive branch”.
Meanwhile, as the Australian parliament flounders on “recognise”, the Yidindji government could well be moving.
Murrumu asks: “What if the sovereign Yidindji government chooses to recognise the commonwealth of Australia in its legal foundation document? Because if the commonwealth of Australia can do that then we can do it ... what makes it more real?”
Staying real, Murrumu recently won another small step on the road to commonwealth and Queensland recognition of Yidindji nationhood when a local church school accepted a Yidindji birth certificate to enrol his son.
Local schools had previously been insisting that the boy (formerly “young Jeremy”, now Thoyo) could only be enrolled with an Australian birth certificate.
“The school then decided through its administrator that that [Yidindji birth certificate] was a legitimate document and they have now allowed Thoyo to enter the school ... They have also recognised that Yidindji are the true and correct owners of the land and there are a number of schools now – I think three schools – that are flying the Yidindji flag.”
Government, cabinet-style ministerial appointments, citizenship ceremonies and formal diplomacy all make the Yidindji nation an essentially political entity.
And politics, ironically, in the western democratic and especially the Australian sense is so often synonymous with tribalism. Here, in Australia, amid heightened distaste for the tenor of public discourse, tribal politics has become a pejorative.