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Indigenous languages in Australian parliaments

In 2016, Malcom Turnbull made history by being the first prime minister to speak an Australian Indigenous language in a parliamentary speech.

He gave an acknowledgment of country in Ngunawal when he presented the 2016  Closing the Gap report and has since given this acknowledgment on other occasions.

The acknowledgment was written by Ngunawal men Tyronne Bell and Glen Freeman, with assistance from AIATSIS linguist Doug Marmion. AIATSIS has been working with the Ngunawal community for several years to revitalise the language which has not been spoken fluently for almost a century.

Tyronne Bell, Jai Bell, and Glen Freeman help Malcom Turnbull to give an acknowledgement of country in Ngunawal.

On what other occasions have Australian languages been used in parliament?

The first politician that we know of to use an Indigenous language in any Australian parliament was Neil Bell. In 1981 in his maiden speech in the NT Legislative Assembly, Bell spoke in Pitjantjatjara, promising to represent his electorate well and to fight for the land rights of Aboriginal people. 1

Trish Crossin was the first senator to use an Australian language in a parliamentary speech. In her maiden speech in 1998, Crossin spoke in Gumatj, thanking Yolngu people for the opportunity to live on Yolngu land and promising to represent them. Crossin also thanked Yolngu people in Gumatj in her farewell speech in June 2013.

As far as we can determine Aden Ridgeway was the first Aboriginal person to use an Australian language in any Australian Parliament. In 1999, he introduced himself to the Senate as a Gumbaynggirr man in his language before talking about the importance of achieving reconciliation and how to do it.2

Alison Anderson was the first Aboriginal person to use an Australian language in the NT Legislative Assembly. In September 2008 Anderson spoke in the Western Desert language in her first speech as NT Minister for Natural Resources, Environment and Heritage. The speech was a moving encouragement for young people to listen to the old people.

This was shortly followed by the first use of an Australian language in the House of Representatives by Rob Oakeshott in October 2008. It comprised of only three words of Dhanggati, but in June 2013 Oakeshott gave the first full speech in an Indigenous language given in an Australian Parliament. The speech was written with assistance from AIATSIS linguist Amanda Lissarrague.

The first Aboriginal person to use an Australian language in the House of Representatives was Linda Burney. In August 2016, Burney gave an acknowledgment of country in Wiradjuri in her maiden speech and was sung in by Lynette Riley in Wiradjuri from the public gallery.

Josie Farrer, a Kija woman, was the first politician to use an Australian language in the WA Parliament. She first spoke in Kija and Kriol in her maiden speech in April 2013, and has since spoken in Kija on several other occasions.

The first time an Australian language was used in the NSW Parliament was by Troy Grant in 2014. Grant gave the acknowledgment of country and the closing sentence in Wiradjuri. These words were written by Wiradjuri woman Diane McNaboe, and used with the consent of the community.

The first (and only, as far as we know) time a language from the Torres Strait was spoken in Parliament was in 2018 by Cynthia Lui in the Queensland Parliament. Lui spoke in Kala Lagaw Ya to express her thanks and talk about her ancestors and heritage, to which the Speaker said eso – thank you.

In 2012, Bess Price spoke in her first language, Warlpiri, for her maiden speech in the NT Legislative Assembly. Yingiya Mark Guyula began his maiden speech in his language, Yolngu Matha, but was interrupted.

Both have expressed the wish to speak freely in their first languages in the chamber, rather than just as part of a pre-prepared speech.

Other occasions where Indigenous languages have been spoken in Parliament include IC Blayney speaking in Wajarri in 2015 in the WA Parliament; Pat Dodson speaking in his language, Yawuru, in his maiden speech in 2016 – as well as the senate president responding to Dodson in Yawuru; and Malarndirri McCarthy’s maiden speech in 2016, where she gave the acknowledgment of country in her language, Yanyuwa.

In October 2017, during the passage of the Aboriginal Languages Act 2017 in the NSW Legislative Council, several language custodians and parliamentarians expressed the importance of revitalising and strengthening Indigenous languages. As a part of this significant event, Ray Kelly translated Sarah Mitchell’s acknowledgement of country to Dhanggati and sang a song. Other NSW languages such as Kamilaroi and Bundjalung were also spoken.

1. Northern Territory of Australia Legislative Assembly: Third Assembly. Parliamentary Record. Tuesday 2 June 1981. Part I-Debates. p. 876.

2. Many thanks to Andrew Gray for this information.


Last updated: 08 May 2024