Last week, history was made in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. The Independent Member for Nhulunbuy, Yingiya Mark Guyula, debated in Djambarrpuyngu, an Indigenous language of North East Arnhem Land. A significant portion of Mr Guyula’s constituents speak Indigenous languages, so it makes sense that he would want to advance their interests in their own language. Furthermore, the subject of debate – multi-lingual schools in remote Indigenous communities – is of particular importance to Indigenous people of North East Arnhem Land. Finally, English is not Mr Guyula’s first language, and he says he can more powerfully express himself in Djambarrpuyngu. In light of these considerations, it might seem entirely unremarkable that Mr Guyula – with the assistance of an interpreter – addressed the Assembly in Djambarrpuyngu. However, it is remarkable. Indeed, it appears to be the first time an Australian parliamentarian has ever engaged in substantive debate (as opposed to formalities) in an Indigenous language with contemporaneous translation into English.

Indigenous languages in Australian houses of Parliament

The Northern Territory has a chequered history in relation to the use of Indigenous languages in its political forums. The first recorded usage of an Indigenous language in an Australian house of Parliament was in the Northern Territory in 1981 when Neil Bell addressed the Legislative Assembly in Pitjantjatjara. Almost two decades later, in 1998, the first usage of an Indigenous language in the federal Senate took place when Senator for the Northern Territory, Trish Crossin, spoke in Gumatj. These positive milestones need to be set against the more recent controversy of 2016, during which Aboriginal politician Bess Price was told by the Speaker of the NT Legislative Assembly that she would be ruled disorderly if she continued to address the Assembly in the Indigenous language of Warlpiri. Price responded: “I feel that I cannot effectively represent my electorate without using my first language, Warlpiri. Over 75% of the population of my electorate is Aboriginal, most of who speak a traditional language.”

Elsewhere in Australia, a number of federal, state and territory houses of Parliament have had members and guests use Indigenous languages on topics as varied as environmental protection, treaty and land rights. Perhaps most significantly, in Western Australia, Members of Parliament Josie Farrar and Ian Blayney addressed the Legislative Assembly in the Gidja and Wajarri languages during the course of debate on the Constitution Amendment (Recognition of Aboriginal People) Bill 2015.  Malcolm Turnbull was the first Prime Minister to speak the Ngunnawal language during his 2016 Closing the Gap address in the House of Representatives. In 2017, Victoria passed the first Australian statute incorporating translated Indigenous words in its title and preamble – the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 (Vic) – and heard from local Indigenous elders speaking in the Woi-wurrung language from the floor of the Legislative Assembly.  It seems fair to say that Indigenous languages are increasingly entering the lexicon of Australian public law.

Looking abroad

The modest developments discussed above seem long overdue when regard is had to progress in other Commonwealth countries.

In Canada, a recent report of the House of Commons referred to the Northern Territory experience before recommending that the use of Indigenous languages be permitted in Parliament. This is consistent with the position in the Canadian Senate, where the widely-used Indigenous language of Inuktitut has been permitted in debate since 2008.

In New Zealand, Māori interpreters have been used in Parliament since the 1880s. This was once a necessity, as some early Māori members of Parliament could not speak English. Today, simultaneous translation is offered to anyone wanting to speak Māori in Parliament or in certain committees.

In South Africa, there are 11 official languages, with nine of them being Indigenous. Pursuant to section 6(3)(a) of the South African Constitution, national and provincial governments may use any official language for the purpose of government, taking into account, among other things, the practicality of such and the balance of the needs and preferences of the relevant population. However, each government must use at least two official languages. A Bill in the South African Parliament must be submitted in English and at least one other official language and all versions are considered by the Parliament.

The way forward

In the Northern Territory, significant progress has been made since Ms Price’s contentious use of Warlpiri in the Legislative Assembly in 2016. The Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly were changed shortly thereafter to allow politicians to use Indigenous languages (with interpretation) so long as the speech was pre-prepared and pre-interpreted. The amended orders read:

A Member may rise to speak in any language other than English so long as an oral translation is provided in the English language by the same Member immediately prior to the words spoken in the language other than English and a written translation is tabled immediately prior to the contribution by the Member speaking.

However, these amended Standing Orders still had the effect of prohibiting impromptu and reactive Indigenous-language debate. Mr Guyula has since successfully sought further changes to allow for Indigenous languages to be spoken first, followed by a translation. The procedure now reads:

Members seeking leave to speak in languages other than English must provide the Speaker with adequate notice for the Speaker to make any arrangements to provide assistance so that the Member may be understood and the Parliamentary Record may accurately report the contribution if the leave of the Assembly to speak in the other language is granted.

‘Arrangements’ may include use of an interpreter, or relying upon the Member providing their own translation orally or in writing. Where a translation is provided only in writing, other Members will be permitted an opportunity to respond to any concerns they have about content in written translations.

Even with these new procedures in place, significant uncertainties remain relating to the funding and provision of interpreters. Ben Grimes, a linguist and lawyer, has proposed that:

Each MLA could be given an allowance to use for interpreters in the languages and topics most relevant to their constituencies. Aboriginal-languages speeches or questions in the assembly could also be sent to an interpreter service for translation into English and inclusion in the Hansard. Non-Aboriginal MLAs representing large Aboriginal electorates would also benefit from this provision in order to better connect with their constituencies.


The Northern Territory Government is increasingly recognising its obligation to publish quasi-legislative material in Indigenous languages. For example, during consultation on the current Burial and Cremation Bill, the Government published audio information in 18 different Indigenous languages because of the potential implications the legislation will have for Indigenous funeral practices. However, more needs to be done to facilitate the use of Indigenous languages in parliamentary debate. Mr Guyula’s recent use of Djambarrpuyngu in the Legislative Assembly is a timely reminder of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

Timothy Goodwin is a barrister practicing primarily in commercial and public law.

Julian R Murphy is the Criminal Appeals Manager at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.

Suggested citation: Timothy Goodwin and Julian R Murphy, ‘Raised Voices: Parliamentary Debate in Indigenous Languages’ on AUSPUBLAW (15 May 2019) < in a new tab)>