CONDOLENCES - Lester, Mr Kunmanara, OAM, Yunupingu, Dr G

Today I rise to commemorate the memory of two great Indigenous Australians who have passed since the last sitting of the Senate—Mr Yami (Kunmanara) Lester and Dr G Yunupingu, two blind Aboriginal men who had a vision for Australia. Despite their physical impairment they were far-seeing and insightful, and their lives give testament to their strength and resilience. From humble beginnings in remote and isolated parts of our continent, one in the desert, the other in the saltwater country, they changed our nation for the better.

Of the two men, I knew Yami Lester the better. I am proud to call him a friend, a leader and a mentor. Last week, thanks to the generosity of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, I was privileged to attend his state funeral in the remote South Australian community of Walatina. Very few state funerals have occurred in a place so remote. The hearse, a Land Cruiser embellished with flowers, stopped at a dry creek crossing. Senior women travelling with his body took the opportunity to point to the dry creek bed at Walkinytjanu, in the middle of the desert, where Mr Lester was born.

While we waited for the Governor, the Premier, the South Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Leader of the Opposition and other dignitaries we had a chance to feel the power of the simple birthplace, under the gum trees in the red sand, at a soakage in the desert. Not far from that creek crossing, at Maralinga, when Yami Lester was a 12-year-old, the British government, in collusion with our Australian government, exploded a series of atomic weapons. A black mist rolled over their lands, hurting the eyes of this young boy. After a relatively short period of time he became blind. He believed this was as a direct result of this evil mist. He spent six or so years in a home in Adelaide, where only a younger person spoke his language, Yankunytjatjara. He became a 'broomologist', as he used to say, making brooms in the Adelaide school for the blind.

As an adult, with his wife Lucy, he moved to Alice Springs, where I came to know him and learn from his wisdom and insight into life and politics. He became a leader of Aboriginal organisations there. With the late Reverend Jim Downing he established the Institute for Aboriginal Development, promoting Aboriginal language and culture against the grain of assimilation and forced social and cultural change. They developed practical measures to assist families living in poverty and worked to reduce infant mortality by helping people to understand the causes of poor health and disease.

I recall giving a speech in Alice Springs on a topic I've now forgotten. Yami pulled me up in the middle of the speech and said words that I took to heart. He said: 'You're a smart young man but you have to make a picture-book for me in your speech; you need to paint a picture, so that I can see what you are talking about!' He was a leader in the struggle to establish Aboriginal controlled and managed organisations in Central Australia; to get recognition of land rights in South Australia; to get Uluru and Kata-Tjuta National Parks returned to traditional owners; and to establish a royal commission into the Maralinga tests. In all of these struggles his wisdom, courage, determination and commitment were tempered by a wicked and irrepressible sense of humor and an infectious delight in life. He was a mad supporter of the Melbourne Football Club. This man, who could not see, showed us a vision of a reconciled Australia and led us on that path.

To his family—Lucy, Leroy, Rosemary and Karina—we express our thanks to you for allowing him to share his time with so many of us. We wish you well in your future. At his funeral service, we were moved by the singing of Paul Kelly, whose song Maralinga told the story of Mr Lester.

Paul Kelly also worked with the second blind man I wish to commemorate today, Dr G Yunupingu, who brought his beautiful, ethereal voice, in his Yolngu language, to people across the world. He was born on Elcho Island in the Northern Territory. As his song says, 'I was born blind. I don't know why.' Dr G Yunupingu grew up in Galiwinku, the settlement on Elcho Island, off the north coast of Australia, which is over 500 kilometres north-east of Darwin. Being blind, he spent his youth with his family absorbed in the Methodist mission environment, and become immersed in the world of music. He was a member of the famous Yothu Yindi band, whose classic song Treaty still resonates today, and the Saltwater Band. It was his solo albums that brought him fame and worldwide acclaim. His amazing voice was complemented by the cello playing of his collaborator, friend and translator, Michael Hohnen. Dr G Yunupingu performed for Her Majesty the Queen and for President Barack Obama, but it was the way in which his songs and music brought Yolngu culture and ideas into the minds of so many Australians that is his great gift to us all.

Dr G Yunupingu's uncle—as the minister has said—senior Gumatj leader David Djunga Djunga Yunupingu, told the crowd in Darwin that his nephew had built a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with music, but died before the country was truly at peace. He said:

He left us without knowing his place in this nation, without knowing true unity for all Australians.

Both men died, in part, due to kidney disease. Dr Yunupingu had suffered from liver and kidney diseases for many years. He was just 46 years of age. Mr Lester died from end-stage renal failure. He made the choice not to move from his home in Walatinna to Alice Springs for dialysis, allowing the disease to take him on his home country. We've lost two great Aboriginal Australians to the scourge of renal disease. In this place we must mark the passing of these great Australians by committing ourselves to doing more to eradicate this epidemic.

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