Indigenous burial customs are facing harsher criminalisation through the introduction of the Burial and Cremation Bill 2019 in the Northern Territory Parliament.

The Bill was introduced in the Parliament’s August sittings and, if passed, it will enforce regulations around the burial of Indigenous Australians on Indigenous land.

Indigenous Australians burying relatives outside of the Government recognised cemeteries will see their traditional customs and actions criminalised if permission is not sought and granted from a Darwin-based bureaucrat.

Yolngu man and Member for Nhulunbuy in the NT Legislative Assembly, Yingiya Mark Guyula said this new Bill is an attack on Aboriginal culture.

“Our people, when they die, become sacred objects. With this Bill the Government are not showing respect to our sacred traditions,” Mr Guyula said.

The Member for Nhulunbuy said Traditional Owners “will not bow down and ask permission” to bury kin in accordance with Yolngu law.

“This is bad law, that criminalises our traditions and has the potential to imprison more Aboriginal people. This is part of an ongoing undermining of Aboriginal authority on our land and of our people,” Mr Guyula said.

“We have been asking for a space through Treaty to live according to our culture. But with this law, the Government is stepping right into the heart of our governance and law, and introducing policies and laws that destroy our culture.”

A public briefing by the Social Policy Scrutiny Committee saw the Department of Local Government, Housing and Community Development say the law is not new – it will only supersede the Cemeteries Act 1952.

Legally speaking, this means anyone in the NT buried outside the Government designated cemeteries has broken the Cemeteries Act 1952.

“It is currently an offence to bury outside of a declared cemetery without approval of the minister,” said Legislation and Policy Officer for the Department of Local Government, Housing and Community Development, Ethan Redshaw in the public briefing.

By introducing this new Bill, the NT Government is ramping up the infringements for burials outside of Government recognised cemeteries.

The Cemeteries Act 1952 outlines a two-unit penalty for breaching the act – a $310 fine.

In the new Burial and Cremation Act 2019, this will increase to 200-units – or $31,000 – or a maximum two-year imprisonment.

The Northern Land Council (NLC) has echoed similar sentiments to Mr Guyula, calling on the NT Government to delay the Bill’s introduction.

The NLC’s East Arnhem Regional Council, including representatives from Ramingining, Milingimbi, Galiwin’ku, Gapuwiyak, Yirrkala and Blue Mud Bay communities, as well as homeland representatives from across the East Arnhem Region, agreed with the concerns raised by Mr Guyula.

“We are very worried that the Bill might prevent us from following our traditional practices that Yolngu people have practised and continue to practise for many years,” said Executive Member, Djawa Yunupingu.

East Arnhem Regional Council member David Rumba Rumba said the new Bill didn’t recognise the importance of traditional Yolngu ceremonial and burial law.

“We need to listen to the land. The land gives us our law and our traditional owners and Djungayi are responsible for making sure we do it the right way. If we don’t follow the law we can all get in trouble,” Mr Rumba Rumba said.

The NLC is now preparing a submission to the Social Policy Scrutiny Committee to look into the role the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976 plays in the proposed Burial and Cremation Bill 2019.

By Hannah Cross