Magna Carta

and Modern Australia

Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents in the world. First written in 1215, it set out rules limiting the power of the monarchy and safeguarding basic human rights. Over its long history it has been reinterpreted as an icon of justice and liberty. Magna Carta is one of the historic foundations of Australian democracy. Its principles about the rule of law and good government remain relevant today.

Explore Magna Carta through its clauses or view the stories to discover how people have used this medieval document to shape modern Australia.

Yirrkala bark petitions 1963

These bark petitions are the Magna Carta for the Indigenous peoples of this land.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, 2013

In 1963, Yolngu leaders from Yirrkala, on the Gove Peninsula in Arnhem Land, sent two petitions to the Australian Parliament. They asked the government to reconsider its decision to excise 300 km2 of Arnhem Land for bauxite mining. Work had started on the mine, without consultation with the Yolngu people.

The Yirrkala petitions combine painted bark panels and text typed in English and Gumatj. Like Magna Carta centuries before, they are a statement of grievance and an assertion of rights. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, whose father, Mungurrawuy, was one of the petitions’ painters and signatories, said they are ‘not just a series of pictures but represented the title to our country under law’. Bridging two legal traditions — those of the Yolgnu and the Westminster parliamentary system — the petitions were the first traditional Indigenous documents recognised by the Australian Parliament.

The petitions failed and the mine proceeded. But they did help advance the recognition of the sovereign title of Indigenous Australians. They led to the 1971 Gove Land Rights Case and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976. In 1992 the Mabo judgement overturned the ‘legal fiction’ of terra nullius.

Like Magna Carta, the Yirrkala petitions are founding documents setting down principles and inspiring actions for social justice. They are displayed at Australian Parliament House, Canberra.

The Yirrkala bark petitions were tabled in Parliament in August 1963. Image courtesy of the House of Representatives, Australian Parliament House.
The Yirrkala bark petitions were tabled in Parliament in August 1963. Image courtesy of the House of Representatives, Australian Parliament House.
The Yirrkala bark petitions were tabled in Parliament in August 1963. Image courtesy of the House of Representatives, Australian Parliament House.
28
No appropriation of goods without recompense
30
No appropriations for transport without consent
31
No taking resources without consent
and Modern Australia

Yirrkala bark petitions 1963

These bark petitions are the Magna Carta for the Indigenous peoples of this land.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, 2013

In 1963, Yolngu leaders from Yirrkala, on the Gove Peninsula in Arnhem Land, sent two petitions to the Australian Parliament. They asked the government to reconsider its decision to excise 300 km2 of Arnhem Land for bauxite mining. Work had started on the mine, without consultation with the Yolngu people.

The Yirrkala petitions combine painted bark panels and text typed in English and Gumatj. Like Magna Carta centuries before, they are a statement of grievance and an assertion of rights. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, whose father, Mungurrawuy, was one of the petitions’ painters and signatories, said they are ‘not just a series of pictures but represented the title to our country under law’. Bridging two legal traditions — those of the Yolgnu and the Westminster parliamentary system — the petitions were the first traditional Indigenous documents recognised by the Australian Parliament.

The petitions failed and the mine proceeded. But they did help advance the recognition of the sovereign title of Indigenous Australians. They led to the 1971 Gove Land Rights Case and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976. In 1992 the Mabo judgement overturned the ‘legal fiction’ of terra nullius.

Like Magna Carta, the Yirrkala petitions are founding documents setting down principles and inspiring actions for social justice. They are displayed at Australian Parliament House, Canberra.

The Yirrkala bark petitions were tabled in Parliament in August 1963. Image courtesy of the House of Representatives, Australian Parliament House.
The Yirrkala bark petitions were tabled in Parliament in August 1963. Image courtesy of the House of Representatives, Australian Parliament House.
The Yirrkala bark petitions were tabled in Parliament in August 1963. Image courtesy of the House of Representatives, Australian Parliament House.
28
No appropriation of goods without recompense
30
No appropriations for transport without consent
31
No taking resources without consent