Pilot, lecturer, kingmaker: how former airplane mechanic Yingiya Guyula threw a spanner into NT Parliament
Independent politician Yingiya Mark Guyula says he’s ready for whatever politics throws at him. (ABC News: Matt Garrick)
Growing up the son of a crocodile hunter in the isolated Territory bush, Yingiya Mark Guyula has trained for survival since day dot.
A pilot, a lecturer and now a rebel politician, Mr Guyula’s hunting and survival skills are coming back to the fore, as he bids to shift the balance of power in Territory Parliament.
He has joined forces with independent politicians Terry Mills and Robyn Lambley, attempting to rip Opposition status from the Country Liberal Party (CLP), which he believes could give him more strength to help his East Arnhem homelands.
But it’s been a bumpy road getting here and the future looks precarious.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner has all but ruled out debating the prospect of forming a new Opposition when NT Parliament returns for 2019 on Tuesday.
He has cited “unequivocal” advice from the NT’s solicitor-general, which would rule out the possibility of an alliance of independents taking on the power.
“In my view the Opposition cannot be formed by a coalition of Independent Members of the Assembly,” the Solicitor-General said.
Suddenly, Mr Guyula’s got the feeling he’s back in the swamp with the crocodiles, and his hunting skills have never been more needed than now.
Lessons from a croc hunter
As a child in the remote homeland of Mirrngatja, near Buckingham Bay in north-east Arnhem Land, Mr Guyula lived off bush tucker foraged around a croc-infested, mosquito-riddled swamp.
As a bush kid, some valuable lessons were learned: where to hunt, what to eat, what to avoid and, importantly, who to trust.
“We lived deep in the swamp,” he said.
“Funny things happened … we used to get crocodiles, and my father got bitten by one crocodile.
“And he knew how to get out of it — he was grabbed by the legs, but he knew what to do, and he got away.”
On another day, Mr Guyula remembers a helicopter circling over his family’s home.
“There were some crooks flying around in choppers, trying to land there and steal crocodile skins while we were out in the swamp,” he said.
“[The chopper] wanted to come and land right where we were in the swamp. … We didn’t know what was going to happen.
“I got really frightened. [I was] a little boy. I ran and hid behind some palm trees, really worried.
“My dad, he just lit the grass, to get them to go away — he lit the big grass and there was a swamp fire in there. I don’t know what would have happened.
“There were talks about some balanda [white people] coming around with guns — they can shoot you, steal the crocodile skins.
“Who knows what could’ve happened. They could’ve shot us there.”
Only kid in the class without English
Mr Guyula didn’t go to school or speak a word of English until he was 10 or 11 years old.
It was a long, rattly trip to the mission school at Galiwin’ku, on Elcho Island, and all this young bush kid wanted to do was stay with his family and learn the skills of his father.
“Everybody else was going to school, and I was the only one,” he said.
But there was a moment of longing that drove him to enrol in class — a moment he laughs about nowadays.
“One day I saw the schoolkids come from school, go on holidays, and they had hampers — bag of flour, and syrup, and I said, ‘dad, I must go to school, so I can have one of them’,” he said.
It was about 1968 when Yingiya showed up at the schoolhouse.
“When I got there, they found out that I couldn’t speak a single word of English,” he said.
“So they put me back down to [kindergarten].
“And everybody used to laugh at me — ‘This dumb Yolngu from the bush can’t speak English’. They made fun of me.”
Soon enough, with help from both Yolngu and balanda teachers, Mr Guyula started to surge.
“All of a sudden I caught up with the grade three students who laughed at me,” he said.
He began to excel above older schoolmates in English and maths and soon skipped forward a grade.
In 1973, Mr Guyula was sent off to Dhupuma College boarding school near Nhulunbuy.
His ambitions were starting to shoot towards the sky.
‘It’s like a spacecraft or something’
By grade nine, aged about 16, Mr Guyula quit school to go back and live with his father and continue hunting and looking after the land, but his old man wouldn’t have it.
The boy had too much potential and his budding ambition to be a motor mechanic was more important than staying out at the swamp.
At first, however, no jobs were available at the local mechanic’s workshop but, after a stint employed in forestry, Mr Guyula’s moment arrived.
An offer came along for him to work for the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) on their airplanes on Elcho Island.
“I said ‘yakka, yakka [no, no], I’m too frightened to do that’,” he said.
“It’s like a spacecraft or something that I don’t want to wreck.”
The MAF workers eventually convinced the young man to give it a try — Mr Guyula spent his first months cleaning up hangars, rolling fuel drums, washing airplanes and making tea for the pilots.
Six months later, after he’d proved his chops, Mr Guyula was given a spanner.
“‘You can come and start learning’, the mechanic there told me,” he said.
Again, as in his school days, he excelled and, in about 1979, he was offered an apprenticeship, and began overhauling engines and servicing planes.
Up in the air, a trailblazer is born
This young Yolngu man was filling his elders with pride, but there was a missing piece from this puzzle.
Some of the old Yolngu men wanted to see this kid who worked with airplanes actually inside the cockpit.
His initial reaction was “no way”, but after persistent urging he gave it a go.
With the support of MAF and the elders, he joined the now-defunct Gove Aero Club and began taking flying lessons with an instructor.
He acquired his learner’s permit, got his hours up and, in 1983, the opportunity of a lifetime arose.
He made the trek to Ballarat to enrol in flying school.
It was here he broke a major milestone not just for himself, but for Indigenous Australia, becoming the first Yolngu pilot to fly solo.
“I took off — it didn’t make any difference, there was just no instructor with me,” he laughed.
“I came around and landed perfectly — and everybody jumped for joy and celebrated for me, all the balanda, MAF staff.”
After that, he was up in the air, and off cross-country.
Mr Guyula scoured maps and followed the railways lines, flying across the wide brown fields of the Victorian countryside — Horsham, Bendigo, Ararat, Geelong.
He ended with about 125 hours of flying experience under his belt.
A higher platform presents itself
During the late 80s, 90s and 2000s, Mr Guyula returned to the Top End where his skills and experience saw him recruited into jobs for MAF, the Uniting Church and then as a lecturer teaching Yolngu Matha at Charles Darwin University (CDU).
At CDU, he learned new technologies, like livestreaming and Skype, which allowed him to teach his mother tongue to students across Australia and the globe — in Japan, Germany and the US.
But in the late 2000s, Mr Guyula realised major changes were happening in Arnhem Land.
“There was something wrong in the communities,” he said.
Prime Minister John Howard had triggered the Northern Territory National Emergency Response — the so-called Intervention — and Mr Guyula felt the tug of his people and the problems affecting them.
He left CDU and returned home.
Yingiya Guyula made resources so students across the globe could learn his mother tongue. (Supplied: John Greatorex)
He began working in community councils, using his knowledge of Yolngu, balanda and English language to act as a mediator between the two worlds.
But it was proving to be an uphill battle achieving tangible social change.
“We started working, fighting, but we weren’t getting far anywhere,” he said.
“I wanted to get somewhere higher.”
He eventually saw the platform and opportunities that politics could provide for him.
As he did with boarding school, as he did with becoming a mechanic, with flying solo, with becoming a language teacher — he stared down his fears and took the plunge.
“It was only to fix something in my community — I never wanted to be a politician,” he said.
In 2016, he took a tilt in the federal election for the seat of Lingiari.
Although he didn’t win, the numbers gained in north-east Arnhem Land were unprecedented — he scored a healthy swing and had beaten veteran incumbent Labor MP Warren Snowdon for the area.
“Then I knew that people are ready to support me,” he said.
Guyula topples Labor’s tall tree
At the 2016 Northern Territory election, hardly anybody saw it coming.
Incumbent Nhulunbuy MLA and anointed deputy chief minister Lynne Walker was a shoo-in, Labor believed, due to her long-term commitment to the region and popularity in the mining town of Nhulunbuy and surrounds.
Mr Guyula, buoyed by his run in the federal election, ran a formidable race, winning majority votes on Elcho Island and in remote homelands.
It was heartbreakingly close for Ms Walker, as it came down to just a handful of postal votes, with a final result not announced until nearly two weeks after the election.
But there it was: Mr Guyula won by eight votes and was named the new member for Nhulunbuy.
Yingiya Guyula took his battle for treaty to the United Nations in New York City, in 2018. (ABC News: Matt Garrick)
NT Labor had unexpectedly lost its deputy chief minister — one of the most experienced politicians amid its largely rookie ranks.
The party didn’t take it well and tried to knock off Mr Guyula on a technicality in the Court of Disputed Returns.
The case fell over and Mr Guyula stayed on as the MLA — but the moment marked the beginnings of his frustrations with the Territory’s political system.
“I was a bit shaky then — but I said to myself ‘I’ve been through this kind of thing already, so I’ll try to keep on walking’.”
About halfway through his term, he said he felt “frustrated, but … stronger and [ready] to fight on”.
For the two or so years of his tenure in NT Parliament, Mr Guyula has felt stonewalled by Labor, unable to sit down and negotiate on issues affecting his communities such as housing, homeland issues and the lack of treaties.
“Somehow the politics in the balanda world doesn’t work that way,” he said.
“I’ve run into a dead end.”
Pushing through the brick wall
Last week, Mr Guyula surprised the NT’s political class by announcing he’d joined with former CLP heavyweights turned independents Mr Mills and Ms Lambley, to form a new political force called The Alliance.
They voiced their brazen ambition of seizing Opposition status from the two-member CLP — a move that looks to have been shot down before it even had a chance to get off the ground.
“Solicitor-general’s advice tabled in the Legislative Assembly in 2016 and again in 2018 unequivocally states that a coalition of independents cannot form the Opposition,” Mr Gunner said in a statement on February 6.
“We won’t be supporting any move which wastes a single moment of parliamentary time on a question that has already been answered.”
So why would Mr Guyula, who has been burnt already by the ruthless machinations of NT politics, decide to take this route?
When asked if he trusted Mr Mills and Ms Lambley — the ex-CLP chief minister and his former deputy — and if they had his best intentions at heart, Mr Guyula hesitated for more than five seconds before answering.
“I’ve known them, but I don’t really know them well, who they are,” he said.
“What I know is I’ve got independents who supported me to walk around in the parliament.”
Ms Lambley and Mr Mills have signed an agreement with Mr Guyula promising to help him gain, as he said, “more power, more resourcing, more staffing” to tackle remote Aboriginal issues.
“Some resourcing that I’ve been missing out on that I’ve not been properly recognised by the Government,” he said.
And if Mr Mills and Ms Lambley don’t come to the table on their promises? And if it’s correct that they can’t legally form opposition?
“I’m going to push harder,” Mr Guyula said.
“I’ve run into a brick wall. What do I do? Do I just keep on bashing, bashing, bashing, or do I use my hunter’s skill — look at the season, look at the wind.
“Use my hunting skill … and that’s something I have to rely on.”
In parliament he became acutely aware of a new and impenetrable world around him.
“It’s frustrating … [but] it’s like training. I’ve survived in the bush, and I’m going to survive here,” he said.
“I’m getting old, but the journey’s getting interesting. So I’m going to go as far as I can.”