The unfinished business of sovereignty

How can people who come from such young cultures comprehend the sophistication of a continuous culture that goes back more than sixty thousand years?  

In the lead up to the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Tony Abbott reflected to an international audience that Australia was ‘nothing but bush’ before British settlement, and that pre-colonisation civilisation was ‘extraordinarily basic and raw’. This reminded me of what Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the longest-serving Premier of Queensland (popularly titled ‘the Hillbilly Dictator’), said of Aboriginal people in response to the mass protests during the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane (also to an international audience): ‘I don’t think they’re really advanced … they normally live out in areas where they don’t use much, and they sort of, catch birds and goannas and all this sort of thing’.

Little did Bjelke-Petersen know (and Abbott appears still not to know) that in just a decade, the legal fiction of terra nullius would be radically dismantled by the great Koiki Mabo. Here was a victory and a moment of hope for our nation’s First Peoples – a moment that, it was hoped, would advance reconciliation and constitutional recognition.

Of course, it has not happened – and Abbott’s remarks are a timely reminder.

The comments also remind us that the state is far from being an organ for reconciliation. By its very existence, it is an admission of the irreconcilable antagonisms that result from conflicting interests within society. Its parroting of ‘reconciliation’ is part of the enduring process of colonisation. Without the basic, unquestionable and true presumption of First People’s sovereignties, the discussion on reconciliation is another way of subjugating and colonising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the true sovereigns of the land upon which we are today.

Having just completed my tertiary studies in Social Work, I have found the silence on First People’s sovereignties, at the least, puzzling, especially given how widespread the practice of acknowledging traditional owners of Australian land has become at official ceremonies, during university business and even in the mass media. Nonetheless, I have learnt too much about the venom of ethnocentrism not to realise that the riddle lies covertly in the problem – the problem of the ‘white diaspora’. Thus, it is from within the frame of white diaspora that we can begin to understand the political hostility and inefficacy that has resulted of Mabo.

The legal and constitutional composition of Australia traces its lineage back to the ‘immemorial origins’ of the British constitution and common law. This legitimates the creation of the Australian nation-state, specifically in terms of its racial, political and legal constitution as a ‘white, British, diaspora’. It means that the legal constitution of the nation-state depends upon a national identity that is racially (un)marked as white. Such unmarked diasporic loyalties work to elevate the nation out of the local and particular into the universal. They continue to perpetuate the ideological and naturalising position of the nation, implicitly claiming that this is how things have always been and should always be: that, indeed, Australia was ‘nothing but bush’ before British settlement, and ‘extraordinarily basic and raw’. Whiteness makes itself invisible precisely by asserting its normalcy, its transparency, in contrast with the marking of others on which its transparency depends. For the First Australians, this has meant that the issue of sovereignty is restricted to the political terms of the white manifesto – the denial that their sovereignties ever existed, or the framing of their rightful claim as a threat to national interests and identity.

Instead of recognising the grand theft of the Australian landmass from First Peoples, colonial rule issues token replacements, such as ‘native title’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘self-management’. This, indeed, is the cunning of legal recognition of Indigenous traditions in later modern liberal Australia. It is the possessive logic of patriarchal white sovereignty that operates to ensure its continued investment in itself. It is what discredits the anomaly left by the Mabo decision – the anomaly that if Crown sovereignty was based on a fiction, then what legitimacy can there be to deny First Peoples’ sovereignty?

With the next referendum on the horizons, we owe it to our nation’s First Peoples, and to ourselves, to close the deal on this Unfinished Business. But let us go beyond voting ‘yes’ for recognition in the constitution’s preamble. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cannot meaningfully be recognised in the Constitution unless the capacity to discriminate on the basis of their race against them is deleted from the document (yes, it’s still there, see Section 25 and Section 51(26)). Adding a few fine words to the document is really an exercise in futility. Even then, the possibility of freedom from racial discrimination means nothing as long as the constitution seeks to maintain the white diaspora.

Like Koiki Mabo said, ‘it’s not only changing terra nullius for black people … it’s changing white people because it’s getting them out of this lie they’re having to live’.

Let’s make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sumaiya Muyeen

Sumaiya Muyeen studies gender and cultural studies at the University of Melbourne. She lives and works in Narrm.

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  1. Long on vitriol, short on solutions.

    Although I suppose using 32-year-old quotes from QLD politicians and blatantly ignoring parts of the PM’s speech — as bad as he is — which paid homage to Aboriginal heritage (from the exact same speech you quote) passes for activism and insight these days.

    Your constant reference to skin colour and “whiteness”, “whites” and “white people” is so simplistic if not racist (Imagine a white person referring to “asian people” or “black people” in the same manner). Oh and you also assume all white people are ‘one group’ who think alike and act alike sharing a common set of beliefs or a shared conspiracy.

    Hopefully one day we can look past these utterly banal attitudes to skin colour and race which divide us so terribly and contribute to the exact same thing you (ironically) rail against in your contribution here.

    Australia is more multicultural and complex a society than that. We as human beings are much more complex. Not just a skin colour, not just a race. Growth and healing will come from moving past such simplistic, if not archaic notions.

    So what do you propose, Sumalya? In terms of real solutions, that is…

    1. Hi Esther,

      Thank you for your comment. However, I would just like to point out that it is you who have been ‘simplistic’ in reading this article. My reference to ‘whiteness’ is NOT a reference to ‘white’ skin colour (seriously?!), but to the imperialist colonialist hegemony that, to this day, has subjugated the First Peoples to conditions of second-class citizenry. For example, (as I mentioned in the article) the Constitution – the ‘founding document of our nation’ – still allows for their race-based discrimination with impunity. I find it funny that you would call my criticism of the Constitution (over 100 years old) as it stands archaic, yet you don’t find the same of this century-old institutional racism?

      This is the same kind of institutional racism that allows the ethnically unmarked to get away with killing an innocent 18-year old boy for being black in #Ferguson, and in fact, that allows you to say something like, ‘Imagine a “white person” saying “asian people” or “black people” in the same manner’.

      Where is the growth, Esther, when Indigenous Australians are still dying at younger ages and at higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians? Where is the healing when Indigenous people continue to die in police custody and mining companies continue to devastate their sacred lands? I guess it’s more convenient to call any reference history a blunder to activism and insight, right?

      It is disappointing that you have completely missed the point of this article and taken it to be a personal attack on yourself. That’s the problem with white privilege Esther – and no, you don’t have to have ‘white skin’ to be white-privileged. All vitriol and no solutions.

      1. Firstly, let me just say that I find it quite disingenuous that you are now trying to claim your reference to ‘whiteness’ or ‘whites’ had nothing to do with race or skin colour. Especially when the culmination of your piece, your final quote, refers specifically to ‘white people’ and ‘black people’ in this context.

        Secondly, I never thought the article was an attack on myself. Rather, I thought it was an attack on common decency and a sad reversion to race and skin colour based dialogue which you constantly refer to (but then go on to deny ever doing so).

        The future of us as a people (human beings) depends on moving beyond these ideas; we’re not white and black, we’re human beings. People made up of many colours, histories and cultures.

        Don’t just dismiss my criticisms by putting me in a box. By the way, it’s ironic that you imply “white privilege” is my problem, that which makes my criticisms irrelevant. Imagine if a white person did that of Blacks, or Asians or people of any other creed. We would shout them down in unison.

        Lets work together as human beings, not skin colours, Sumaiya.

  2. Good Esther, you have been reasonably gentle – this nasty new racism parading as just payback – in poetry/ art/AFL/schools/universities – is pervasive and nasty – there are ‘race police’ everywhere looking for ‘offence’

    1. I’d suggest the previous two commenters take a trip in, through and round this continent called Australia and note the imbalance (social, political, economic, cultural) which exists still for indigenous peoples and then check back here to correct those blindness’s (taboo elements) which pass for insight (social reason).

      1. I could just as easily counter with White Blindfold privileging, but then we’re back in the History Wars. It’s hard to see the point in continuing this skirmish: you see what you want to see, as do I. Let the course of events decide …

  3. … been around, abjection (do you always follow like a sheep?) Wattie Creek, Katherine, Wadeye, Milakapati, Bathurst Island, Darwin, Condobolin etc Black Arm Band privilege and reverse racism stops the kids going to school and learning to read and write in English. Teaches good people that its OK to hate whitefellas. It’s not OK! ok? – its the same racism that you hated and we don’t do ‘payback’

      1. … sticks and stones … but still the kids don’t go to school and Aboriginal communities grow un happier and unhappier blaming the whitefellas in ever more intricate details.

  4. Should not use the term ‘reverse racism’ it is actually just ordinary common kitchen garden ‘racism’ – exactly the same as the racism of the 19 century – fear of ‘the other’ Entitlement/ privilege is addictive.

  5. You don’t seem to get it, Abject. What you see and read as racism within Aboriginal communities I would understand, if it exists, as a necessary stage of politicization in order to regain some sense of lost sovereignty. For example, I disowned the Catholic Church at 12 years of age – I had witnessed enough hypocrisy by then – and as a political subject in my own right vowed never to set foot in a Catholic Church again. Now I hate the Catholic Church with a total passion, given the subsequent and continuing revelations of hypocrisy, betrayal of trust, criminality, violence and trauma resulting from and through corruption backed by power and money. Pretty much the same deal with the Australian indigene, I would have thought. “The sophistication of a continuous culture that goes back more than sixty thousand years” which the writer here begins her article with was built upon the four pillars of language, law, culture, country. That is the lost sovereignty, lost when language died, along with a culture supported by laws formed through a spiritual connection to country going back those sixty thousand years or more. If politicized by and through the loss of sovereignty, and no real and lasting recompense or reconciliatory moves made by the violent aggressors, where’s the stomach and heart for learning an alien and alienating language (English), and embracing its equally alienating and impoverished violent culture with draconian laws which have mostly only ever been used as a means through which to discipline and punish? We put up the fences to begin with, we brought disease and impoverishment to these peoples: far more appeasement is needed on our side of the fence to begin with I would have thought, before a mutually agreed upon peace treaty can be drawn up and true reconciliation achieved. As happens, reconciliation doesn’t seem to be on the table any more since Paul Keating departed the political landscape, while the health and living conditions of indigenous peoples deteriorate hourly, daily. Get some perspective, I’d say.

  6. Well done Samaiya, you’ve obviously pressed some people’s buttons.
    The most racist white supremist act ever done on these lands was for King George the 3rd to presume ownership of them all, as if the lands were only inhabited by flora and fauna.
    That the Rightful Sovereigns of these lands continue to be collectively punished and told that they must do this, must do that, but mostly must shut up and assimilate is evidently not racist to the average strayun. Interesting.

  7. Racism is a disease of unreasonable hatred which prevents the sufferer from healing through a delusion that another ‘race’ is the problem… so the ‘racist’ is unable to ‘heal’ himself/herself Racism is not a form of ‘appeasement’ (payback IS a primitive useless unsustainable form of self relief) – if indeed there is any need for ‘appeasement’ (the feminists call it ‘getting equal’) Whitefellas did not come to here to oppress Aboriginal peoples.The modern world was always going to catch up with the ancient culture of Aboriginal peoples. It did … and it happened two hundred years ago … nI am no more an ‘invader’ than you are ‘indigenous’ – There is no blame for continuing ‘progressively’ to introduce the western tradition and the modern world to this land which the whitefellas named ‘Australia’. When the whitefellas arrived there were about half a million Aboriginal people living harsh, short, brutal lives. We now support about 24 million people in lives almost twice as long as the average nomadic life, and with a vastly improved quality of life.
    Racism in the Aboriginal community will render every Aboriginal person as a victim who will prefer to blame and hate whitefellas rather than enter the great challenge of modernity. Any Aboriginal parent would want a better life for their children than they themselves experienced. That better life is in the full modern global world ( with knowledge of their own ‘culture’ to ground them) .. and so they must allow their children to learn to read and write in English as these are the keys

    Sixty thousand years ? I thought it was forty? … either way the figures are too big to compute.

    ‘No stomach’ … for learning the language of the invader. This is understandable
    … but if not overcome will lead to ignorance with head in sand about the existence and knowledge of all the other tribes of the world.
    Learn the language of the invader as his enemy, if you must, in order to give yourself a powerful weapon with which you might defeat him – in the Art of War, one must ‘love’ ones enemy.

    The Irish have learned to be invaded knowing they cannot be diminished.

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