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.