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Other Nations

If we take for a moment the fact that the islands mislabelled ‘Australia’ were never a terra nullius, we might begin to see the paucity of the recognise campaign. The recognise campaign is a left liberal campaign designed to get constitutional recognition for Indigenous people, usually in the form of a non-binding pre-amble statement. It goes without saying, and even better with saying, that I support affirmative action directed towards many of our Indigenous peoples. But for that to happen in a full, true and material way, we must acknowledge the reality of the historical legacy as it manifests today. I will not go down the familiar, and false, rabbit warrens by saying constitutional change is merely symbolic (symbols matter and have real consequences) or talk about how Indigenous people are diverse (even the blackfella bourgeoisie removed from neo-traditional life in remote communities has negative social privilege from its ‘raced’ position regardless of the fact that it can be leveraged into capital now) or suggest that the fundamental divide that exists today is irreconcilable (consider if only for a moment the success of mixed people in public life).

What I want to suggest is that for recognition to happen in a meaningful way we need to re-think both sides. That is we need to need to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australia for what it is and we need to see Australia for what it is also, assuming for a moment that they are heuristically separate rather than irrevocably tied. ATSI Australia is magnificently diverse. At the time of colonisation up to 700 languages were spoken, suggesting the possibility of many countries on the landmass. I say countries here rather than the increasingly popular appellation first nations if only to contest the definition of the State, which has been retroactively applied. If one searched these countries for differences one would find them. If one searched these countries for similarities one would find them also. But the construction of a unitary ‘Aboriginal’ Other is a recent construct, an idea challenged even by its parental politico-legal discourse of identity as manifested in Westernised law. By contrast the Aboriginal Self, even as a group self, is autonomously heterogeneous. It is shifting and complex and located and changeable. It knoww its complexity and diversity. All of which is not to make a hagiography of pre-invasion life. It is simply to say it was no singular – there needn’t have been a red, black, yellow flag until 1971 because there was no one thing to attempt to represent. This is why we many begin to speak of treaties in the plural not in the singular. For a treaty to happen there would need be a representative body to negotiate and agree – but how can Yamatji speak for Ngarluma let alone Yorta Yorta or Walpiri or Aranda? It is not then a materialist question of helping out impoverished, sitting crosslegged in the red dirt, bottom of the rung no hopers who spend their days lounging with flea infested dogs getting drunk. That stereotype not only does not exist but needs to be put to rest even as it remains an object of pragmatist policy concern targeting our ‘most vulnerable’. What it means is that today’s expression of Indigenous governance need acknowledge its foundation in pre-colonial identity and law. What that looks like differs from place to place, but Brian Samson of Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation carries a lot of political weight relevant to his community which is based on a whole complex of factors every but as sophisticated as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That both could sign a treaty might mean a genuine dialogue took place instead of imperialist window-dressing. In other words it is necessary to consider treaties that matter to Indigenous people themselves might look like. This includes in their own language, forms of constitutional governance and for the other signatory of the treaty (in this case, and for ease, ‘Australia’ but perhaps the UK or an unnamed, unimagined republic). I think in this regard ATSI people in many places have a firm knowledge of what governmental autonomy looks like because they are rooted in a sense of country, which forms the bedrock of identity and the idea of unshakeable custodianship.

In some respects, the more difficult question to wrangle with, precisely because it views itself as a success, is: what to do with Australia? To my mind this means asking how do we decolonise and what kind of republic do we become? As the two major parties have become closer together we have witnessed not only the bankrupting of the mainstream ideologically but also the artificiality of real distinction and debate. Personality, affect, surface separates them and the leadership tension in both only underscores how fragile their internal ‘solidarity’ is. Yet talk of a republic is muted if not silenced completely because no one can quite imagine what it would be to actually become a State fit for the land. That means the abolition of one level of government and the strengthening of the other two. The federal government need stay in place. But there need be municipalities in between the size of local and state bodies. Why couldn’t ‘Australia’ be a federation of elected bodies that are more responsive to distinct policy needs? Why can’t we be a federation of 20 bodies that look after a million people each? This is brought about by the distinct recognition that Moreland identity does not exist and that the states are antiquated and moribund, even if there are attachments created by the false consciousness machine’s misreading of history. It is also an acknowledgement about the benefits of administering in a more streamlined and capable manner. This is not an anarchist argument about the dissolution of the state, but the realisation that non-Indigenous governance here does not see itself for what it is: colonial, recent, sluggish, failing.

 

I do not mean to say that the Ngarluma people as represented by the Ngarluma Aboriginal Corporation could or should sign a treaty with the City of Karratha, the West Australian government or the Australian Commonwealth, but rather that the three latter bodies are fundamentally illegitimate. This is not to deny their existence, but to question their standing morally. This does not mean a return to some halcyon days of Ngarluma law, or a contemporary hybrid, the latter of which is what the recognise campaign seems to suggest. It is not a question of self-determination or of assimilation. What it means is that we need to ask: how do we have multiple laws for the same geography? How do we have governance, and services and goods for the same geography? In the daily application of law there are negotiations that happen constantly which not only enact the spirit and letter of the law but revolve around interpretation and application. When a hospital is built that involves local, state and federal institutions at present, sometimes in consultation with the community who may or may not be Indigenous. But more than that it involves people. People in those roles hold a complex intersectionality in their very bodies. That means people are able to juggle multiple roles and conduct complex judgements regularly. The world does not get less messy simply because we say it does. What that means in the ‘Australian’ context today is that we need Indigenous people in positions of power without taking for granted what the definitions of Indigenous and power actually are. The system need doubt itself rather than think that ‘Australia’ only accommodate Indigenous people. That will only perpetuate the ongoing conflict. Only when there is a governmental system relevant to the true situation will treaties be signed and there will be a lasting peace that is constitutionally recognisable in such a way that everyone living here will be proud. Perhaps then we will be able to address poverty, incarceration, safety, access, equity and a whole host of other issues that limit our freedom in daily life.

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Robert Wood holds degrees in economics, history and literature from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania. He works for the Australian journal Overland.

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