It seems appropriate with the 2019 Garma festival having just finished and the Government’s intransigent attitude towards the Aboriginal Statement from the Heart to offer quotes from Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, edited by Duncan Ivison, Paul Patton and Will Sanders. Published by Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The book focuses on the problem of justice for Indigenous peoples and the ways in which this poses key questions for political theory: the nature of sovereignty, the grounds of national identity and the limits of democratic theory.  It presents one of the greatest challenges for political leadership of Australia—a challenge that the present government is failing to meet.

As Aboriginal people say, Australia was never ‘terra nullius’.  Aboriginal people never ceded their sovereignty.  Australia remains the only country where following colonisation by a foreign power, a treaty was never signed setting out the rights of the indigenous peoples of that land.  This is particularly significant in Australia because Aboriginal Australia represents the oldest continuous culture in the world—one which current scientific dating techniques puts at more than 65,000 years.  This is well back into the last ice age.  In the stories of Aboriginal songlines we find a record of a people’s ecological adaptation to changing climatic conditions and how to live with and sustain human society in particular ecosystems.  This knowledge has been kept alive through the Aboriginal concept of the LAW, an understanding of the immutable rules of ecological relationships that underpin life on Earth.  This LAW is not ‘man made’ like the laws of modern society that evolved through political struggles in different countries, such as Magna Carta in Britain, and the French Revolution in France, which in turn informed the US Constitution—the world of political scientists and legislatures.  Rather it is what scientists might call the Laws of Nature, or Christians might call the Laws of God (creation)—the complex and intricate ways in which eco-systems work to sustain themselves.  When this law is broken, the result is not jail, it is eco-system collapse—the acidification of lakes and oceans destroying marine life, the loss of soil fertility required for crops, the pollution of air resulting in disease in oxygen dependent life forms, such as humans, the drying up of waterways needed to provide fresh water for humans and animals and vegetation.

Aboriginal society kept knowledge of THE LAW alive through ‘ceremony’, rich in cultural meaning transmitted through song, dance, art and story telling.  It made this LAW an intimate part of identity through the idea of each individual having a totemic relationship with other life forms, and through the animation of one’s country as one’s intimate family—a place of spiritual nourishment as well as source of livelihood.

The extent of climate change that has resulted from man made laws underpinning globalised industrial civilisation has brought into stark relief the role of THE LAW for human societies.  We are learning that we disobey this LAW at our peril, or more particularly the peril of our grandchildren as they confront the fallout of increasing desertification, loss of fresh water resources, life-theatening levels of air pollution, soil and land degradation, and the alarming rate of the warming of our planet Earth.THE LEGACY OF COLONISATION

Finding appropriate political expression for a just relationship with colonised indigenous peoples is one of the most important issues confronting political theory today. As important as it is to understand how western and especially liberal political theory is implicated in the justification of colonialism, it is even more important to determine whether this complex tradition of thought might provided space for the contemporary aspirations of indigenous peoples. (p. 2)LEGAL PLURALISM—CO-EXISTENCE WITH PARTIALLY AUTONOMOUS SOCIETIES

… The recognition of indigenous title appears not so much as the cut and dried incorporation of a discrete set of private rights, but the initiation of a longer process of interaction, mutual adaptation and incitement to reflection and reform. Native title is about the co-existence of partially autonomous societies, each with its own system of law, that must in some fashion, good or ill, relate to one another. Because of the challenges of adjustment – because of the sometimes profound differences of context and forms of social ordering – that process may only be achieved through mutual accommodation over the very long term. (p 70)INDIGENOUS PEOPLES AND MULTICULTURALISM IN AUSTRALIA

Since the 1970s indigenous issues have remained distinct from ‘multicultural affairs’ but have been incorporated into the state’s notion of cultural pluralism. As a result, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been relegated to the rhetorical status of ‘First Australians’, and aspects of our culture and art are appropriated to play a prominent role in constructing the spirit of the Australian nation. … This raises serous questions as to whether there is a genuine desire on the part of the Australian nation to change the present social, economic and political position of indigenous Australians or if it is simply about incorporating and containing us within the ‘culture’ areas of Australian society. (p 154)THE MULTIPLICITY OF INDIGENOUS ‘NATIONS’ IN AUSTRALIA


Political theorists, arguing for greater recognition of indigenous interests, frequently focus on the differences between indigenous and non-indigenous interests, downplaying or ignoring any differences between and among indigenous groups and interests. This apparent dichotomy between indigenous and non-indigenous interests can serve to mask the diversity of interests that indigenous people have, silence debate among indigenous peoples and/or support arguments against greater self-determination. (p. 165)ULURU STATEMENT FROM THE HEART

We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart: Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs.

This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors.

This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and coexists with the sovereignty of the Crown. How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?

With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood. Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem.

This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history. In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.