Back to Basics - Aboriginal Sovereignty


Michael Mansell

Michael Mansell KooriWeb September 1998

"Are we to accept that the current conservative trend in Australia means Aboriginal self-determination is nothing more than a distant dream?"

What has happened to the sovereign rights of Aborigines? Has the Aboriginal right to determine our own future somehow been lost, and with it any chance of regaining a just share of the lands so violently taken from us?

Are we to accept that the current conservative trend in Australia means Aboriginal self-determination is nothing more than a distant dream?

According to public opinion the biggest issue for Aborigines today is Native Title. Yet fewer than 10 per cent of Aborigines can successfully claim Native Title, and even then the chances of that small group feeling secure about their rights is undermined by constant threats from governments and corporate interests.

The remaining 350,000 Aborigines, or more importantly their rights, appear to have been all but put on the back-burner. Why is Native Title the dominant issue and is that the main right of Aboriginal people?

Who decides the Aboriginal Agenda
In the volatile 1970s the Aboriginal push for land rights forced the national Government to respond. The Northern Territory (Land Rights) Act 1976 was passed following very public agitation by Aborigines for land. The agenda was being driven by Aborigines and governments were forced to respond.

Since that time the 'big' national issues have been Black deaths in custody, reconciliation and Native Title. Only deaths in custody was driven by Aboriginal people as a public issue: both reconciliation and the Native Title debate were initiated by government - reconciliation began as an Act of the Commonwealth Parliament, and the Native Title issue has revolved around government dislike for the existence of Native Title.

If we are to believe the Federal Governments - either the Coalition or the ALP - Aboriginal rights must equate to, or nearly be equal to, the same rights white people enjoy in order to be supported by government.

The reason for this is both historical and racial. Australia always was a racist country and almost certainly for the foreseeable future will remain so. The interests of whites has always been the priority of governments. It must be expected to be in the future. But that is only relevant if governments and not Aborigines are dictating the agenda on Aboriginal rights. So what has happened to the Aboriginal leadership and what is its agenda?

One Nation or Two
Aborigines have rights that no others in Australia can legitimately claim. However, those broad rights have become subsumed by the "we're all one people in the one nation" slogan. Such simple slogans have their attractions, but only in the short term. They are also the grave for the fundamental rights and entitlements of Aboriginal people.

A closer look at the 'one nation' ideal reveals that everybody in it, theoretically, is to be treated the same as others. Aborigines should not get any more than others. A familiar chant?

Endorsing this "one nation" approach is the Reconciliation Council, whose Aboriginal members sound like they are programmed to spit out propaganda when their button is pushed rather than represent our needs. They are not alone.

At the national level ATSIC is under a state of siege. It cannot serve two masters. Under pressure it bows to Minister Herron. ATSIC seems incapable of providing direction.

Other Aboriginal leaders feel constrained by the current political climate. For them, pursuing Aboriginal demands depends on how much public support there is. In other words, Aboriginal justice is a matter of popular opinion. This approach explains why Aborigines are so well represented in Native Title or other technical matters - the leadership is now made up of technicians who work within a given agenda, but are not capable of creating the agenda.

We are a people, with people's rights
We are the first people of this land. We have suffered every indignity ever meted out to a people. Yet our strength is in our determination. We did not consent to the taking of our land, nor of the establishment of the nation of Australia on our country. Our consent to being subsumed within the Australian nation was neither sought nor given. Our sovereign rights as a people remain intact.

By virtue of those sovereign rights we are the sole decision-makers about what we need and will accept. We could insist that all crown lands be returned to us and that nothing could take place on those lands without our consent. We could establish our own government.

We might not want to. We might see it as being more practical to negotiate the types of powers our people may choose to exercise. We might agree that governments still collect revenue from our lands provided a portion of that revenue is returned to us. We might decide to reject any of these models and look at others.

The essential point is that sovereignty gives us a power base from which to dictate the agenda. It provides a focus on the fundamental rights of a people. It transforms us from a minority group seeking equality to a people whose consent is required before governments can take action which directly affects us. Sovereignty provides the leverage necessary to demand action from governments.

We need not necessarily set up our own government on our own lands, but we could always threaten to. There is nothing Canberra fears more than Aborigines challenging the legitimacy of government authority over Aborigines and our lands.

In practical terms, where do we begin to assert our sovereign rights? At the individual level it may be each of us getting an Aboriginal passport, signifying our loyalty to our nation, not one that has been imposed upon us.

It might be by a form of peaceful, civil disobedience such as refusing to obey procedures which allows for governments to claim we are part of their nation.

Examples are refusing to register newborn children under existing state laws, and instead registering children under Aboriginal birth certificates. Another is refusing to vote in general elections. Many Aboriginal people are already successfully doing these things.

At the collective level we must get our leadership to seriously understand sovereignty (it is often embarassing to hear some of our leaders yell sovereignty in the privacy of an Aboriginal meeting only to see them on television as self-professed Australians). We must meet and discuss it, its advantages and the responsibilities which attend it ...