In the absence of any recognition of our sovereignty as the first peoples of Australia, we suffer under a system that has as our head of state the British monarch. This is an anachronism in the modern era, when most other countries are self-governing and most of the world’s Indigenous peoples have treaties or some form of legal recognition of their rights as sovereign peoples.
Easter this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Irish uprising of 1916, led by the Republican Movement, better known as the IRA. It took bloody battles and the murder of many patriots before the 500-year invasion and occupation of Ireland by England was ended, and the south is now a Republic. Ireland was England’s template for global invasion and what is now politely referred to as ‘colonisation’.
Australia was the tail end of England’s centuries in perfecting this exercise. By the time we were invaded, the English had learnt that it was easier not to recognise the Indigenous peoples of any country they planned to annex. It treated Australia as ‘terra nullius’ – empty land there for the taking. This fallacy continued until the 1992 High Court case judged in Mabo II that this was legally incorrect and there was indeed a preexisting system of Indigenous rights: ‘native title’.
The next step should have been to revisit our claims for sovereignty, at the very least developing a treaty to address our rights as the first peoples of this country.
The renewed push for an Australian Republic is a fresh opportunity to continue the work Mabo started. If Australia does become a Republic, there comes the possibility to finally recognise the fact that none of us has ever ceded our sovereignty. In fact, our rights have been stolen and we are a subjugated people with few legal or political rights in the management of our own lands and communities. We can still be forcibly removed from our Countries and our families. Our children are being removed at higher rates than ever and we are the most incarcerated people in Australia.
There is no treaty or specific set of laws that enshrine our rights across this country. We have a patchy and disconnected set of laws that are not clearly identified unless you are familiar with the legal system. None of the laws relevant to us is written in any of our languages. By contrast, in New Zealand every law that relates to Maori is also written in Maori. So standardised are some legal concepts in Maori that the Maori term is used rather than English, even in the English version of the laws. Yet in Australia even our Native Title Act is written in English.
Many Aboriginal people across Australia in the Invasion Day rallies on 26 January called for recognition of our sovereignty and a treaty before or as part of the move to a Republic. I absolutely support this move.
Removing the British Crown from the legal and political leadership of Australia provides us with the chance to recognise the original leadership that existed for tens of thousands of years before 1788.
It wasn’t sheep, gold rushes or the mining industry that crafted this country – we did, in the face of massive global climate change, the ice age, beyond the era of megafauna and into what is now termed the anthropocene. We are the ‘anthros’, the people who made this place the attractive and productive country it is today, and we absolutely should be part of its ongoing management and governance. We are wise and knowledgeable about our Countries and the rest of Australia needs to mature to a point where it genuinely consults us and draws on our knowledge of land and people management.
The Republic could be a watershed moment for Australia to become a world leader in Indigenous rights and recognition.
It’s an opportunity to finally recognise and enshrine our sovereign rights, by developing a 21st century treaty that gives the original Australians a political and legal platform that includes us in its leadership in perpetuity. Let’s draw on this energy and together lift Australia to a position of world leadership in human rights.