In the regional dialogues leading up to the recent Uluru First Nations Constitutional Convention, Indigenous people attempted to reclaim the debate about constitutional reform by speaking against minimalist recognition. Many people expressed a desire to get out from under the European terms of the Australian Constitution.
One way of expressing a strong Indigenous voice is through the language of ‘sovereignty’. It’s as if it possesses a certain magic. ‘Sovereignty’ was used at Uluru too, with the statement saying that a spiritual form of First Nations sovereignty ‘has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown’.
The co-existence of sovereignties sounds like the best of both worlds, but the relationship between Indigenous people and the state is particularly tricky. And rather than navigating this relationship deftly, the statement falls into common traps that see Indigenous people incorporated into mainstream political administration on European-Australian terms.
The statement asserts that current rates of incarceration, child removals and youth detention ‘tell plainly the structural nature of our problem’. Using this statistical platform is a common rhetorical strategy, but it does not reveal the basis of the problem. The statistics are the result of colonisation, not a structural source.
The source of the problem lies in the encounter between two previously discrete peoples, and the dispossession and overrunning of one by the other. Statistics about disadvantage cannot capture that. Instead, they give the mistaken impression that disadvantage can be solved by policy-making on the terms of those who did the over-running. Policy on these terms has been unsatisfactory.
The statement also seeks ‘constitutional reforms to empower our people to take a rightful place in our own country’. But if this rightful place is informed by the assertion of a sovereignty that was never ceded, then such a place already exists. It does not need to be empowered or sought within other people’s constitutions, though it does need to be recognised alongside settler sovereignty.
Finally, the Uluru statement seeks a ‘better future’ through ‘self-determination’. But self-determination is a European-Australian value which provides the right to participate in the democratic process of governance to influence one’s future. Since 1972 Indigenous people have pursued this path of participation within Australia’s administrative structures, through a range of vehicles such as the NACC, NAC, ATSIC and the IAC.
All these vehicles played an advisory role. In a re-enactment of this familiar position, the statement calls for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution’. Such a voice might provide advice to the parliament, but would play second fiddle to parliamentary sovereignty.
Underlying this call and much of the statement is an assumption that the institutions of the state are appropriate to articulate Indigenous rights and interests. This is misleading because the institutions of the state reflect the ideals, interests, preferences, habits and cultural biases of those who brought this system to these shores.
If Indigenous people are seeking to assert their voice, it should be a voice that is authored by themselves rather than prompted by colonisers.
And if we are to have a serious exchange, then Indigenous forms of sovereignty, rather than pragmatic expediency, need to have a central role in framing the conversation.
Lyndon Murphy (Southern Cross University). Mary Graham is a Kombumerri woman and Adjunct Associate Professor at The University of Queensland. Morgan Brigg is a Senior Lecturer at The University of Queensland.