Aboriginal nationhood?

September 11, 1996

Aboriginal Sovereignty — Three Nations, One Australia? is a new book by controversial author and historian HENRY REYNOLDS. Published by Allen & Unwin at $17.95, it calls for the establishment of three nations within one Australian state as a recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander autonomy.

On a visit to Sydney to promote the book, Reynolds spoke to Green Left's CHRIS MARTIN.

As with his earlier works, Reynolds provides a meticulous study of colonial history, this time examining the legal basis of Britain's original occupation.

In the absence of a treaty, Reynolds concludes, this occupation was and remains illegal under international law. He argues that Aboriginal sovereignty, based on Aboriginal law and custom, was neither ceded nor taken by conquest in a declared war, and Australia must follow worldwide efforts to redress such dispossession.

"I think there's generally now a much greater recognition of indigenous peoples as distinctive peoples or nations, who have rights under international law ... I think there's a general understanding that such groups have a right to run their own affairs, to have their traditional land rights respected and to preserve their cultures", he said.

Reynolds' argument hinges on the recognition of Aboriginal "nationhood", a unified national identity wrought by the 600 culturally distinct indigenous peoples which existed in 1788. This identity, Reynolds believes, developed from an "underlying cultural, economic and social unity" which was "confirmed by their common experience" of mistreatment.

"Their experiences with Europeans increased their sense of common identity. That doesn't mean that people don't also have a strong identity in their own community; of course they do. But that doesn't preclude a pan-Aboriginal identity", he said.

Reynolds sees this process culminating with the emergence of the modern land rights movement as an expression of nationhood.

"The land rights movement was obviously the single most unifying element. Nationalisms are created, politically created, and the common cause of land was clearly very important in bringing people together. Giving people a common cause, a common agenda, common slogans, it was a major factor in the evolution of this sense of common identity."

Reynolds compares the arguments of those who now question Aboriginal national identity with traditional defences of colonialism.

"That sort of argument is the sort that has always been used by the colonists about nationalist movements: 'Don't listen to those nationalists, they don't speak for the real people, the tribal leaders are the important people' — that's the classic story of the resistance to colonial nationalism", he said.

This "classic story" was echoed when the minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, Senator Herron, told ABC Radio that he favoured more decision making by "tribal elders". Herron described his government's assault on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) as a move to stop "trying to force a white system of government" on Aboriginal people.

Reynolds maintains that the current attacks, though serious, will not hold back Aboriginal aspirations, saying the Liberals "want to go back to the past, which is impossible". The absence of will within the Labor opposition, however, he sees as a real obstacle. "It's most important that Labor puts its mind to these questions, moving on from where they were", he said.

With the Mabo ruling, Reynolds believes, the High Court has done only half the job, challenging property rights but failing to address sovereignty. Citing Canada's success in recognising its indigenous peoples and negotiating with them on a government to government basis, Reynolds argues, "It's that sort of equality that we have to reach.

"It gives the respect in the law to say, 'Look, this was a viable, ongoing society that had government and law before we arrived, and they not only deserve respect in the past but they deserve the respect in the present of being recognised as a distinctive nation."

Aboriginal Sovereignty has not been without criticism. Sydney University academic Rod Petty told a recent conference on The Future of Nationalism and the State that throughout the book "Reynolds essentially endorses the arguments of Aboriginal patriots such as Kevin Gilbert, Bobbi Sykes and Michael Mansell, without acknowledgment". Mansell was unavailable for comment this week.

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