Citizenship, History and Indigenous Status in Australia: Back to the Future, or toward Treaty?
Bradfield, Stuart, Journal of Australian Studies
Australia remains unique among settler societies in not signing treaties with local Indigenous peoples, nor recognising their prior occupation in foundational documents like the Constitution. States such as Canada and New Zealand are currently seeking to ameliorate previous non-recognition via negotiated settlements, treaty processes, and even redrawing their internal boundaries to accommodate Indigenous autonomy. Given that these developments build on historical recognitions of Indigenous status that simply never happened on this continent, it may not be surprising that processes of negotiation remain less developed in Australia. Yet the fact is that such processes are largely absent, not simply underdeveloped. Perhaps more alarmingly, at the beginning of the twenty-first century there seems little appetite for a national dialogue on the question of creative new ways to accommodate Indigenous political aspirations.
For many Australians, the articulation of a distinct Indigenous identity challenges notions of 'one Australia'. Cultural representations of Aboriginality are acceptable and may even be presented as 'Australian', such as on a Qantas jet, or when we bask in the reflected glory of Indigenous art's international popularity. However, overtly political claims are more worrying, being viewed not on their own merits but largely in terms of their ability to upset the unity of the state. Arguments for people-to-people negotiations or a treaty relationship are hardly heard because of the degree to which non-Indigenous Australians have psychologically as well as institutionally absorbed Indigenous peoples into the state. It is then conceptually incoherent to 'treat with oneself'.
An alternative position was argued in novel fashion by Patrick Dodson in his 'Wentworth Lecture' of 2000. (1) In it he identified twin Indigenous aspirations of exercising a distinct identity and retaining the protection of Australian citizenship. Despite fears to the contrary, Dodson felt these aspirations could be realised in a way that strengthens rather than undermines the unity of the state. This, he believes, can take place through a formal treaty process that sets out the proper protocols for a just relationship between peoples.
This article seeks to analyse these positions in terms of their conception of Indigenous status. At a superficial level, we see a battle between those who advocate 'assimilation' and those who demand 'separatism'. A key weapon in this battle is the deployment of particular views of history. However, both these extremes seem unrealistic given the strength of Indigenous identity on the one hand, and the continued dominance of 'European' institutions on the other. With this in mind, Patrick Dodson's vision of distinct but coexisting peoples seems more in tune with the reality that more than one people, or 'nation', must share this continent. Any attempt to go 'back to the future' by slotting Indigenous people into assumed structures appears doomed. Developing a negotiated, or treaty, relationship may be one way of affirming the legitimacy of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous identities in Australia.
Back to the future: citizenship not Aboriginality
Australia's political culture is devoid of a tradition of explicitly recognising, negotiating and accommodating the rights of those peoples present before European occupation. The relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples has thus been dominated by the ongoing dynamic of colonialism. Given this history, developing a culture of negotiation would take time, and would be reliant upon grasping opportunities, making mistakes, and learning through practice. In a very real sense, the opportunity to fundamentally alter relations only came about in 1992 with the High Court's recognition of native title in Mabo. (2) In determining the continued existence of rights which inhered in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it raised the possibility of Australia as home to two or more nations or peoples. …