Voting Rights and the Image of the Nomad

By Ambrose, Kurt | Melbourne Journal of Politics, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Voting Rights and the Image of the Nomad


Ambrose, Kurt, Melbourne Journal of Politics


Introduction

It is a feature of the literature surrounding Aboriginal identity that Aboriginal agency is most obvious and most easily detected in the period since 1967. For reasons of opportunism and imported practices and influences, the political possibilities since 1967 lend themselves to mobilisation around identity. It is often asserted that before 1967 Aboriginal politics was more concerned with issues of citizenship and the status and rights that citizenship entails. So before 1967, the story proceeds, Aborigines were either careful not to, or did not have the ideological means at their disposal to, challenge the nation-state and its ideological practices of assimilation.(1)

At first glance, the issue of voting rights fits neatly into this narrative surrounding Aboriginal identity. It is ostensibly concerned with the entry of Aborigines into the nation and endowing them with formal political rights. For all intents and purposes it can be cast as an assimilationist strategy of the nation-state. To be sure, this is how it was conceived by the state. But the debates and the inquiry into voting rights yield more than this. The ambiguous existence of Aborigines within the nation-state meant that the state's conception of voting rights did not go unchallenged, and because of this voting rights become the terrain for the intersection of assimilation, citizenship and identity discourses.

The aim of this paper is to examine the debates surrounding the Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines and the evidence gathered by that committee in order to demonstrate how Aborigines were able to subvert the dominant discourses of assimilation and citizenship through which voting rights were debated. As it will be shown, voting rights were conceived of by the Commonwealth Government from within the discourse of assimilation--the discourse it used to mediate its relationship with Aborigines. Citizenship discourse posed a challenge to the policy of assimilation. While assimilation promised equality of rights after `upliftment', arguments conceived within the discourse of citizenship premised on free and equal individuals demanded it immediately. These discourses, while standing in contradistinction to one another, formed the dialectic through which voting rights were construed. The problem, however, is that they did not allow for Aboriginal identity on its own terms. Assimilation created its own version of the `aboriginal' while citizenship discourse silenced difference.

The image of the `nomad'(2) is incorporated into the discourse of assimilation. Assimilation discourse reduces Aboriginality to the regressive image of the primitive, childlike, unsophisticated, illiterate, communal, yet cunning, Aboriginal subject which needs uplifting from the primitive state before it can be granted formal equality in Australian society. Aboriginality is thus juxtaposed to the progressive, modern, individuated European subject who embodies the Australian nation. Aborigines, so constructed, had to divest themselves of the vestiges of their culture (real or imagined) and conform to the particularities of the dominant national culture. Citizenship was reserved for those who it was deemed qualified in this regard. Assimilation thus held out the promise of the universal right of citizenship but it was withheld.

Because voting rights in regards to Aborigines were conceived by the state in assimilation discourse, Aborigines had to be assessed as to their abilities to appreciate this privilege. A Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines (hereafter Select Committee) was established, and even though part of its terms of reference allowed for no conditions and qualification to be placed upon the right, the very fact that there needed to be an inquiry presupposed at least a degree Aboriginal inability. But `nomads' pushed beyond the purview of the state could not be interviewed. Instead, the image of the `nomad', the quintessential Aboriginal `other', shadowed the debate on voting rights and the evidence collected by the Select Committee. …

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