The Uluru Statement and Manus Island: How the settler colonial state of exception compounds race and the necessity for a Republic of Australia

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, [and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown].

  Excerpt from the Uluru Statement from the Heart

Like many Australians I have long felt the need to live in a new Republic of Australia. For me it would not be sufficient to merely reorganise the pieces on the chessboard, to relabel the existing system of governance and have an appointed President. I see the need to address the deep and abiding schisms in Australian society by finding a way to re-constitute the relationship of all the peoples of Australia as citizens of a new Republic. This requires a new chessboard; a new Constitution for a Republic of Australia.

Unyielding stands and associated high-levels of resistance in the vexed field of race relations in Australian society have increased exponentially over recent years and Australian borders, geographical and social, have been hardening. This has occurred alongside increasing acts of state-based violence against people of what is defined as “different” racial backgrounds including Muslims and minority African peoples. Notably, Aboriginal Australians have experienced an increase in state and vigilante violence, torture and death since the introduction of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) that occurred only through a suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975). Also notable is the ongoing incarceration, torture and violence meted out to refugees on Manus Island.

In the face of this, many Australians are asserting a stand for human rights and social justice. Australians have had to decide where they stand in debates about race, gender identity, and our relationship to the rest of the world – essentially the importance or not of human rights and social justice for minorities – in ways that are unprecedented in our history. We are currently severely held back by an existing Constitution forged in the depths of colonialism and of white Australian ideology, a constitution “forged in stone”.

This process of developing a new Australian Republic would firstly bring together what might seem to be unrelated groups of people. However, there are already foundational documents that indicate new theory to ground relationships in a common way, through the bond created by Indigenous sovereignty. These are not merely partisan critiques of the existing settler colonial state; when brought together, they can be seen as a blueprint for ways forward towards a society that embodies a deep humanity. Since the modern democratic system we now have is essentially flawed by its origins, and its relationship to minorities, on the grounds of race and gender in particular, it is in these critiques that we can find a united way forward. The groups that constitute Australian society now include a huge diversity and the voices of all of these people need to be reflected in any new Constitution. A discussion of these groups and the documents that begin to show us constructive, humanitarian ways forward is a beginning for considering a new Republic and the shape it can take.

The voice for change in white settler colonial society

White settler colonials whose origins are mainly in the United Kingdom, including the Irish who have suffered historical exclusion and ostracism, are the majority population. There are many voices for change amongst this group. An exemplar for documents representative of this voice include the Paul Keating Redfern speech of 1993 and his second speech marking the 23rd anniversary of the original landmark speech. In the first he laid the problems with and within Aboriginal communities squarely at the door of settler colonialism that has historically violently dispossessed and subsequently disregarded Aboriginal people to the point of nihilism. The tropes of “a lost culture” and “the last of her tribe” was genocidal wishful thinking; Keating counters this with “we” as the settler colonial, being culpable for Aboriginal dispossession when he addressed a large crowd in Redfern, the focus of Aboriginal resistance in NSW.

In the second speech Keating urges Australians to think more like Indigenous Australians think. This is important because the country is ours and as a people we know more about how to live here than anyone else. We know that the values and ethics imbued within our philosophy and ways of being work for the wellbeing of the whole humanity. The late Aboriginal custodian and intellectual, senior lawman of the Ngarinyin people of the West Kimberley, David Mowaljarli said:

“We are really sorry for you people. We cry for you because you haven’t got meaning of culture in this country. We have a gift we want to give you. We keep getting blocked from giving you that gift. We get blocked by politics and politicians. We get blocked by media, by process of law. All we want to do is come out from under all of this and give you this gift. And it’s the gift of pattern thinking. It’s the culture which is the blood of this country, of Aboriginal groups, of the ecology, of the land itself.”

Who speaks for other migrants?

Then there are the other newcomers, known as migrants by settler colonial Australia, placing them a step outside of legitimacy. These people have come from all corners of the Earth, from South Asia, the countries of the Middle East and of Africa, since the First Fleet and ongoing; from China from the mid-nineteenth century particularly to the goldfields; from Japan, China and Indonesia with the pearling industry; and from Greece and Italy since the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century increasingly from Europe following the first and second World Wars, from Vietnam following the Vietnam War and increasingly from the Middle East and Africa following wars and famine in their regions.

The document that underscores the need for a new relationship with Indigenous Australia and hence a way forward in terms of reconstitutioning relationships between migrants and the settler colonial state, is Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier: Manifesto for a White Australian Philosophy of Origins developed by Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos. In this coherent philosophical treatise they seek to establish a basis from which white Australia can renegotiate their basis of being in this country through recognition of their current being as occupier of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands.

“Unable to retreat from the land we have occupied since 1788, and lacking the courage unconditionally to surrender power to the Indigenous peoples, white Australia has become ontologically disturbed. Suffering what we describe as ‘onto-pathology’, white Australia has become dependent upon ‘the perpetual-foreigners-within’, those migrants in relation to whom the so-called ‘old-Australians’ assert their imagined difference.”

Further, Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos argue that the white Australian state recruits new waves of migrants into the criminal will of the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of their lands, and to reassert terra nullius through an assimilation that comes with property owning status. This bestows defacto loyalty to the settler colonial state through complicity in the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

They argue that the way to address this onto-pathological emptiness of being that occurs because of an alienation from the criminal past and thus an inability to imagine a future unrestrained by the colonialist precepts of power, is to surrender to Indigenous sovereignty. It is only by this surrender to the reality of legitimate Indigenous sovereignty that white Australian subjects, migrants and refugees can achieve sovereignty.

Refugees (or waiting-to-be-migrants): Behrouz Boochani on Manus Island

Refugees must be included here in this discussion even though many believe they have no foothold in Australia. From our history of incorporation of migrants and refugees many who are now citizens were once refugees, or are descended from refugees. The fact that currently some 600 people are interred on Manus Island under the jurisdiction of the Australian government, they are in fact part of the setter colonial state’s jurisdiction, and must be a part of considerations for a new Republic.

The inspiring documents outlining the political positioning of the Manus Island detainees and foundations for discussions on a new Republic are the writings and the film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, of the Iranian Behrouz Boochani.

His most recent Letter from Manus  Boochani outlines the necessity for non-violent resistance, for love and co-operation, in the face of inhuman treatment. For the people on Manus Island, subject to the gross inhumanity of statelessness, rejection, ostracism and labelling as deviant, being deprived of food, water and medical treatment, the assertion of their dignity and humanity became most important. This letter from Manus I believe needs to be a foundational document for the development of a new Australian Republic.

The impact of Aboriginal voices on the new Republic

The final group of people are who have come to be known as Indigenous Australians, including Aboriginal people across the continent and Torres Strait Islander peoples who originate in the one location, the northern strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The people of the Torres Strait were wholly included within Australian jurisdictions following World War Two. By now Torres Strait Islander people live in a wide variety of locations across the country. The South Sea Islander people who are here as a result of the Pacific human trade from the 1860s and who remain in spite of a program of forced deportation back to the Pacific following the passing of the White Australian immigration policy of 1901 (tellingly the first legislation of the new Australian Federation of the states) are also a distinct Indigenous group. They too suffer from a high degree of blindness on the part of modern Australian democracy. Importantly, there is a high degree of intermarriage of these three groups and many people have descent from two or three of the groups mentioned above as Indigenous.

The history of Aboriginal engagement with the settler colonial state can be seen as the rebuttal of a series of attempts by Aboriginal groups to seek human rights and social justice. Something like citizenship. However, they are excluded from the Australian democratic system of governance. Most recently devastating has been the disregard shown to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Even though this statement does not go far enough in the opinion of some key Aboriginal community representatives, it was an outstretched hand.  While the introductory paragraphs assert Aboriginal sovereignty, the following request for an advisory body comes wholly within the existing settler colonial structure of governance.

The introductory section quoted at the beginning of this post has “and co-exist with the sovereignty of the Crown” bracketed because the acceptance of the sovereignty of the Crown is anathema to the majority of Aboriginal people. We need a Republic. Suggesting an Aboriginal advisory to settler colonial government is not the same as being a part of that governance through the reconstituting of the Australian state into a new Republic.

Notwithstanding, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a deeply powerful statement on Aboriginal sovereignty and an important foundational document for the new Republic of Australia.

The state of exception to the Australian state.

What many people now understand is that the plight of all Indigenous peoples in Australia and that of refugees are inexorably joined together, what cogently explains this is that both groups exist in a state of exception to the Australian settler colonial state. Given the nature of the state of exception, as theorised by Georgio Agamben, solutions to this do not exist within modern democracies. In fact they rely for their very existence on a state of exception as a rationale for being. And all the violence of the state is vested on the bodies of those in a state of exception. Agamben advises that it is essential to build a new state apparatus with the rights of minorities at its core in order to address this violence. This I argue is why we need a new Republic of Australia.

There is a mood for change developing and the people are rising. Important allies of the movement for change are growing from within the Australian community. And these allies are likely to support human rights and social justice for Indigenous peoples, for refugees, indeed for all peoples. They recognise the similarity of their struggle, many recognise that it is one struggle. This could now shift to the level of real structural change. A struggle for a new negotiated and agreed constitution that will address the need for social justice and human rights through the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty in a new Republic of Australia.


See also:

Migratory Austerity: Colonial Law’s Slow Violence

Dr Victoria Grieves-Williams, Honorary Indigenous Research Fellow at the University of Sydney is the lead CI on the ARC DI project Children Born of War: Australia and the War in the Pacific 1941 - 1945. She is an Aboriginal person; an historian engaged in intersectionality and interdisciplinary ways to progress critical Indigenous theory. She has published on Aboriginal philosophy and Indigenous wellbeing, Aboriginal history, environmental humanities and the relationship of Aboriginal people to the Australian state.


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