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Zionism for Aboriginal Australians
Instead of the Voice, why not real sovereignty for Aboriginal Australians?
Ahead of Yom Kippur, wishing my Jewish readers a g'mar chatima tova and an easy and meaningful fast.
In this Kvetch:
The Voice is mercurial but is really about sovereignty
What might real Aboriginal sovereignty look like? (Why the Voice, treaties and native title are poor substitutes for a nation)
The feminisation of Aboriginal nationalism
A Zion for Aboriginal Australians
On 14 October Australians will vote whether to insert an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament into the constitution.
One reason the discourse has been deranged is that it’s promising different things to different people. To activists it is a path to treaties and a measure of sovereignty. To the Australian public it’s sold mainly as symbolic recognition and a way to improve the miserable lot of Australian Aborigines.
The problem for proponents is that even with all the goodwill in the world, Australians find it tough to believe that one might look upon the violence and dysfunction of Aboriginal townships and urban communities and decide that the solution is… a change to the Australian constitution. A constitutional body representing indigenous Australians to give advice to Parliament. A new race-based1 bureaucracy.2
The Voice can’t be about addressing a lack of representation: indigenous Australians are over-represented in Australia’s Federal parliament with 11 parliamentarians (4.3% of parliamentarians vs 3.2% of Australians). The Voice is the newest in a long line of similar bodies, previously abolished for corruption and ineptitude. Of course, it can’t be abolished if it’s in the constitution — which campaigners would have us believe is a feature. Parliamentarians are not the only indigenous ‘voice’ either. John Anderson AC writes:
Over the years we’ve had numerous voices to Parliament, none of which have achieved that ultimate goal of ‘closing the gap’ between many, but by no means all, indigenous communities and the rest of Australia. Even now we have 50 peak indigenous bodies representing around 3000 Aboriginal organisations, and they are able to liaise with the minister for Indigenous affairs that every state and territory in Australia has. Indigenous Australians, like all other Australians, already have many voices.
We need to realise that indigenous people don’t suffer from the lack of a Voice, or voices, but a lack of solutions to the cycle of fatherlessness, domestic violence, substance abuse and poor education that grips certain communities.
Identifying the sorry state of indigenous communities as the problem is a confusing place to start when pondering the Voice, because obviously a new race-based bureaucracy is a non-sequitur.
Yet it’s one of the proponents’ arguments, albeit only ever couched in the vaguest of terms. Here is a typical article (from The Guardian), noting that a Voice is the first step to the negotiation of a treaty with Australia:
Why do First Nations want to negotiate a treaty or treaties?
“So that we can overcome those huge injustices that still, unfortunately, persist in our society,” the Queensland treaty advancement committee co-chair Dr Jackie Huggins said this week.
“The path to treaty is about how we mend the very fabric of our society.”
And what about the view that treaties are only symbolic; they don’t achieve practical change?
If done right, treaties allow Aboriginal people to run their own affairs, the NT acting treaty commissioner, Tony McAvoy, told the ABC in March.
“When Aboriginal communities [and] Aboriginal organisations design and deliver the services for Aboriginal people, those services are the most effective at that time. We would see a significant change in the levels of disadvantage if we’re able to ensure those governments are supported and properly resourced to do the work,” McAvoy said.
The very fabric of our society. Are any of the bolded claims true? But we’re getting closer to the nub of the derangement. The source of the confusion is that none of this is about improving the state of indigenous Australians, and answers to that effect can only ever sound hollow. So what is it about?
The Voice and treaties are about sovereignty. Aboriginal leaders seek self-government. This isn’t a secret. Former Chief Justice Robert French wrote about it in exactly those terms. Terms like self-determination are bandied about occasionally. These ideas are at least decades old, since the Federal government shifted away from a policy of assimilation to one of self-determination in the 1960 — 70s. But it’s missing from the current debate, as proponents seek to minimise it before the Australian public vote on the referendum (the Prime Minister disingenuously denies the Voice is a path to treaty).
Part of the reason the public mood is so conflicted on the subject is that the Voice’s ethno-centrism flies against the last few decades of Australian national mythology. Australians self-flagellate about the Anglo origins of modern Australia and the White Australia immigration policies of the first half of the twentieth century, and believed the “multiculturalism” that bloomed in the second half — and the mass immigration since — was the remedy to the stain of racism. The Voice seems to run against that grain — against the spirit of a multicultural Australia. It claims that some ethno-centricity is good after all (but definitely still not the Anglo kind).
But what is not understandable about a people’s desire for sovereignty? Aborigines were here first. The British came and claimed this land and build these cities and mined its minerals — and the first peoples are left on the destitute fringes.
Self-determination is an admirable aspiration for any people. It has inspired the Jewish people for millennia, culminating in the realisation of that dream in the establishment of Israel in 1948. It has been the intermittent aspiration of other minority groups in the US — notably Native Americans and even African Americans. Proposals for a return to Africa for African Americans or for an independent state within the US have peppered its history. The Irish Home Rule party and movement was a powerful and successful independence movement in Britain. There are many others worldwide.
These nationalist movements are often enmeshed with a land — historically and even spiritually.
[Indigenous activist Noel Pearson] has often described our two peoples as sharing a ‘land-based identity’ – historical and spiritual
So said Mark Leibler, a prominent Jewish Zionist activist and prominent Voice supporter.
Jewish nationalism culminated in Israel, Irish Home Rule in Ireland, American Black Nationalism was vibrant and violent if more confused and unsuccessful (see for example the Republic of New Afrika). Yet we never hear of Aboriginal nationalism.
Let us take the suggestion seriously, as we ought for any noble people. Nyunggai Warren Mundine admires the transformation of South Korea from an agricultural backwater into a technologically advanced nation over a single generation. Why can’t indigenous Australians aspire to some version of their own culturally distinct modern destiny?
What might that look like?
A Nation for Aborigines
One problem, much feted by the likes of Mundine, is that there is no one Aboriginal people. At the time of settlement there were hundreds of groups with their own customs and languages. Which is completely unsurprising given the vastness of the continent. There were once 70 languages in the Republic of Georgia, which is a tenth the size of New South Wales alone.
Less feted is the fact it’s even more complicated than that. People are not static — certainly not over thousands of years (let alone tens of thousands of years) and even less so nomadic peoples. Take the Comanche in the US: it took the introduction of the Arab steed by Spanish conquistadores to transform the Comanche from a struggling fringe mountain people into the terrifying mounted-warrior empire they became — at one time even the largest slaveholders in the American Southwest. Who did the Gadigal people or the Eora people — now engraved forever into plaques around Sydney — conquer or displace and when? Probably lost to time.
Regardless of history, the fact of ~500 Aboriginal ‘nations’ is a cop out. The rise of nations is the story of violent agglomeration, of one language and culture dominating the rest to form a single fist. Aside from the example of Georgia above, in France Abbé Grégoire's linguistic survey of 1790 revealed that three quarters of the population knew some French, but only just over 10% could speak it properly. France, like basically every nation, is a relatively new construct forged through blood and technology.
The Jews prior to 1948 were deeply fragmented too — culturally, linguistically, and basically in every way people can be different from one another. Here is Stefan Zweig in his memoir describing the milieu of Jews forced together through persecution during WWII (he killed himself in 1942, before the establishment of Israel):
[O]ne group no longer understood the other, melted down into other peoples as they were, more Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, Russians than they were Jews. Only now, since they were swept up like dirt in the streets and heaped together, the bankers from their Berlin palaces and sextons from the synagogues of orthodox congregations, the philosophy professors from Paris, and Rumanian cabbies, the undertaker’s helpers and Nobel prize winners, the concert singers, and hired mourners, the authors and distillers, the haves and the have-nots, the great and the small, the devout and the liberals, the usurers and the sages, the Zionists and the assimilated, the Ashkenasim and the Sephardim, the just and the unjust besides which the confused horde who thought that they had long since eluded the curse, the baptized and the semi-Jews—only now, for the first time in hundreds of years the Jews were forced into a community of interest to which they had long ceased to be sensitive, the ever-recurring—since Egypt— community of expulsion.
So the fact of indigenous fragmentation is not in itself an antidote to indigenous nationhood. Consolidation may need its own set of conditions: perhaps violence or persecution or some other ideological or economic imperative. Perhaps a great leader — a Theodore Herzl or Lee Kuan Yew or Cecil Rhodes.
Or maybe its moment has passed in history and the world has agreed to set in stone more or less the current family of nations.
But let us assume that is surmountable.
These are the options for an Aboriginal nation:
All of Australia
Bits of Australia
A state within Australia
1. All of Australia
You’d think 1 would be extremely unlikely. Some 26 million Australians live here who probably wouldn’t care for that. Yet it is probably a common enough view that British settlement was illegal / immoral in the cosmic sense, and it all belongs to Aboriginal Australians. Here is how the Melbourne-based journalists at The Guardian put it in an article titled Who owns Australia?:
Who owns the Australian outback is a vexed question. The true answer is First Nations peoples, whose ownership stems back 60,000 years.
These are probably (?) empty words to denote fealty and respect rather than literal sovereignty, but who knows with these people. So Muh-lbourne!
2. Bits of Australia
This is basically the current system under ‘native title’. Without diving into the complicated legal history and theory of native title, in the 1992 Mabo decision Australia’s High Court found pre-existing native title rights to exist on land under certain conditions. Like Spanish Catholic priests handwringing through intricate theological debates over the Crown’s dominion of peoples in the New World, so two centuries after settlement the Australian High Court judges ‘discovered’ that certain land rights pre-existed British settlement, survived settlement, and were protected by the Australian legal system. Perhaps no single judicial decision in history has partitioned more landmass than that decision. (Is it surprising that Australians are reticent to change the constitution and hand more power to future High Courts to go on their policy jaunts?) It led to a framework for negotiating and recognising native title rights, which typically involve negotiations between indigenous groups and governments or other parties regarding land use and access. So far 54% Australia’s landmass has been successfully claimed (27% exclusively).
This might seem shocking to you. It probably would to most Australians too, who have never seen this map. Most Australians live in a few cities dotted on the coasts. Mining and agricultural companies have learned to negotiate (and pay off) this web of claims and interest groups. But other than that, it does not figure much in the imagination of an urban nation. Half the nation’s landmass slipped under the table like a dirty note.
But this is hardly self-determination. The winners of these arrangements are not ‘nations’, but an opaque mix of families and individuals and communal groups. And individual indigenous Australians cannot own private property on native title land! As I wrote in my review of Mundine’s memoir:
With everything we know about wealth creation — urbanisation, coastal access (read: ports), property rights and free-markets, — you could not devise a system that was more destined to poverty and abuse: arid, regional communities with no private property rights. The Australian government spends $30 billion p.a on indigenous people, and doesn’t make a dent in their immiseration and we wonder why: we have ensconced them in their own ethno-communist dystopia.
This is the place we’ve landed as a result of hodge-podge legal theory, accommodating legislation, litigation and negotiation. It’s shockingly ambitious in one respect — 54%! — and yet has done little to lift indigenous Australians out of poverty.
3. A State within Australia
This seems extremely plausible. Surely some portion of the 54% successfully claimed land can be carved out into a fully fledged Aboriginal state. There are many nations with much larger populations with much smaller footprints.
Why isn’t that being proposed? Let’s think even beyond the land claimed under Native Title. Say, ambitiously, the Northern Territory. Or countless other smaller slices of Australia along its infinite coastline, or probably less appealing, its desert heart. Australians would no doubt be generous with a parting gift — $100 billion, say? (Germany paid Israel US$87 billion from 1945 to 2018, which presumably sets a bookend for reparations, albeit it looks rather meagre besides the $30 billion paid per annum to indigenous people today). There is plenty of space to create a new Aboriginal state with real sovereignty. If millions of Jews can leave dozens of nations to found a nation under immediate attack, surely the orderly creation of a state within Australia is a cakewalk.
Isn’t this the most ambitious and satisfying of objectives? Indigenous Australians could have a state of their own, far larger than the miraculous successes of the twentieth century like Israel of Singapore of South Korea. And yet we hear nothing. This was not the request to come out of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”. Instead there is a proposal for a Voice in order to negotiate a treaty. Abstractions that are many steps removed — if contemplated at all — from a fully fledged state. Instead of a state, they propose a race-based committee as an appendage to Australia’s constitution.
This is both a disappointingly low-agency model for indigenous sovereignty, and sufficiently aggravating to existing Australian institutions, adding ethnocentricity and increasing bureaucratisation. The Voice is a parasitic organisation by design — bureaucrats and sinecures, without responsibility, accountability or sovereignty. It is rightly abhorred by some Aboriginal nationalists as being insufficient. It looks like a bureaucracy to feed a new elite with no benefit to indigenous Australians. And it vandalises one of the most enduring democratic traditions in the world, inserting race where there is universalism.
Yet I would be supportive of genuine sovereignty for Aboriginal Australians, at a very real cost to Australia in land and money. Such a claim would be deeply sympathetic. And certainly better than the thousand cuts of land claims and strange, patronising ritualisation of land acknowledgments that’s somehow bled into the mainstream over the last decade.
So where is it?
Such a proposal cannot be merely granted, it must be sought.
And its absence is deeply pessimistic. That Aboriginal leaders would rather skirt true sovereignty to instead live as an appendage to their alleged oppressor seems both suspect and unhealthy. Perhaps there is no Theodore Herzl or Lee Kuan Yew among Aboriginal Australians to lead them out of the desert to their Promised Land. Perhaps this is not a united people that believe in their self-determination, divinely destined or otherwise.
A skeptic might warn about what such a state might become: a failed one, like Papua New Guinea perhaps. And embraced within the Australian continent, it would not be a true separation, with its problems quickly becoming Australia’s problems. And so, such a skeptic might argue, this would not be creating a sovereign solution, but just another problem enmeshed in the web of indigenous disadvantage and land claims.
Remote communities are effectively self-governing today, by virtue of remoteness and general outside disinterest if nothing else. But some are more formally political semi-autonomous — like these 103,000 square kilometres of country wholly owned by the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) who “have lived here for tens of thousands of years”.4 APY Lands occupy “more territory than almost half the countries in the world” and visitors require a permit to enter. Is this an optimistic or pessimistic vision? Could be worse I guess.
Yet it is the job of the righteous Aboriginal nationalist who would claim a land for their people and true sovereignty to prove skeptics wrong and to build a nation. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard once asked what it would take to turn Darwin into Singapore. Where is the Aboriginal nationalist ready to build the Aboriginal Israel?
Perhaps Aboriginal Australians don’t want their own state, don’t want a divorce, but want to be part of a united Australia. Such is the view of Senator Jacinta Price, who eviscerated the independence movement and claimed a place in modern Australia for her (Aboriginal) people. This is also admirable, and probably the default position of Australians, who have spent decades kowtowing to and subsidising indigenous causes with hundreds of billions of dollars. That "[o]f the billions that are churned into the space very little hits grassroots communities", per indigenous activist and Professor Megan Davis, only goes to show the (generously put) ineffectiveness of the organisations that today deploy these funds.
Feminisation of Aboriginal nationalism
The chauvinistic black nationalism of the 1960’s, the invective of Malcolm X, the invocation of Christian scripture or of Islam, the gun toting masculinity of the Black Panthers all now cede to a coalition of black women and “queer bodies”.
Instead of masculine nationalism (forceful demands for national sovereignty and known borders) we get the Voice — a consultative body whose purpose and even name is to talk, championed by women:
This is an explicit feature of the proposal. Professor Megan Davis opens this piece from 9 September 2023 titled The voice will let our women speak:
Constitutional recognition through a voice is also recognition of Aboriginal women’s voices and our girls’ voices in Australian democracy.
And why not? In modern Australia Aboriginal women deserve to enjoy the same emancipation gained by women in the west over thousands of years of progress. In rejecting Aboriginal sovereignty, Senator Jacinta Price has chosen women’s rights over traditional culture.
This is how Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore described the state of women in the Eora nation around Botany Bay at the time of first settlement:
women had no rights at all and could choose nothing. She was the absolute property of her kin until marriage, whereupon she became the equally helpless possession of her husband
Wives were given to guests as hospitality or traded between men before battle to seal bonds of brotherhood. They were offered to enemies to make peace. If she refused she was beaten or speared.
Women today are often the disproportionate victims — beaten, raped or otherwise abused in wildly disproportionate numbers. Here is Helen Andrews on the conditions that led to the Howard Intervention in 2007:
There were towns where it was basically impossible for a girl to make it through adolescence without being sexually abused. Across the territory, hundreds of girls between 12 and 15 (out of a total Indigenous population of less than 60,000) were presenting at clinics with venereal diseases every year.
Usually women, but not always.
Once in a while, a particularly egregious case would make it into the national media, like the 11-year-old boy hog-tied and gang-raped repeatedly for months in Maningrida.
Yet, why the Voice then, when 6 of 11 indigenous Federal Parliamentarians today are women? Megan Davis pre-empts this rebuttal:
The stock standard response of “No” to this argument will be that there are Aboriginal women in parliament now. But basic civics education tells us that Australian democracy functions in a way that those women represent their electorates
In other words, the Westminster system of electoral representation is insufficient. She’d prefer ethnic representation. Would she support that for the 5.5% Chinese Australians? Perhaps a kind of devolved system of laws to local ethnic and religious groups like the millet system under the Ottoman Empire. But that is not what activists like Davis want because their solution is not universalist, it is aimed only at indigenous Australians. Like Noel Pearson said, the Voice is not about separatism — it is about integration. It might be likened to Catholic integralism, which seeks to combine Catholic faith and public policy. To this Australians are rightly skeptical, preferring the universalism of the the British institutions that have served this nation so well.
A Zion for Aboriginal Australians
I’d say that Aboriginal Australians deserve their own Zion, but the truth is that deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
There is no cosmic reason for Jews to have a homeland but not Kurds, Albanians but not Basque, Armenians but not Circassians.
But Aborigines seeking their own sovereignty — with all the accountability and responsibility and flourishing that entails — are to be admired. No one can begrudge the noble aspiration of a people to self-rule.
What they do not need is the Voice: just another parasitic bureaucratic superstructure. They don’t need to create a shadow-system within Australia. They can have their own nation — all they need to do is will it.
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The Australian legal profession has been at the forefront of furiously disclaiming any relevance of “race”.
Former High Court Justice French says:
The Voice … rests upon the historical status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as Australia’s indigenous people. It does not rest upon race.
“Historical status of a group of people” — not a race. There is much more at the link. It’s remarkable to watch the greatest legal minds in the country sell these nomenclatural gymnastics with a straight face.
For a sense as to the overwhelming institutional imperative to back the Voice among the legal fraternity (and establishment generally), the Victorian Bar Association polled its members on whether it should take a stance on the Voice. It allowed 3 options:
Not to take a position
The Voice is an initiative that would “enhance” Australia’s system of government
So you get a vote: Stalin or no one!
In Thomas Mayo’s The Voice to Parliament Handbook, this is how they answer the charge that the Voice is a bureaucracy:
Wouldn’t this representative body just add another layer of bureaucracy?
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice would not be another layer of bureaucracy. Rather, it would hold the existing bureaucracy to account, and make representations to the government and the Parliament in pursuit of better outcomes for Indigenous peoples and better targeting of government spending.
In other words, it’s not a bureaucracy unless it’s from the Bureaucracy region of France, otherwise it’s just “a representative body that holds other bodies to account and makes representations and generally is good”.
Astute readers will note that Tasmania — that little island beneath the mainland — is free of native title claims. That is because of the extermination of the 3,000—4,000 Tasmania Aborigines who inhabited the island when the British arrived by a brutal mix of settlers, missionaries, whalers, sealers, bush rangers and government officials in the first half of the 19th. This is considered the only genocide of the British Empire. However, only in August this year activists protested the extinct status of Tasmanian Aborigines and the UN has complied. An extinct people can’t claim land.