Thursday, July 19, 2007

Aboriginal Sovereignty, by Henry Reynolds

The title of this book immediately makes you think of some far looney-left concept. Aboriginal Sovereignty? There’s only room for one sovereign in this country, and that’s the one derived from our democratic parliamentary system, a system that came into place thanks to the British deciding to use Australia as a penal colony.

I’ve read several of Henry Reynolds’ books on Aboriginal Australia, which I found utterly fascinating. Reynolds trawls through all of the newspapers of the past to find fascinating – and in our day, disturbing – attitudes to ‘the first nations’, the Aboriginal people. In our so called multicultural day, how easily you forget that modern, federated Australia was officially a white country.

A few years ago Germaine Greer wrote an essay in which she said Australia was a black country, and for her efforts she received a fair amount of ridicule. Reading this book made me realise more than ever how Australia really is a black country like Africa. The only difference is the number of whites/Europeans far outnumber the indigenous population. We all still live on the coast, the majority of us never venturing into Australia’s heart land.

The first voyages that discovered Australia noted that there were indigenous tribes living on the coast. These early explorers, however, didn’t think that the Aboriginal people could make a living inland. Aboriginals must have been hunters, unable to work crops on the land. No one thought that the Aborigines had mastered the inland of Australia. How wrong they were, and how strange that we never absorbed Aboriginal culture. Why don’t whites go ‘walkabout’ in central Australia?

Anyhoo, I digress. The basic problem that Reynolds sets out in this book is that there are some 5000 nations in the world, that is, ethnic groups with their own culture and customs. Yet the world has only 200 nation states. ‘How will the world manage this profound misfit?’ Reynolds asks.

In Australia we have the Mabo case. This showed that Aboriginals do hold native title in certain circumstances. Reynolds shows that this is only one half of the equation. The other half is for courts to recognise that Aboriginals also hold some form of sovereignty.

Aboriginal Sovereignty provides a close study of nineteenth century jurisprudence on the subject. What we may think of as an extremist notion, did not appear so to judges and legal experts a century ago.

White Australians thought the Aboriginal people would merely die out eventually. That wishful thinking never happened. Terra Nullius – the idea that no one was really here before white settlement – was blown out the water by the Mabo judgement. Who’s not to say that a court one day may grant some type of Aboriginal Sovereignty?

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