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The express journey of Warren Mundine from shining new hope of indigenous etc etc to vague embarrassment continued apace this week, with his recent speech in Queensland arguing for — well, for a whole pile of stuff that contradicts a lot of what he’s been going on about for years, and would be disastrous to boot.

Mundine would like the defining of Aboriginal identity as a special characteristic to become even more complex and entailed than it already is, to create an overarching native title eligibility that appears to me to be legally incoherent.

Best of all, he wants to abandon the drive for a single treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and have one with each of the hundreds of Aboriginal nations that existed pre-1788, of which more in a sec.

Indeed, Mundine wants to dissolve collective Aboriginal identity altogether and have Aboriginal people claim their second citizenship as that of a specific nation. He wants that process to be “transparent”, based on being able to trace your ancestry to that nation.

At which point, I can’t even.

OK, let’s start with the basics. A people is not constituted as a people by its mythopoetic origins, retrojected into the past, but by its relation to other peoples, of reciprocity, power, oppression or what have you.

The treaty Mundine wants would be a treaty arising from the “event” of January 26, 1788. On that day, Great Britain brought the Aboriginal people into being, as a unified notion, by invading them. The British didn’t invade the Eora nation, and then get a little inland and say “oh, we’ve hit the Dharag, shall we stop here or invade them too?” They occupied, and the expansion of their occupation was solely dependent on their own priorities.

So those are the people any treaty would be between — between the invaders and the invaded. It doesn’t make sense as a treaty in any other conception. There may well be an argument for separate treaties between non-indigenous Australians and Aborigines, and non-indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders owing to their clear, separate material history, but that’s about it.

To say that invasion constitutes a people in their collectivity shouldn’t be taken as a slur or a diminishment, obviously. Collectivity born in struggle is a step towards self-determination. What Mundine is proposing is to decompose it back to the social form of smaller geographical groups defined against each other, rather than being defined against whites.

Secondly, let’s look at these “nations” that Mundine wants to trace back to. Are they real? Are they a fiction? They are both. The term “nation” was adopted in recent decades to get away from inaccurate talk of “tribes”, and to recognise that, over geographic and language areas, tribes and smaller groups saw themselves as part of a larger whole.

“Mundine clearly means well, has a long history of struggle, but his ideas come like bubbles, tested with no one, and are in a speech the next day.”

But the term is also misleading. Firstly, it was adopted from the Native American usage. But Native Americans were a semi-agricultural people with vestigial class structures, aristocratic hierarchies, and super-chiefs who were not unlike kings. Power extended across wide areas, which is why they were able to mount a more explicit resistance to white settlers, something they could know as a war. Even so, the nationness of a lot of these nations only fully emerged as a product of the struggle with whites.

In Aboriginal Australia, hunter-gatherer/kinship societies, no such hierarchies emerged — or could, given the absence of agriculture. Aboriginal groups were knit together by the most head-spinningly complex system of kinship relations, totem animals, taboos, obligations, gift-giving circles and rules of marriage (one of the most damaging things of the destructive ignorance of people like Gary Johns is their simple disdain for this history. They construct Aboriginality as simple absence, waiting for whites).

So what were these larger ensembles? Well, there is no word for them, because they were no one thing. They could break apart and recombine, internally divide, and suffer, it would seem, sudden derecognition. They interleaved territorially sometimes and became tightly bounded in others. Nation has been used as a catch-all term, in part to remove the primitivist associations of “tribe”. But some of those who have pushed its use, from the Left, are guilty of a current confection for simplistic political purposes.

Thus what Mundine is proposing is a series of treaties between a real and powerful entity, the Australian state, and a series of historically retrojected ones whose current form — by people who claim allegiance to them — is very different to the sort of thing they once described. The one powerful “other” that indigenous people have in relation to the settler state — their collective being — would be taken out of the equation. Sheer genius.

Oh, and there’s also the transparent establishment of identity. Jaysus. Getting the voting rolls for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission established was hard enough; this would be … well, never-ending and never settled. Mundine’s argument is really sinister here — he wants to remove the notion of communal association as defining indigenous identity and substitute some sort of bloodline, like an aristocratic descent. There’s a lot of old junk bound up in this: a rebiologisation of race, a touch of noble savagery, a political attempt to exclude urban mixed-heritage Aboriginal people — and a dangerous tilt towards pedigree, to rendering race as a category of physicality, rather than as a historical and material identity.

But it gets weirder, because Mundine would like to abolish the continuous connection provision in native title. So you have to have a pedigree to have nationhood identity, but no continuous connection with the land. The continuous connection provision is too restrictive in many ways, but unless I’m mistaken, Mundine’s arrangement would result in people with uncheckable claims to pedigree in an oral culture being able to make claims on territory remote from them, whose “nation” provenance has been established through scholarship that often involves a bit of guesswork. Is that the transparency Mundine is after? That Aboriginal people would want to continue and strengthen the particularity of such nations is necessary and good. But Mundine’s approach would deaden, bureaucratise and hierarchise the process.

Good god, what a mess. What an utter confused farrago — from a government adviser who was hired for his alleged no-nonsense approach to material conditions, jobs, health, the Protestant ethic, etc, etc. This is another screw-up by the Abbott government it would seem because … Mundine clearly means well, has a long history of struggle, but his ideas come like bubbles, tested with no one, and are in a speech the next day.

Most likely, this will be another opportunity for Tony Abbott to say, “No. we won’t be doing that”. How long before Mundine is quietly asked to announce that he is resigning to “pursue other opportunities”?

Peter Fray

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