Before the sad events in Sydney on Monday and Tuesday, I was going to introduce my brief reply to Warren Mundine, and to a lesser extent Eve Vincent, with the old Leunig cartoon of the bomb disposal exam, with students furiously jiggling wires while people blow up around them. Maybe not now, at least not unframed. But there isn’t much of an alternative to summing up the process of disentangling his defence of a proposal that was contradictory and confused in the first place. (Also worth noting that Bob Gosford defused Mundine when these suggestions first came up a year or so ago.)

Mundine’s reply can be found here. His original proposal, briefly, was that separate treaties be made with the 150-plus groups we currently identify as “nations”, rather than with a single indigenous people (or with two — Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders). I argued that a treaty, to have any meaning, had to be between the two groups who had recognised each other in the initial conflict.

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Just as numerous peoples and nations came into unified being through conflict with a larger force — from the Gauls to the United States, born of 13 colonies, to the Palestinians — so too, a unified Aboriginal people had come into being from conflict with a settler state. The unity remains because the categorical political struggle remains. The Native Title Act didn’t extinguish claims on freehold title land for 30 of 150 nations — it did so for all native claims by all indigenous Australians.  The 1967 referendum didn’t extend citizenship to all nations beginning with “K”. It was the Aboriginal Advancement League, and the Aboriginal Legal Service, not the Darug advancement league or the Kulin health service.

In response to my argument that this was a unification through a historical process, Mundine believes I am saying that “Aboriginal identity is — as you’ve acknowledged — a construct borne from the way other people looked at us, not the way we looked at ourselves”.

But this is exactly not what I am saying. I’m saying that the real, material historical processes of conflict, followed by self-organisation and struggle, were around collective Aboriginal being. And it is not how you are looked at, it’s how you self-organise that defines your material collective being. To take umbrage at the fact that this arises from an invasion by a more powerful adversary is silly.

In fact, Mundine’s construction of this is curiously passive. Here is how he portrays my argument:

“Aboriginal people are one people because they were all invaded by Great Britain. The British couldn’t tell the difference between the blackfellas they encountered as they spread out across the continent – they just conquered the lot of them. Those groups therefore became One Aboriginal People, defined by their relationship as invaded people to their invaders. But don’t take this as an insult.”

But of course whites didn’t just conquer blacks. There was a war, or a series of them, which went on for decades. Mundine leaves out all record of resistance. Yet it is only in the context of recognising the frontier wars as material, unifying events for Aborigines — even if hunter-gatherer social frameworks limited the ability for widespread co-ordination and command — that a treaty has any real meaning at all. If it is not a delayed recognition of a war between white and black, what possible meaning or worth can it have?

This gets to the heart of the contradiction of Mundine’s position. He takes umbrage at the suggestion that conflict with whites brought something — the treaty-party entity — into being, and insists on the autonomous existence of nations or mobs, who have meaning independent of any conflict or “other”:

“My Bundjalung ancestors were a people for more than 40,000 years before the British arrived, however much of a myth-making throw-back that may seem to you. So were my Gumbaynggirr and Yuin ancestors … All of these existed quite independently of the British. And these groups have no interest in being ‘defined against whites’. They aren’t defined against anyone. They just are.”

Well yes, I do think that trying to trace a cultural lineage back 40,000 years is myth-making. Also childishly stupid, and obviously meaningless, but more of that in a minute. Here’s the kicker.

“I want my tribal nations recognised. Not as an invaded peoples. But as peoples and nations in their own right.”

So on the one hand Mundine wants to assert that such nations just are, autonomous and by virtues of their heritage. Yet he wants them recognised. By whom? By the white settler state. The capitulation to recognition by an other thus becomes part of Mundine’s treaty process. Good thing he has three of these indivisible nations, with their geologic-scale time heritage, to fall back on.

Whatever the existence of the Aboriginal nations may be, they weren’t entities per se in the struggles and creations that a treaty now would be referring back to. So to suddenly insert them into the process, where there has been no recognisable groundswell to do so, seems trivialising. Buried in Mundine’s position is a Eurocentrism whereby Aboriginal society can only be real if its distinct forms are assimilated to European forms, but it would take too long to unpack it here.

The point is that any treaty now would only have real bite if there were a transfer of sovereignty attached — if a Nunavut-style state/territory were being created, a shift in material power. Absent of that, a treaty starts to develop the same dimension of symbolic politics that has dominated the last two decades and more of race politics in Australia. After all, to put it bluntly, treaties only have meaning when the former belligerents have a mutual interest in suing for peace, even amid uneven odds. Waitingi meant something because the British needed to consolidate occupation of Aotearoa/New Zealand, for wider strategic reasons.The British made a treaty with the nascent United States because they didn’t want to risk losing Canada.

There is nothing in Australian black/white history to hang that on, since the defeat was total, and the expanding Australian state was never militarily threatened. A treaty only has a chance at meaning something if its principal act is to retroactively establish the frontier wars as a unified thing, rather than as an isolated series of skirmishes, crimes and massacres. If it becomes some sort of attempt to turn the occupation of the continent into a matter of agreement, then it is a ghastly reversal of intent. Whatever the case, as with the apology and constitutional recognition, it is a task that directs a lot of activist energy at petitioning the white state to grant identity. How much more of this would people like to do exactly?

The objection above — that any treaty should have reference to the process that led up to it, which has been one of Aborigines defining themselves as one people — also applies to Eve Vincent’s criticism of my argument. Vincent argues that such collectivity was chiefly of the period of the ’60s and ’70s. That strikes me as plain wrong, given that Aborigines were defined collectively, initially by the white state and then in struggle against that by collective organisations such as the AAL and others.

That’s more than a century all told. Vincent argues that Aboriginal people are gaining meaning from re-identifying with their particular heritage, languages etc. That’s great, but the topic centred round the question of a treaty, and what entities might be party to them. My central contention is that Mundine’s arguments are internally contradictory and incoherent as regards any sort of treaty that could be meaningful, so I don’t think any given type of aboriginality is being constructed in unknotting them.  Besides, if a treaty is to be something other than a one-way charitable award then the other side – even if it has been the oppressor – has a legitimite say in who they are striking the treaty with. And as one on that side, I’m saying that agreeing to treaties with 150+ groups of varying historical and geographical solidity would be to be party to an absurdity.

Whether to emphasise collective unity or difference is a question for indigenous people obviously. But even if one choose difference, opposing forces may not agree. The Western Australian government isn’t closing down — i.e. expelling — loss-making remote communities on a  case-by-case basis. It is doing so en masse, with a few reprieves, so it is a “collective” or general extinguishment of particularity. The Northern Territory communities will be next — when they can work out a disguised way to do it in the same manner. The Right has been pushing for these expulsions for years, and now it has governments willing to do them. T’were me, faced with such a unitary and annihilating state, it wouldn’t be the time I’d choose to emphasise difference. Nor would I want the conversation led  by a man who works for the Prime Minister doing them — a Prime Minister who believes that the country was unsettled before 1788 and appears determined to restore significant parts of it to that fantasy state.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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