Keith Windschuttle’s latest contribution to the indigenous affairs policy debate is his new book, The Break-up of Australia: the real agenda behind Aboriginal recognition, published by Quadrant Books. (“Just what I wanted for Christmas, the new Keith Windschuttle book,” said nobody ever.)

In late October, The Australian ran an extract from the book that credited Windschuttle as:

“… one of the architects of the ‘history wars’ which dominated public discourse from the 2000s [and who] argues that political leaders and public intellectuals, both indigenous and non-indigenous, have failed to acknowledge the implications of proposed constitutional change.”

The following week, the Oz ran a well-reasoned response by Shireen Morris, a senior policy adviser at Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute.

Morris called out Windschuttle as the proponent of unproductive and implausible “irrational fears”, noting that the extract was littered with inaccurate generalisations.

For Morris, Windschuttle’s “tortured” argument asserted:

“… that formal indigenous inclusion in Australia’s Constitution somehow equals indigenous exclusion … the leap from constitutional inclusion to constitutional separatism and indigenous international sovereignty is a very big leap.

“Windschuttle is unclear about what is meant by ‘sovereignty’ and glosses over the fact that indigenous people use the word in many different ways.”

The November issue of Quadrant — of which Windschuttle is the editor in chief — contains the first of two extracts from his book.

The back-cover blurb for the book bells the cat on the constitutional recognition movement.

“The goal of Aboriginal political activists today is to gain ‘sovereignty’ and create a black state, equivalent to the existing states. Its territory, comprising all land defined as native title, will soon amount to more than 60 per cent of the whole Australian continent.”

Earlier this month, Windschuttle also appeared in a soft interview with Tom Switzer on ABC Radio National’s Counterpoint program.

Windschuttle’s theory — at its strongest, it could be characterised as a conspiracy theory — rests on two limbs. The first is that a group of Aboriginal activists and white sympathisers are plotting the overthrow of Australia as we know it — kicking in the front door with the constitutional recognition referendum, then kicking it shut again by establishing a sovereign black state.

The second limb is that this new state will be bounded by those lands granted under the Native Title Act, which Windschuttle says would amount to 60% of the Australian continent.

Windshuttle presents what is — or might in other circumstances be — a reasonable hypothesis, that could be paraphrased as: “Is there is a movement among indigenous and non-indigenous political activists that seeks, through the guise of constitutional recognition, to establish a separate state within Australia by using native title lands as the physical basis for that state?

The weak(est) points in Windschuttle’s argument are the quality of his research, some factual errors and misstatements and his apparent ignorance of, and respect for, contemporary Aboriginal society and politics.

Windschuttle’s Quadrant extract begins with a quote from Galarrwuy Yunupingu:

“The clans of east Arnhem Land join me in acknowledging no king, no queen, no church and no state. Our allegiance is to each other, to our land and to the ceremonies that define us. It is through the ceremonies that our lives are created. These ceremonies record and pass on the laws that give us ownership of the land and of the seas, and the rules by which we live.”

Windschuttle doesn’t acknowledge the source of that quote, but you can read all of Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s essay — written in anger, sorrow and unrelenting pride in the shadow of the Northern Territory intervention — in The Monthly.

Yunupingu’s essay tells of the ongoing centrality of Aboriginal law in the daily lives of his family and the Yolngu clans of north-east Arnhem Land.

Beyond Arnhem Land, Aboriginal law, in all its varieties and iterations, also rules the daily lives of most Aboriginal people living in the homelands and small townships scattered across the Aboriginal lands of the NT.

These are places that Windschuttle condemns as cesspits of alcoholism, drug taking, homicide, suicide, domestic violence and the sexual abuse of children. In his Counterpoint interview he described these homelands — a concept he says was borrowed from North America — as “cultural and political disasters”, citing the work of the late Centre for Independent Studies economist Helen Hughes as proof. The credibility and accuracy of those statements is a matter for another time and place.

For now, back to Windschuttle’s Quadrant excerpt.

The evidence propping up the first limb of Windschuttle’s hypothesis — the claims to original and continuing sovereignty made by “Aboriginal and white Canberra activists” — consists of a threadbare collection of quotes by those “activists” from reports, speeches, articles and books dating from the 1970s to about 2012.

For mine the closest any of these quotes get to a direct assertion of a sovereign state within contemporary Australia is contained in a 1993 extract — and thus made in the heat of the post-Mabo native title debates — by Noel Pearson.

Pearson has always run his own races and, almost without exception, will argue a differential line to what could be described as the Aboriginal political mainstream. The brief Pearson quote proposes a form of “local indigenous sovereignty” that he says could co-exist within the Australian nation-state.

Windschuttle traces Pearson’s proposal back to the “white Canberra activists” that gathered around H.C. “Nugget” Coombs in the late 1970s and early 1980s to form the Aboriginal Treaty Committee. From that obscure and largely ineffective group came what Windschuttle describes as a vision of a “day when Aboriginal regional government, or governments, could stand alongside state and Territory governments before the Commonwealth Grants Commission (now COAG) in their own right.”

The closest realisation of a national Aboriginal representative body in Australia was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), a statutory commission established in 1989 and finally killed off by John Howard and his indigenous affairs minister Amanda Vanstone in 2004.

It is passing strange that ATSIC — arguably the most representative and effective voice for Australian Aboriginal self-determination — receives only one mention by Windschuttle in the Quadrant piece.

Another issue that Windschuttle overlooks is that from, say, the early 1990s through to the current day, the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists he quotes — Nugget Coombs (who passed away in 1997), Patrick and Mick Dodson, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Marcia Langton, Warren Mundine, Michael Mansell and others — would have, between them, given hundreds of speeches, lectures, interviews and conference presentations and written numerous articles, books and book chapters.

Considering the limited lexicon of recent Australian indigenous affairs — sovereignty, treaty, self-determination, terra nullius, invasion, reconciliation, land rights, etc — it is unsurprising that each of those named by Windschuttle might have referenced “sovereignty” from time to time.

For mine, all Windschuttle has done in his Quadrant extract — and presumably in his book — is gather a few selected quotes from across the years and stitch them together as threadbare evidence of a conspiracy that exists perhaps only in his mind. It stretches credulity to suggest that a conspiracy exists when the supposed conspirators cannot agree among themselves.

Most curious, perhaps, in Windschuttle’s argument is his elevation during the Counterpoint interview with Tom Switzer of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance — “young people out of the university” — as credible proponents and prosecutors of the sovereignty movement.

WAR’s Manifesto (WAR, get it?) is replete with the usual slogans of righteous indignation and undergraduate political angst. The warriors of WAR — all four of them — say they “have been in talks for almost a year about forming a national grassroots alliance of young Aboriginal people committed to the cause of decolonization and Aboriginal Nationalism”.

*Read the rest at Crikey blog The Northern Myth

Peter Fray

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