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Blog Who are we now? – Sovereignty in and over Australia
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Who are we now? – Sovereignty in and over Australia

Paul Wright
Last edited: September 11, 2023

It’s gone a bit quiet this week, with our Federal parliamentarians deciding to keep their heads down and not further antagonise their Chinese Government counterparts any further. But it was curious observing the Australian reaction and outrage expressed – and on balance rightly – about China’s demands that would impinge on our sovereignty and independence.

The initial uproar had echoes of John Howard’s more domestically attuned message in dog whistle English that “we would decide who comes here and the manner in which they come” – regarding the status of refugees and asylum seekers boating over from the Indonesian archipelago.

When our sovereign interests are challenged there is usually a rush to defend our independence as a nation, to loudly assert Australia’s priorities and position and to push back on any (un)real or perceived threat to that independence.

Of course, for those paying attention, the passion that is aroused by the questioning of our sovereign independence doesn’t seem to translate to a more considered and mature understanding of the First Nations abiding sovereignty over the lands they have occupied for time immemorial.

The response to China’s antagonisms in recent weeks has revealed once again that we lack a national self-confidence in the legitimacy of our own nationhood. We doth protest too much me thinks.

If we were more assured in our claims to sovereignty, reconciled with the past and at peace with the shared truth of our beginnings, maybe we wouldn’t feel so threatened?

Over three years ago now, the Uluru Statement was presented to the Australian people (not Government) as an invitation to take the next step to addressing the legal, constitutional and relational limbo we find ourselves in – an incomplete or stunted state of Australian nationhood.

Speaking of the sovereignty of the First Nations Peoples of this continent, the Uluru Statement eloquently lays out that:

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown. How could it be otherwise?

How indeed? After 230+ years of European colonisation, this question has not been answered or addressed by the British Empire, the Australian Constitution (1901 or 1967), the High Court (via Mabo) or any of the Commonwealth governments that have formed since Federation.

I think there are genuine, though misguided, concerns about how the implementation of the Uluru Statement, Treaty, Constitutional reform etcetera may further entrench division in our society. However, the feigned concerns of our elected leaders like former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – who rejected the Uluru Statement out of hand due to fears that as:

Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights – all being able to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national parliament. A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.

Well firstly, our democracy is established on the foundations outlined in the Constitution which went out of its way to make sure that the First Nations peoples could not enjoy ‘equal civic rights’ as Australian citizens.

If the democratic foundations that are espoused by the establishment defenders of our Australian state are shown from the beginning to have been divisive, exclusive and racist then how can we be so confident in the virtue of our sovereignty as it stands – or conversely, how can we so easily ignore the ancient and continuing sovereign claim of the Peoples that had occupied the Australian landmass for tens of thousands of years?

Division has been ever-present since 26 January 1788. The lie of terra nullius exposed by the High Court in its Mabo decision in 1992  made clear that a political settlement with First Nations peoples is essential to formalise how our overlapping claims of sovereignty can legally and peacefully co-exist. Ignoring this state of legal-political limbo is clearly not making the issue go away or allowing a complete reconciliation to be possible.

Last week, Reconciliation Australia released their biannual Australian Reconciliation Barometer which showed that the Australian community continues to be well ahead of our Federal government in our attitudes towards sovereignty, reconciliation and treaty. From a low base, the general community’s support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty has jumped another 8% in the last 2 years to 39%.

For Treaty, it is a majority of Australians now that want a negotiated settlement (53% up from 47% in 2018) and an increasing majority of us want to get on with reconciliation.

These numbers grow each year, as measured by the Reconciliation Australia’s Barometer, but the good intentions are not enough. Clearly, the fears of division and the lack of confidence that our politicians feel so strongly are not shared by the community they are meant to serve.

In plugging her recent Quarterly Essay that explores the social and political influence (or lack thereof) of Aotearoa – in The High Road Laura Tingle has pointed out that New Zealand is way ahead of Australia in terms of its settled relationship with the Maori peoples. While it has been imperfect to say the least, the Treaty of Waitang is the foundation stone of their nationhood, and over time the difference in outcome between having a treaty and not has become stark. Tingle has observed that:

Between terra nullius and the Treaty of Waitangi, it is hard to think of more opposite circumstances in which two places were settled, or in which the position of Indigenous people would be considered. Indigenous people in both countries came off badly, in both their circumstances and their legal standing. Yet there is an extraordinary relevance in how the Treaty of Waitangi has developed in the last half-century to the debate we are now having in Australia about Indigenous recognition and a Voice to Parliament. And to a debate we have generally not been having about truth-telling and reconciliation.

New Zealand isn’t a utopia of First Nations and Settler peoples’ relations, but their Treaty has made possible an evolutionary shift towards better outcomes for Maori people and, as Tingle has said, a more confident nation that celebrates and embraces Maori language, culture and representation with pride and confidence.

It feels like we’ve been stuck at the intersection waiting for the lights to turn green for decades now. Each new Commonwealth government promises some version of structural reconciliation and formal recognition, initiates an inquiry or consultation process and then inevitably finds it all too hard and kicks the issue off to the never never.

The Australian people are more confident about who we are and who we can be than our Governments give us credit for. The First Nations peoples are strong, resilient and enduring. Their culture should be embraced as our culture, their heritage and sacred sites should be cherished and protected for all Australians.

We are big enough to be one and many peoples under an Australian nationhood that embraces the sovereign claims of those that were here first (by a distance of some 60,000 years) and the more recent claims.

We are big enough to be both ancient and young. It’s a confidence thing

Paul Wright
National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia

Paul is National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia. He was ANTAR’s National Director from 2018 to 2023 and has many years of experience working in both Government and non-government sectors – covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, health, immigration and social services. Paul studied politics and international relations at the University of Canberra and has a Masters of Strategic Studies from the Australian National University. Prior to his role with ANTAR, Paul was the Executive Officer for the Close the Gap Campaign Secretariat and the National Health Leadership Forum at the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2021, he became a PhD Researcher at the Western Sydney University (Social Sciences).