Tag Archives: Australia

Terra Nullius no more – Australia approaches constitutional recognition of its indigenous population

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC yesterday picked up on a curious piece of legislative news from Australia, with the lower house of Parliament having unanimously passed a bill presenting a constitutional IOU to the country’s indigenous population. In effect, the legislator agrees to lead from the front in seeking to drum up popular support for constitutional recognition of Aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders, and to act on that support as soon as it is there:

“I do believe the community is willing to embrace the justice of this campaign because Australians understand that indigenous culture and history are a source of pride for us all,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said. “This bill seeks to foster momentum for a referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

The bill comes as part of a longer term process of reconciliation dating back to the early 1990s, when a Royal Commission was set up to examine Aboriginal deaths in custody and the Australian High Court belatedly disowned the terra nullius doctrine that had premised the takeover of aboriginal land on the demeaning idea that it was not truly occupied by other human beings. This tradition of emphatic non-recognition of Aboriginal peoples was symbolically reversed in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s groundbreaking apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. …. A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

The present bill is admirably short and pithy. In its Article 3, entitled ‘Recognition’ it sets out a series of propositions that are revolutionary only in their self-evidentness:

(1) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, recognises that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

(2) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters.

(3) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It then goes on to mandate the Prime Minister to “consider the readiness of the Australian public” to support a constitutional referendum on recognition of Aboriginal peoples and take steps to that effect within 12 months from its entry into force. The explanatory memorandum goes on to explain in somewhat more detail the thinking behind this somewhat unorthodox legislative approach: 

This Bill reflects an intention to pursue meaningful change to the Constitution that echoes the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and unites the nation.  It is one part of the ongoing conversation that needs to happen in the lead up to constitutional change. In particular, the Bill will enable all Australians to become familiar with formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ahead of constitutional change.

A review provision sets out a process for Parliament to consider next steps towards constitutional recognition, while a sunset provision ensures that legislative recognition does not become entrenched at the expense of continued progress towards constitutional change.

The Bill is not intended to be a substitute for constitutional recognition.  ….  The Bill does not restrict the scope of future issues for debate in regards to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In the annals of the law and society debate, this Bill may come to represent something of a hallmark. As a legislative attempt to encourage consensual change rather than simply ram change home based on an argument of necessity, it stands out both in its transparency and in the relatively sophisticated mechanism it seeks to set up. It also represents a sterling example of new constitutional approaches to managing diversity that posit a more sustainable relationship through transparent, participatory and open-ended processes than through foreclosing such processes with an unalterable compact.

There is of course a risk that this type of legislation may be seen as an attempt by the Government to play for time or appease reactionary elements in society. On the other hand, accommodating minority demands always imposes a cost on the majority (or in any event prevents the majority from externalising such costs any longer). If Australia’s current moral redistribution and its political and economic consequences are to be sustainable in a democratic system, then it is imperative that bills such as the present one help to undergird moral necessity with political consensus.

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TN stays TN – and wishes a happy Summer break

Thanks to all TN readers who participated in last week’s poll on re-dubbing the blog. I was not unpleasantly surprised to find a consistent majority (currently 53%) in favor of keeping TerraNullius, ‘edgy’ as it may be. In addition, there was no clear alternative, with the rest of the votes split fairly evenly for all the other proposed names. And as a last point, overall participation was fairly low compared with readership of the blog, indicating that its name probably just is not a big issue for many of you.

So, TerraNullius it is for the time being. However, I would like to point out that this decision remains subject to revision. I would also continue to invite anyone with strong views either way on the matter to freely express them (perhaps as a comment on this posting). As an international law doctrine, terra nullius has been  abused to support flagrantly racist policies, the effect of which are still felt by tens of thousands of indigenous persons, most notably in Australia. It is a term badly in need of some form of lustration, but as a profoundly non-indigenous person, it is hardly my place to lead this process. If I can provide a forum for some of the necessary conversations to be had, however, more is the better.

So, with all that out of the way, I want to wish all TN readers a happy and relaxing summer of 2012 (oops, yet more insensitivity to the Antipodes – and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere!) While the blog will not be closed down completely over the next few months, I look forward to running it in very low gear for a while. Guest postings welcomed as always from those so inclined. And for those more interested in sleeping in, poolside and a good book, hasta luego!

The twentieth anniversary of Mabo (and the reason I need to change the name of this blog)

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is twenty years this week since the High Court of Australia overturned an odious legal doctrine that happens to share the name of this blog. Although the name of the blog has always been meant to reflect the abstract meaning of this term (‘no mans land’, reflecting the contested nature of land and territorial issues in both in international law and national practice), I have remained uncomfortable with it throughout due to the concrete meaning lurking down under. As a tribute to the unpretentious man who brought this doctrine crashing down, I hereby pledge to rename this blog in a manner both un-confusing and inoffensive within the next few weeks (readers are free to submit suggestions).

New report on railway rehabilitation and displacement in Cambodia – Natalie Bugalski to guest-post

by Rhodri C. Williams

Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BAB-C) released a new report this week on displacement in Cambodia caused by donor-funded rehabilitation of the country’s railway system (the PR is reprinted after the jump, below).

The findings are consistent with bad practice in development-induced displacement everywhere – poor planning, little consultation, thinly-veiled coercion, badly located and serviced resettlement sites, resulting in precisely the type of impoverishment risks that the standards long espoused by donors such as the World Bank and (more to the point in this case) the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are meant to prevent.

However, the report also reflects a particularly Cambodian failure to act on decades of advice and occasional pressure to comply with standards that would allow the country – at relatively little cost – to be seen to live up to its international commitments and to avoid the human tragedy and bad optics associated with forced evictions. After all, it is only six months since the Cambodian Government appeared to make tactical concessions in a standoff with the World Bank over evictions in Phnom Penh, but subsequent events indicate a reversion to form.

In this case, it is also over a year since early research on the very project criticized in the BAB-C’s new report forecast the problems that the latter now documents. For instance, Natalie Bugalski guest-posted at the time on the tragic drowning death of two children sent to fetch water because water sources available at the resettlement site where they lived were “polluted by chemicals used for rice growing and … caused skin diseases and other illnesses.”

Natalie will shortly be providing TN readers with another guest-posting with observations on BAB-C’s new report. As is often the case in Cambodia, all of this will make awkward reading not only for the Cambodian government, but also for international donors (in this case the ADB and AusAid) that are responsible for ensuring that the Cambodian Government accepts their resettlement standards along with their funding. For the time being, acceptance of this principle remains elusive.

UPDATE: read Natalie’s guest-posting here:  The ADB involuntary resettlement policy: Fifteen years on, the poorest still bear the brunt of development (23 February 2012)

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