Aboriginal self-determination

I’m really not well acquainted with arguments for/against any particular relationship that the Australian government should have with various aboriginal communities around the country, other than the extent to which the arguments were made in Mabo, followed by the Native Title Act. So, to be clear, my question comes from naivety, and I hope it’s not offensive to anyone.

I assume the members of the party would be generally supportive to the concept of a treaty, or something that grants greater levels of self-determination, but I was wondering what our position might be if the forms of self-determination that were chosen would be anti-democratic.

Would we, as a party, support the rights of adults to form non-democratic governmental organisations? If so, would we support adults in subjecting children to the same lack of democracy, where the child isn’t given an adult’s choice in whether they take part in the society?

For context, this question occurred to me because I’m near the end of The God Delusion, and there was discussion of the same sort of question as it pertains to religious groups, such as the Amish in the US.

I was in the UK when they started down this road of identity politics and religious and ethnic communities self-segregating from the mainstream. It gets justified with lovely flowery language but in practice creates ghettos where men rule over women and all kinds of pressures can be brought to bear which deny vulnerable people normal access to education, proper protection under the rule of law, and so on.

Anti-democratic forms of self determination are fine for whoever is in charge, not so much for everyone else. We can learn a few things from history on that score.

A Treaty would be about recognition of prior ownership and a legal basis for a future relationship. I suspect it wouldn’t give aboriginal communities Sovereignty over their traditional land, instead it would give them greater control over their traditional lands usage much like Mabo and Native title do. Due to the lack of a national body of indigenous people and clear demands, much of what I argue here is speculative, based on my experience of campaigning for indigenous rights, talking to indigenous activist friends and traveling around the country.

Land Councils seem to be run somewhat democratically. The councils themselves operating along vaguely similar lines to the National Council in PPAU. Separate from that, there are the cultural institutions. In Wollongong the local ‘tribe’ is called the Tharawal, there are Elders who are made up of older people who have served their community for many years and a Loreman. They have no formal power, and people tend to do what they say out of respect and their common sense. They have no coercive power beyond the high regard they have in their community. Due to the lack of State structures, there has always been the option available to quite literally walk away from any political organisation indigenous people don’t want to be subject to.

Signing a Treaty would be a complex process, firstly there would need to be a representative body of the indigenous population that encompasses the entire country. It would have to be broad and inclusive. Many people of aboriginal heritage are disconnected from the cultural structures and have as little understanding of culture as many people of European heritage. Others have been taken from their culture and re-introduced to indigenous culture as adults in geographical areas removed from where they were born (this accounts for many of the stolen generation). A minority have remained in traditional ways of living. All of these groups would have to decide who would negotiate and what they actually want. From there negotiations would have to happen.

I am pretty sure the vast majority want to be part of modern society, just more on their terms. I think this would mean allowing some schools to be taught primarily in the local language with English as a core subject. I have met young adults who speak English as their fifth language, expecting them to learn in a language they don’t get exposed to much growing up means they go poorly at school. (As an aside, I think there needs to be more focus on teaching all Australians about indigenous culture. Perhaps that happened since I was in school where we got none, but I somehow doubt it.)

Any formal power given to indigenous organisations would most likely be a lower level of legislative power than Federal or State Parliaments, or where applicable local governments, so the idea that they would be subject to non-democratic political organisations doesn’t seem founded in reality. I suspect formal power would be mostly limited to negotiating usage rights of their traditional lands. Children would still go to state schools and be treated much like any child in Australia.

I wouldn’t base any Treaty negotiations or understanding of indigenous culture on Richard Dawkins’ opinions of religion. I think he is a bigot when it comes to religion, and I personally think he gives Atheists a bad name.