Aboriginal Reconciliation: transformations in settler nationalism.

Author:Moran, Anthony

We have to amend the past wrongs, promote an understanding between all Australians for a better relationship and accept that we are one nation. (The Hon. Helen Sham-Ho, Liberal Party MLC, NSW.)

Reconciliation is the building of a united Australia through the understanding of our history, which leads to a growing respect for the dignity of our indigenous culture and the contribution it has and will make to the future strength of the nation. (Mr. Ian Spicer, Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.)

To me reconciliation means understanding our past, righting the wrongs, and together forging a new and vibrant national identity. (Ms Jennie George, ACTU.)(1)


In this paper I argue that the official reconciliation process, which began with the passing of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991, is a nation-building exercise in response to a changed domestic and international climate that had questioned the legitimacy of the Australian nation-state in terms of its present and past dealings with its indigenous peoples. A new form of settler nationalism, itself responding to a perception of national illegitimacy, is one of the forces that stimulated the movement for reconciliation. Ideas and feelings about the nation, national belonging, and reconciliation vary, but what `Aboriginal Reconciliation' means for many of its non-indigenous supporters is the opportunity to free the nation of the guilt or shame associated with its foundation. The brutality of that foundation has been thoroughly brought home since the rise of revisionist histories in the 1960s. Official Reconciliation is, at least in part, a process aimed at shoring up what has become for some non-indigenous people a tarnished national identity. For those in the settler community who maintain that the notion of tarnished national identity is a fiction of the `guilt-ridden' left-liberal imagination, reconciliation is either dismissed, is conceived simply as a process aimed at bringing the indigenous into line with all other Australians in terms of health, education, jobs, and housing, or is seen as a way of making the indigenous forget the past and get on with being responsible, autonomous Australians.(2)

Reconciliation is fundamentally about the status of the Australian nation; within and around the discourse rage battles over definitions of Australian nationhood, the national past, and relations between peoples. The nationalist agenda of Official Reconciliation is an expression of its governmental origins. This is not to say that the setting up of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation did not have indigenous and non-indigenous community support. Clearly it could not have been conceived or begun without that support. Nevertheless, the Reconciliation Process was developed as a compromise between the major non-indigenous parliamentary parties, and not through widespread negotiation with indigenous people.(3) This is reflective of the relatively weak political position of the indigenous, who must negotiate with a much more powerful nation-state that encloses them.(4) The Reconciliation agenda, like all discourses and practices, is a product of power relations. This does not mean that once established those invested with the responsibility of carrying the process through cannot push at its boundaries, but it does raise the question of whether the limits placed around it steer it too forcefully down a single nationalist path.

Curiously, given its historical pedigree and its contemporary appropriation by Pauline Hanson's political party, "one nation" has been a catchcry of Reconciliation, in official documents from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and in public and media commentaries. The nationalist agenda underlying the use of this image represents, in my view, one of the chief flaws of Official Reconciliation as a political process, even if as a political movement reconciliation relies on nationalist commitment for its moral strength. The question I raise throughout is whether a more open-ended, non-nationalist process of reconciliation could be developed, reflecting more genuinely the inherently difficult relations between the settler nation-state and indigenous peoples.

Nationalism and reconciliation

What do people mean when they speak of the nation? Do we have in Australia a single nation, a series of nations, or a series of ethnic and indigenous groups held together by a state that claims to govern for all within the Australian territory? There is something unsettling about such questions. Benedict Anderson argued in his classic text, Imagined Communities, that the attachment to the myth or idea of the nation by members of a political community is a form of libidinous tie that can call up great sacrifices, including the laying down of lives. The nation binds passions, and represents a form of kinship and unity in the face of international allies and enemies. It has a certain taken-for-grantedness about it, and conjures up intense feelings of home and belonging. In a world of violent conflicts and communal rifts, it offers the promise of unity and security.(5) Anderson argued that the nation is a relatively modern form of imagined political community. Furthermore, it is always imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.(6) Despite increasing globalisation the pull of the nation remains powerful, and continues to give rise to nationalist movements and nationalist belligerence.

Reconciliation has as one of its important aims the unification of the indigenous and non-indigenous within one legitimate Australian nation-state. As a nationalist discourse it places certain limitations upon the aspirations of indigenous peoples, and raises certain expectations about indigenous contribution to national culture. Many of its advocates assert that as a process it is inextricably bound up with the provision of a level of justice to indigenous people; indeed as much is implied in the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's adopted vision statement, which speaks of:

A united Australia which respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, and provides justice and equity to all.(7) Social justice for indigenous people is framed by a nationalist discourse within which indigenous people are seen to be "central and integral to the cultural fabric" of a single Australian nation.(8)

Potential and actual conflicts of aspiration centre on a struggle over what constitutes equality and justice for all. The idea of a national people whose sovereignty is vested in its governments and ultimately in the Crown is potentially at odds with the notion of separate rights for the indigenous. Those opposing such rights can mount a strong nationalist argument, calling upon the notion of "one undivided people", according to which any form of separate treatment of the indigenous implies a splitting of the national fabric.(9) Those supporting indigenous rights from within a nationalist discourse must compete on the same ground, pointing out that they also support equality for all and an undivided nation, and must convince the doubters that travelling along their path of acceptance of diversity will not lead to national fragmentation.

One nation, one territory, one state, has been the refrain of nationalists since the nineteenth century. Unfortunately for nationalists, social reality has never been quite so simple. Australian nationalism, since its emergence in the second half of the nineteenth century, has aggressively asserted this principle. To even suggest that more than one national community exists in the Australian territory, if the claims of some nationalists were to be believed, is to court communal suicide. Are indigenous communities nations? Not, perhaps, according to the concept of nation as it emerged in Europe. But the claim to nationhood is also a political statement, not simply an intellectual argument concerned with conceptual niceties. Indigenous people have claimed that they belonged to sovereign nations at the time of invasion, and that they belong to a unified Aboriginal nation today.(10) Conservative critics of self-determination for indigenous communities implicitly concede that the latter are at least potential nations when they refer to the danger of creating "nations within nations". They have thus used the potential "nationness" of Aboriginal communities to deny those communities indigenous rights. But does the question of nationhood really capture what is unique and significant about relations between settler and indigenous communities anyway?

Perhaps we should discard the term `nation' for a moment and use instead `political community'. In this respect the indigenous need to be clearly distinguished from the different ethnic groups that make up the settler nation. The crucial question is, did indigenous communities consent at any time to become members of the settler nation-state? If the answer is "no", as I think it is, then their situation is fundamentally different to that of immigrants who voluntarily consented to become part of the political community of Australia.(11) The absence of treaties spelling out exactly what the relationship is does not resolve the issue. Rather; it simply reflects the refusal of British and Australian Governments to consider indigenous communities as distinct political entities. Official Reconciliation does not adequately address this distinction either. I will argue that, in the conduct of political dialogue between Australia's settler and indigenous populations, it is essential to accept, in principle, the political coexistence in the Australian territories of distinct political indigenous communities, without assuming that they, together with the settler community, constitute one nation.(12)

The history of settler communal belonging in Australia traces a line of development in which the centrality of British...

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