A Vision for Australia’s indigenous peoples

| May 13, 2015

Tony Abbott once said he hoped to be Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs. For GAP’s ‘A Vision for Australia’ project, Dominic O’Sullivan explains why differentiated citizenship for indigenous peoples is the basis for meaningful political inclusion.

On his election, the Prime Minister declared the intention to be Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Indigenous affairs is traditionally a portfolio of peripheral prime ministerial interest, and Tony Abbott’s policy vision centres around constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples’ prior occupancy.

The question of what such recognition actually means has become the subject of legal controversy and political argument. It is, then, instructive to take a step back and develop a coherent vision of what it means exactly to be a citizen of the modern liberal state.

Citizenship codifies ‘belonging’; so how and on whose terms do indigenous peoples ‘belong’, and what are the institutional structures and political values required that support belonging to a genuine Commonwealth?

The ways in which people experience citizenship is a product of political values and priorities; it is not an abstract concept and is never politically neutral, but one with deep implications for people’s inclusion or exclusion from the political community. Instinctively, the modern liberal state understands citizenship as the codification of individual rights with people’s belonging occurring without reference to the sub-national communities from which they come and from which their individuality derives cultural meaning. The prevailing assumption is that personal freedoms can be separated from social context. Instead, substantive constitutional recognition might presuppose an understanding of citizenship that does not depend on indigenous people engaging with the state on terms that they, themselves, have not determined. Individual liberty is culturally contextualised and may, for indigenous peoples, be dependent on collective rights and identities that can only be recognised through a differentiated or two-tiered account of citizenship, where one is afforded substantive political recognition as both a member of one’s traditional nation and as an indigenous member of the national political community.

In this way, the rights of indigeneity can be understood as belonging to the political community, in preferred cultural context, and with substantive recognition of the socio-cultural, historical and political circumstances that frame indigenous political experience.

Citizenship’s capacity to empower, rather than constrain, requires that it has substantive political value for all and not just some people. Differentiated citizenship is concerned with people’s capacity to be equal and different; it rejects the proposition that indigenous peoples’ material prosperity and democratic equality can exist only on the presumption of assimilation.

Differentiated citizenship does not admit indigenous people as disadvantaged individuals demanding benevolent sympathy but as distinct peoples whose right to exist is not diminished by the deprivation of sovereignty. From the right to exist flows the right to expect a culturally inclusive political order as normatively just. While the right to exist predates citizenship itself, it is a right most recently given international political authority by the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, which provides a framework for thinking about what citizenship ought to mean in practice and how indigenous peoples might experience its inclusive potential. Among the most significant rights of citizenship that the Declaration affirms concerns the ways in which the state ensures indigenous peoples’ substantive opportunities to participate in its political affairs, especially in relation to matters of immediate concern to themselves.

The Northern Territory Intervention and current proposals to close remote indigenous communities in Western Australia show that while there have been recent attempts to include indigenous peoples in policy-making, the concept is not entrenched as a matter of democratic entitlement, and the terms of indigenous belonging to the modern state remain routinely determined by non-indigenous political imperatives.

The argument for differentiated citizenship is principally an argument for substantive political voice in forms that provide the political order with the moral legitimacy that Constitutional recognition seeks but cannot deliver in the absence of citizenship that indigenous people accept as fair and legitimate and able to provide the basis for meaningful political inclusion.

There are institutional lessons that Australia might draw from both Canada and New Zealand where differentiated accounts of citizenship are broadly accepted as part of the evolving liberal tradition and which provide opportunities for democratic inclusion and substantive ‘belonging’. In Canada these examples extend to geographically based self-government, while in New Zealand guaranteed Maori representation in Parliament and other public bodies, as well as the Treaty of Waitangi’s increasing jurisprudential and political significance, means that claims to distinctive inclusion and recognition are always heard even though always the subject of political negotiation.



  1. Anti Cupiditas

    June 5, 2015 at 10:10 am

    vision for australia indigenous peoples

    I know quite a number of indigenous who just like many non-indigenous believe that all this talk about reconcilliation is just a vehicle for some academics to score continued funding. First of all there is no such thing as reconcilliation no matter what society you're in. People either get along or they don't, no legislation or program can change that. To achieve harmony (a much better description than reconcilliation) people need to pull their weight. You'll never get anyone to accept someone who only keeps blaming others for their own shortcomings no matter what race or society. You can not achieve harmony with people who profit from perpetual division under the pretence of reconcilliation & the incessant bleating for funding & the arrogance that comes from the ignorance of telling others how they should live. Does anyone ever bother asking the indigenous how they would prefer to live? No, it's always some ignorant academic expert or just as ignorant politician who listens to selected pseudo-indigenous advisors who do not represent their so-called "my people". I have witnessed several such "my people" who could not handle to spend more than a month in the company of "my people". Yet they're the ones who push through to the front whenever some hare-brained scheme brings up visions of a big trough to sink their snouts into. That's why reconcilliation is merely a dream that can't be realised under the present system. There is no discrimination, only a lack of will to contribute. Feigned indignation is the order of the day. Just look at the uproar following Abbott's remarks re choice of lifestyle in remote communities. I doubt very much that the people in the communities would embrace hundreds or perhaps thousands of outsiders moving in so that city-like services could be provided on a daily basis as many claim they're entitled to. The average working Australian is getting fed up with being taxed to the max for no obvious positive outcome.