In September last year the Albanese government advertised for applicants for a new position in the bureaucracy, an Ambassador for First Nations People. The ambassador would be employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to work across a number of government agencies and departments. The brief would be to “engage directly on how Australia’s international engagement contributes to Indigenous community and economic development, supports First Nations businesses and exporters, delivers practical action on climate change, builds connections across the Indo-Pacific region and supports Indigenous rights around the world”. The position would mean that Australia would for the first time have “dedicated indigenous representation in our international engagement”.
In other words, from the earliest days after its election victory, the Albanese government decided that the scope of its commitment to the Aboriginal Voice would extend well beyond domestic issues.
In March this year, Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney announced that Justin Mohamed had got the job. The published documents gave only short accounts of the areas in which Mohamed would concentrate but it was clear he was expected to focus on issues of much more significance than overseas trade in indigenous art and artefacts or tourist attractions.
Mohamed’s former career path has been not in trade but in identity politics. His previous job was Secretary of Aboriginal Justice in the Victorian government where he oversaw the development of the state treaty with Aboriginal people and truth-telling projects. As Ambassador for First Nations, his brief from the Albanese government now is to “ensure the perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are included in our international engagements”.
You might have thought such an appointment would have attracted its share of publicity, especially given the controversy that emerged over Albanese’s decision to give the proposed Voice the right to consult and advise not just the Parliament but the entire executive of the Commonwealth government. An indigenous ambassador could potentially influence international policies of security, defence and foreign affairs. If the Voice gets up under its present wording, the ambassador will clearly be one of those always at its beck and call.
So far, the mainstream media have largely ignored this development. The announcement of Mohamed’s appointment received minimal publicity. The only commentary I have seen about it has been an article by Gary Johns, secretary of Recognise A Better Way, in the online site Epoch Times. Johns’s piece was published before Peter Dutton transformed the media debate by announcing he would lead a Vote No campaign. Yet the implications of the Voice’s international role deserve to be much wider known, since they provide more strong reasons for voting No.
In the advertisement for the ambassador’s position last September, the media release was accompanied by a statement from Foreign Minister Penny Wong who said that, as well as helping to grow Aboriginal trade and investment, the ambassador “will also lead Australia’s engagement to progress First Nations rights globally”. What she was tacitly referring to here was the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a document endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2007. Kevin Rudd’s Labor government officially adopted it at a ceremony in Parliament House, Canberra, in April 2009. Ever since then, the ideas in this declaration have been central to Aboriginal political demands on the rest of Australia.
For its Aboriginal advocates, UNDRIP promises two major gains in economic and political power: reparations and sovereignty. These issues will be the focus of much of Ambassador Mohamed’s time and energy in pursuing Aboriginal rights globally. If the constitutional referendum proposed by Albanese is successful, the activities the new diplomat will be required to pursue in international tribunals like the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues or the International Court of Justice, will be those identified by UNDRIP.
One of the principal issues that document identifies is reparations. Its article 28 endorses the following two clauses:
1/ Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, of a just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.1/
2/ Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.
Since the Aboriginal political class now declares at every opportunity that they never surrendered their sovereignty over all of Australia and that British occupation of Aboriginal land in 1788 was illegal both then and now, the Commonwealth government could be faced with some very costly demands. The appropriate reparations would be equal in value to all the property that was purportedly stolen from them—that is, the entire continent of Australia, its offshore islands and waterways—that have not already been returned or compensated.
In 2005, another declaration by the UN was passed by the General Assembly. This is generally identified as the acceptance of the human rights set out in the Van Boven Principles. (The formal title was: Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.) Today it is frequently referenced in papers and reports on Aboriginal policy by Australia’s various human rights bureaucracies and in documents advocating Aboriginal treaties.
For example, one of the most exhaustive of these reports is the Northern Territory Treaty Commission, Final Report, 2022, which argues that a treaty with “First Nations” should provide reparations for indigenous people under the Van Boven Principles. This requires the Commonwealth to provide to Aboriginal people “an acknowledgement and apology for breaches of human rights; guarantees against repetition; measures of restitution; measures of rehabilitation, and monetary compensation”.
The Northern Territory report says reparations should be paid to those indigenous people who have suffered personal pain and suffering, and have endured losses of identity, family connection, language, culture, and access to traditional land. Since large numbers of those who identify as Aboriginal today would not trouble their conscience by pleading they or their ancestors endured such misfortunes, they would not hesitate to join the long queue for reparation payments.
We already have an example of the granting of similar terms by the Commonwealth government in the $600 million grant announced in 2021 to members of the Stolen Generations and their offspring. The then Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, allocated the money for the “healing” of those allegedly suffering from trauma. Most of it, some $378 million, was to fund a “redress scheme” comprising compensation grants of $75,000 to each individual who identifies as a survivor of the Stolen Generations, plus a $7000 grant “to facilitate healing”. The rest was allocated for grants for research services and healing treatments.
Even though the major test case of the Stolen Generations in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, Cubillo and Gunner v Commonwealth, found the claims by the plaintiffs were unproven, and the High Court of Australia in Kruger v Commonwealth found the same about claims of genocide, Wyatt agreed to pay compensation not only to those who claimed to have been stolen but to their relatives and descendants for the alleged trauma they suffered, with no limit on how distant this family relationship might be. Even the great-grandchildren of the original Stolen Generations claimants could make a claim. The policy would serve those “descended from older generations who were removed—great grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunties, and uncles”.
Even greater munificence can be expected if the current Commonwealth government wins the constitutional referendum later this year and introduces a treaty with similar ideological objectives.
The key ideas that inform these policies do not derive from Aboriginal culture or its modern political advocates. Like the term “First Nations”, the most influential ideas about reparations and compensation in the international milieu come from the US. They are not ancient or traditional there either.
Since 2001 and the publication of a best-selling book by Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, a growing number of lawsuits and political demonstrations have generated a movement to compensate the distant descendants of America’s black slaves. US academics have embellished their careers by joining the throng and specialist lawyers have emerged to pursue the issue through the courts and legislatures.
Since the police killing of African-American George Floyd in May 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has become the most publicised promoter of the link between slavery and contemporary race relations. And just as Australian Aboriginal radicals in the 1960s imitated the Black Power advocates of the American Civil Rights movement, today’s Aboriginal political activists are doing much the same again this time around. This is despite the fact that the movements they are imitating were founded not by indigenous Americans but by African-American socialists.
Since January this year, the most notorious of the American demands for reparations has been initiated by advisers to the government of the City of San Francisco. Although California was never a state that permitted slavery in any legal or political sense, it is now being told to lift black reparations to a breathtaking new height.
San Francisco’s African American Reparations Advisory Committee produced a report advocating a $5 million payment for every black person who qualified, plus a supplemental income to low-income residents for the next 250 years. The principal qualifications required for these payments were that recipients be at least eighteen years old and have identified as black or African-American on public documents for at least ten years. Other requirements include that the resident has been “personally, or the direct descendant of someone, incarcerated by the failed War on Drugs” or is a “descendant of someone enslaved through US chattel slavery before 1865”.
The San Francisco report also included a statement that is very likely to have an influence on the kind of debate we can expect in the Vote Yes campaign in our forthcoming referendum. In a testimonial bordering on ethnic blackmail, the report declared that San Francisco’s “international reputation as a shining progressive gem in the west is undermined by its legacy of mistreatment, violence towards, and targeted racism against Black Americans”. The San Francisco city government is currently negotiating with the authors of this proposal who will submit a final report in June.
Is the $5 million per head of reparations an ambit claim that will inevitably be reduced? Probably yes. But in the minds of reparations seekers everywhere it has certainly lifted the bar of what could be possible and what they are likely to settle for.
So by the time the Australian government’s negotiators settle with the Voice on a figure for individual reparations here, it’s a safe bet the $600 million granted by Ken Wyatt for his Stolen Generations redress scheme will look paltry. In fact, the number of Australian indigenous claimants attracted to a reparations offer like that of San Francisco would make the costs of the recent national Covid lockdowns look like small beer.
As a growing number of comments by readers of articles in our daily newspapers are beginning to recognise, the treaties and reparations generated by the Voice can never lead to reconciliation. Instead, discussions about who will get what from treaties in Australia have already created two separate entities, Aboriginal people versus Australian people, engaged in an unseemly contest for moral supremacy and political power.
As leftist historian Henry Reynolds argued in his 1996 book Aboriginal Sovereignty, and as the subsequent stream of books and reports by the Aboriginal elite in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra confirm time and again, their common objective is to divide this continent three ways, between Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders, and the rest of us. The 97 per cent of the population descended from those who came here after 1788 have nothing to gain and a lot to lose.
The objectives of indigenous sovereignty and reparations for bogus historical offences should be seen as the opposite of “completing the nation”. Those conservative political identities who have long supported the Voice, such as Julian Leeser and Greg Craven, have based their stance on wishful thinking. As any realistic conservative could tell them, a victory for Yes in the forthcoming constitutional referendum is guaranteed to divide the nation. The goodwill of the majority of our population towards Aboriginal people, clearly in evidence since the previous referendum in 1967, will be lost in a swamp of unjustifiable political and moral dogmas that the Voice will institutionalise. The unintended consequences can only end in sorrow.