Sir: Keith Windschuttle’s article “Truth-Telling in Oceania” (April 2023) explores the meaning of “sovereignty” and argues that “legally and politically, Australia’s Aborigines never had any sovereignty to cede”. He reviewed the legal arguments over the meaning of sovereignty that has evolved since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and included reference to the Mabo and Wik decisions in support of the contention that no previous sovereignty existed. I agree with his conclusions.
But Windschuttle’s arguments may be irrelevant to the demands for sovereignty now being pressed by indigenous campaigners. If the current definition does not apply, the demands must apply a different meaning to the word. But at no point has there been any effort to describe the nature of the proposed sovereignty. It is as though mere use of the word implies all the meanings that will be required if it ever comes to pass.
The lack of explanation is not surprising, as the implications are enormous. Sovereignty as defined by Windschuttle cannot be transferred, not only because of its legal invalidity but because of the consequences, one of which would be that about 25,000,000 current non-Aboriginal Australians would be denied full citizenship. Even if transfer of sovereignty was possible, how would it be applied? Will a sovereign Aboriginal Australia persist with universal suffrage or will only those who claim to be indigenous have a vote? Indeed will the notion of “voting’” survive? What form of citizenship will be held by the 25,000,000 excluded residents? Would laws made under the Westminster system continue to be valid? Will Parliament continue to exist but membership be restricted to those claiming Aboriginal blood? What will happen to the system of taxation, policing and the courts?
When confronted with questions such as these we are forced to conclude that a straight transfer of sovereignty is impossible. Therefore, a new kind of sovereignty, non-compliant with the legal tradition described by Windschuttle, is being proposed, implicitly. This will perhaps not be a problem in the eyes of the new proposed sovereign holders, as the old sovereignty is despised because it is Eurocentric as well as colonialist.
Thus the sovereignty demanded by indigenous persons will be a new category and inevitably exclusive, but beyond that imaginary, never having been explicitly proposed in detail. Perhaps it is intended to reflect the imagined sovereignty existing before 1788. If so, there is an implication that Aboriginal life and cultural practices will revert to those then in existence. But turning the clock back in this way is simply impossible.
Rejecting Aboriginal sovereignty because it does not fit current law will not stop radical Aboriginal individuals claiming it, and Windschuttle’s strong argument that there was in fact no sovereignty to cede will be ignored. Regrettably, such arguments are necessary but not sufficient to avoid years of wrangling over native sovereignty in Australia.
Sir: I would like to ask polling companies whether they ask double-barrelled questions when seeking the opinions of people they are surveying—or would such an approach potentially elicit skewed or false responses? For example, if a polling company was asked to assess whether employees were in favour of moving towards a paperless office, would it be legitimate to ask a question along the following lines? “Should the organisation reduce paperwork by removing all printing and photocopying machines?” It would seem to me that this would be considered to be a double-barrelled question which should properly be split into two parts to elicit accurate results. Another example of misleading questions is where a person asks a stranger, “Could you prove to me that you are truly a good person by giving me a loan for $100,000?”
Are double-barrelled questions permitted in our courts of law? I am concerned that the current referendum question may need to be split into two questions to produce reliable and accurate responses.
What They Want
Sir: As I was reading your editorial “An Ambassador for Reparations” (May 2023), on came a song on the radio by the Flying Lizards in 1979. The lines in it are so appropriate:
The best things in life are free
But you can give them to the birds and bees
I want money
That’s what I want
That’s what I want
Having read your piece, I could not summarise the position of our First Nations people (as some call the Aborigines) any better myself.
Don’t Blame the Truck Drivers
Sir: While I enjoy satire, I found Christopher Akehurst’s article “The Struggles of an Interstate Truck Driver” (June 2023) to be a jarring, disturbing, one-sided piece perhaps more fittingly described as “malinformation” as set out in John O’Sullivan’s Asperities in the same edition.
Lampooning road users, including truck drivers, is an easy way to continue the myth of “blame the driver/road user” as the only approach to reducing road trauma. Reducing road trauma in Australia (and the world) must become a more serious business. We all make mistakes, but as so many unanswered road safety inquiries have shown, we need much better data, with implementation of well-known solutions, with accountability being taken by road infrastructure providers, equipment manufacturers and road users, with appropriate funding.
We have at least 40,000 serious injuries on our roads every year across the country. We have had some great successes in improving road safety, including in the trucking industry, over the last fifty years, saving thousands of lives and injuries. Better to build on those successes, not just satirise some images of the past. Quadrant should tell the whole story.
Re-Reading Katherine Mansfield
Sir: Warm appreciation to Mervyn Bendle for his review of Katherine Mansfield (May 2023): concise, readable and convincing. The more so as—which does not appear from his review—for generations of New Zealand schoolchildren, Mansfield stories were among those books you have to read in school and ever after shun—much like, say, Manzoni’s I promessi sposi for generations of Italian schoolchildren; fill the blanks for other countries.
Following Mervyn Bendle, however, a volume of Mansfield is sure to be on my library’s Recent Returns shelf soon.