Indigenous peoples and a liberal politics of potential

Following last month’s call for a new formal body to represent Australia’s indigenous peoples in parliament, Dominic O’Sullivan, author of Indigenity: a politics of potential – out today – examines indigeneity and what it can achieve.


Dominic O’Sullivan

“Indigeneity is a politics of potential; a theory of human agency that provides an indigenous framework for thinking about how to engage liberal societies in discourses of reconciliation, self-determination and sovereignty. It is both political theory and political strategy. It transcends the limits of indigenous rights as a sub-set of ethnic minority politics. Instead, it claims a distinctive and enduring indigenous share in the sovereign authority of the state.

The claim is grounded in on-going and inalienable rights of prior occupancy; rights to land, language, culture, the maintenance and protection of decision-making processes, and the right to participation in state affairs as genuinely and substantively equal citizens. Unless it recognises prior occupancy, liberal democracy cannot uphold these rights as measures of justice. It cannot think creatively or reasonably about the terms of indigenous belonging to the modern state; the basic questions of citizenship – who belongs and on whose terms?

Indigeneity is, then, a claim to the liberal recognition of difference. It is an argument that has some acceptance in New Zealand, for example, but which remains peripheral to mainstream Australian politics. The claims of culture and the expectation to participate in decision-making, as distinctively indigenous peoples, competes with a strong assimilationist politics.

However, liberal freedom is culturally contextualised. Colonisation could occur only because the deprivation of some people’s liberty was thought just. Culture and context matter. They make the particular and differentiated exercise of citizenship essential to self-determination and preliminary to reconciliation. Recognition is important as a determinant of indigenous people’s capacity for citizenship.

Citizenship defines the terms of indigenous belonging to the liberal state. It is an ideological and power laden concept. It can exacerbate or mediate political tensions over the distribution of public power and authority. States like Australia and New Zealand have long histories of using citizenship to promote assimilation. However, liberal citizenship can be differentiated to make it inclusive. It can respond to enduring claims of prior occupancy by recognising the right to difference in cultural expression, but sameness in political opportunities; difference in forms of land tenure, but sameness in capacity to make decisions about how land is used; difference in the ways one is taught at school, but sameness in educational quality.

Cultural context and purpose motivates indigenous economic activity. There is a transgenerational perspective; a time horizon beyond the need for an immediate return to shareholders. Culture is preliminary to effective health services and to education which is, in turn, a determinant of indigenous access to labour markets and the ways in which land rights may be used for both material and spiritual purposes. In these ways, the relationship between culture and citizenship is important. Citizenship, too, is a determinant of indigenous economic opportunity. It influences people’s access to economic agency. When agency is secure one sees that indigenous ethnicity is not synonymous with victimhood.

Differentiated citizenship requires respect for culture, but it also requires respect for the right to participate in public affairs; to participate in the setting of school curriculums and pedagogies, the setting of labour market policies and standards for the use of natural resources. It requires scope for indigenous peoples to influence the character of the state, by sitting in parliaments as a matter of right as they have in New Zealand since 1867, but which Australia does not entertain.

The context of indigeneity’s engagement with the liberal state explains its separation from ethnic minority politics in Australia and New Zealand, for example. The distinction is emphasised when one compares the indigenous politics of these Australasian states with a jurisdiction like Fiji where the recent withdrawal of the colonial power and restoration of the indigenous people’s majority population status has not advanced self-determination. Indeed, Fiji lacks a coherent philosophy of self-determination which inhibits its indigenous people’s capacity for citizenship. Fiji is not a liberal state, but amidst its political dysfunction, are strong international pressures to adopt a liberal democratic form where differentiated citizenship could give indigenous Fijians political voice and cultural security as a basis for reconciliation.

One will know that reconciliation has occurred when there is uncontested differentiated citizenship.

Indigeneity [FC]Indigeneity: A politics of potential: Australia, Fiji and New Zealand by Dominic O’Sullivan can be ordered here for £60.00.

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