by Gary Foley and Tim Anderson
Both Aboriginal Australia and Palestine have examples of community controlled organization, the creation of self-governance structures compatible with the post-colonial ideal of self-determination. This self-determination can occur even under colonised rule and while a greater struggle is afoot. However the degeneration of these self-governance structures into bureaucratic advisory bodies, or municipal appendages of the colonial state, has subverted self-governance and done nothing for the preservation or reclaiming of sovereign land and resources.
The experience of Palestine shows that an obsession with ‘recognition’ by the colonial regime can lead to the illusion of an advance, without even slowing the pace of dispossession. Similarly in Australia, the project of embedding an advisory body into an explicitly colonial, anti-democratic constitution always ran the risk of recognising and lending greater legitimacy to the colonial regime. If there were to be an embedded advisory body it would most likely function as a shield and lightning rod for the regime, disarming the force of actual community based demands for land rights and justice.
In both cases, measures to add legitimacy to the colonial regime in the name of limited self-governance, or providing a ‘voice’ to indigenous communities, demonstrate colonial skill in capturing popular notions. In Australia the colonization of these powerful ideas has been through ‘bait and switch’ tactics, where the powerful idea is held out but then substituted for a poor compromise mechanism. Similarly, in Palestine, the idea of a Palestinian nation-state, or at least the path towards one, has been substituted for a municipal authority with very limited functions but which serves to assist Israeli control of ongoing dispossession.
Reconciliation is often held out as a way forward, and out of conflict, but great care must be taken to see that this is not principally an acceptance of colonial dispossession. Even verbal recognition of prior ownership or custodianship (as in the Australian rituals of ‘Welcome to Country’) may amount to nothing if the colonial regime is allowed to consolidated ‘extinguishment’ of actual prior ownership. Reconciliation is not justice.
Given the colonial skill in coopting terms of liberation there should be eternal vigilance over any new recontraction of indigenous rights to ensure that the mechanisms are measured against the key elements of self-determination: their contributions to self-governance, resource sovereignty and participatory democracy; effectively economic and political independence.