The myth of terra nullius and Australian sovereignty
The 26th January 1788, the day we celebrate as the founding of our nation, was the day that a British aristocrat established the colony of New South Wales. From this moment, the future for many who already inhabited this continent and for some who would be brought here changed.
The ships that bought the colonists carried more than convicts, sailors and marines. The fleet they sailed in was a part of an empire, a colonial empire so vast that by the end of the 19th century it could be claimed that the sun never set on it.
This small band of colonists came into immediate conflict with an ancient civilisation, a continent inhabited with the seeds of over 300 nations. The Empire brought with it marines and peoples from its dependencies and colonies. It also brought its relations of a social nature. Although springing from the “Mother” country, these relations were bound to take new forms.
These events took place in the context of the era of unfolding revolutions associated with the transformations that capitalism was undergoing. In 1781, James Watt patented the steam engine and the industrial revolution was in full swing. In 1776, the American colonies of the Empire revolted and established the United States of America with the federation of 13 States. The Dutch had conquered the Indonesian Archipelago in the 16th century and colonisation of the America’s and Africa were in full swing. The slave trade from Africa continued unabated while capital was accumulating vast wealth for the emerging European bourgeoisie and challenging the dominant feudal relations.
The foundation of the British Empire was an emerging alliance between the old feudal aristocracy and a newly developing capitalist class. These two groups would fuse in a process measured over centuries, reaching its pinnacle with the establishment of the Constitutional Monarchy under William of Orange, which was preceded by the fusion of the Crowns of Scotland and England and Wales. The colonial subjugation of Ireland also reached a new stage, necessitating the addition of the liberation of Ireland being to the British workers’ programme of struggle.
It is this Empire with a crowned head of state as the constitutional representative of the bourgeoisie and the nobility that took possession of Australia and eventually founded six colonies.
The colony of New South Wales began as a beach head on a continent inhabited by over a million people. The myth that the British were once again shouldering the burden of civilising a continent gave way to the idea of terra nullius, an empty land ripe for exploitation. In short order, Australia became a huge sheep and cattle station. The mountains of mineral wealth; iron ore, silver, coal and gold provided incentive enough to support the fable of terra nullius and to extend royal control over the land. To ensure that these resources remained available for exploitation, a brutal war of genocide and dispossession was unleashed.
The colonial regime itself contained the seeds of the colonising society, perpetuating in miniature the structure and contradictions of the old society. British capital, still aching from the loss of its American colonies, used different tools to bind its Australian possessions. Each colony was and to this day still is tied to the Crown under Sovereign Law. The modern expression of these ties has been made clear by three recent prime ministers showing their slavish adherence to monarchism. John Howard and Tony Abbot were the most extreme examples of this trend while Julia Gillard represented a more subdued expression of subservience to Britain.
Behind this charade, lies the real issue of who owns what is produced and who owns the land upon which we live. What is Australia and what can and should Australia become? What are we now and what are the political forces and classes in our society? From which sources do they derive their power and wealth?
Despite the myth of terra nullius having been extinguished, it still persists in acts of dispossession and the structure of land ownership. It still exists through the British crown and in the establishment of British law throughout this land. Unlike the United States of America which came into being through a revolution, Australia came into being as an act of the British Parliament and as a response of the British Parliament to the demands of the colonists. With the exceptions of Eureka and Tarragindi, armed conflict with the crown and its representatives by the Australian colonists has not been the order of the day. The huge extent of financial holdings by British and colonial companies continues.
In essence under these laws and this Constitution all land is still held in Common by the British monarch, now Australian monarch as the Crown and the parliaments are but her administrative arm. The Governors and Governor General are but the representatives of this Constitutional Monarchy. Our democracy is a fig leaf to cover how our economic position continues. The only entities that have not ceded their rights are the nations of the original inhabitants. Though conquered there have been no treaties, and few concessions have have so far been given by the Crown to restore land rights and to recognise the rights of the original inhabitants.
What is occurring now is a struggle to find a bourgeois solution to this issue. It is one of the issues dominating the debates over recognition, sovereignty and reconciliation. The movement for Indigenous sovereignty does not just, though important, concern the nations but is also important to working people in this country. This is why so much effort has gone into breaking or corrupting leading forces in the Indigenous community. It is why so much division is being sown on these issues, yet despite this the nations of the original peoples continue to move forward. This aspect of the national question forms a strong and urgent aspect of a socialist revolution in Australia, neither the working people who form this nation nor the original peoples can be free without each other’s assistance. Aboriginal and Islander sovereignty and land rights are essential for our Revolution to be embraced by our class.
Australia began its colonial life as a source of raw material for Britain’s workshop of the world, as a source of wealth to expand the dominance of this empire over the world. We are now a source of support to the new American empire. In order to continue this dominance the empires cannot afford to have the illegal and colonial relationship in Australia unravel. The descendants and the arrivals to this land must understand that they are now part of this conundrum.
Australia still lingers in its colonial past and has not broken that link. The main force that can break that link still remains the working class. The Constitution is a concession by the British crown. It is not founded on an independent Australia but on maintaining our links to our colonial past. It does not overcome the injustices of the colonial system and leaves in place Crown law. In fact it invests Crown law through the States and Territories. Australia needs a new Constitution, one based on the people not the Crown. The current domination of classes allied to the Crown and international capital cannot and will not grant such a constitution.
The Constitutional Monarchy has to be bought to an end and sovereignty invested in the people who inhabit this continent. The original Nations have to have their national sovereignty restored. Land should be held under this basis, not as the property of the British Crown or even the absurdity that we have come to, where we have a foreign monarch representing our capitalist state.