It’s a Greek word, of course, because the Greeks—the Athenians, really—were the first human societies to enjoy democracy. It initially flourished in their fifth-century city states, except, hang on just a minute, no they weren’t, and, sorry-not-sorry, democracy didn’t begin in the polis at all. People in Australia had many millennia to finesse systems of political power-sharing before Cleisthenes came on the scene. It’s time, reader, for a very deep breath: Aborigines invented democracy. As a result, the many First Nations here were able to enjoy millennia of what Bunurong writer Bruce Pascoe has called ‘the Great Australian Peace’.1 Australian government, democracy and diplomacy were already ancient here when Cook set out from Plymouth in 1768. Like those of the Athenians, many ancient Australian governments privileged the male and the old. They were nevertheless a lot more democratic (especially for Aboriginal purposes) than any Australian government operating today.
Ludicrous, I hear you scoff, hurling this copy of Meanjin aside, and muttering unhappily about political correctness. At least, those of you who have not yet read Pascoe, nor Bill Gammage’s magnum opus on the untold story of Australian civilisation, The Biggest Estate on Earth. Yet it is not only Aboriginal people and our supporters who have made this argument. Approached logically—and minus the shit-coloured glasses of longstanding Australian prejudice—the evidence for viable Australian democracy before Cook is compelling. Still muttering? Don’t take my word for it. Here is Robert A. Dahl, former Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale:
evidence suggests that democratic government, in a broad sense, existed in several areas of the world well before the turn of the 5th century.
It is plausible to assume that democracy in one form or another arises … if the group is sufficiently independent of control by outsiders to permit members to run their own affairs and if a substantial number of members, such as tribal elders, consider themselves about equally qualified to participate in decisions about matters of concern to the group as a whole … democracy, such as it was practiced, might well have seemed the most ‘natural’ political system.2
Prior to colonisation, the many First Nations were certainly independent of external control. Blackfellas ran the place, of course. Did Aboriginal adults consider themselves ‘about equally qualified to participate in decisions about matters of concern?’ Within the overarching framework of Aboriginal Law, absolutely. Aboriginal resistance to secular hierarchy is notorious. Professor Fred Myers lived with the Pintupi people of the Central Desert in the 1970s, and concluded: Except for very close kin, no individual simply on the basis of being an elder can tell one what to do … There are none who in themselves possess authority or the right to create that which others must follow …3
There is overwhelming evidence from Aboriginal oral history, as well as from anthropology and written history, that Aboriginal adults traditionally saw the world in highly egalitarian terms compared to their European contemporaries. One Victorian clergyman lamented in 1888 that ‘in fact, it is difficult to get into a blackfellow’s head that one man is higher than another’.4
If that isn’t a democratic outlook, it’s hard to know just what is. Since 1788 or thereabouts the world has thought of classical Aborigines as nomadic hunter-gathers rather than as (frequently) villagers and (usually) farmers; as ‘primitives’ and political unsophisticates rather than as entitled citizens belonging to their own Indigenous nations. These are ideas that it is very difficult to unthink, particularly when so much misinformation abounds. But some writers have shed light on what has been damaged under colonisation:
Their creative drive to make sense and order out of things has for some reason concentrated on the social … Consequently there has been an unusually rich development of what the anthropologist calls ‘social structure’, the network of enduring relations recognised between people. This very intricate system is an intellectual and social achievement of a very high order … it has to be compared, I think, with such a secular achievement as say, parliamentary government in a European country.5
You might not think it to look at the postcolonial havoc playing out in many places today, but the skilful management of interpersonal relationships was the primary goal of the classical Aboriginal world. Without it, there could have been no trade in goods and ideas between Aboriginal nations. No regional land management could have been practised. And it was very consistently practised, as Gammage has proven. This relationship management between people and between nations took place in a world ordered in every detail by the Dreaming—a religious Law—but a system of law for all that. Adult individuals have explicit, known rights and obligations under this law—and particular roles. Men and women invariably knew where they stood before colonisation, and knew what was expected of them as responsible adult members of the society. And expectations of Aboriginal citizenship were not (and are not today) arbitrary.
Justice Richard Blackburn had Aboriginal governance explained to him when he was hearing Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, a land rights case in North-East Arnhem Land in 1971. His judgement ultimately denied that native title existed, but read in part: ‘If ever there was government by law rather than government by man then this is it.’
So government ‘by man’ existed—but what about the women? Were these Aboriginal democracies really gerontocracies, denying power to women, who were destined for miserable lives as chattels and child-brides? It is probable that initiated men held, and exercised, more power than adult women in widespread areas of the continent. But the picture is more complex than simple patriarchy or gerontocracy. Early white observers of Aboriginal life saw the power of elder men that derived from the Bora, or law ground. Very often, though, being men themselves, these outside observers misunderstood the complementary roles senior women played, and still play today. Failing to gain access to or much understand the structural power of women in religious and political life, they thought of Aboriginal society as purely patriarchal. But Aboriginal governance—whether patriarchal or matriarchal (both forms of authority existed)—never operates without the involvement and consent of senior women. As Diane Bell writes:
Underlying male and female practice is a common purpose and a shared belief in the Dreamtime experience; both have sacred boards, both know songs and paint designs which encode the knowledge of the Dreamtime … Under the Law, men and women have distinctive roles to play but each has access to certain checks and balances which ensure that neither sex can enjoy unrivalled supremacy over the other.6
Senior Aboriginal women can refuse to sanction secular and ceremonial activities. Without their sanction, the central power of men to initiate youths into adulthood, for example, ceases. There are communities still today in which women hold enormous traditional political status; places where a Law Woman can challenge male authority and every man in the vicinity will immediately drop to the ground, lying face down with eyes closed, in fear of her sanctions. Julie Bishop, eat your heart out—though one of only two female representatives in an overwhelmingly male Bora, Bishop is a good example of how gender relations have become more, not less, unequal in Australia in the last two centuries. (It is worth noting here that the sole current attempt at formal Aboriginal national political representation, the National Congress, operates on the formal presumption of gender equality. Both a male and a female chair are elected by the organisation.)
This Aboriginal paradigm, described by Kombumerri Elder Mary Graham as being founded upon the four ethics of autonomy, balance, compassion and land/identity,7 led to a stable, predictable polity on the east coast. The anthropologist W.E.H. (Bill) Stanner saw this in central Australia too, just as he saw that ‘the worst imperialisms are those of preconception’ including the preconception of most that Aboriginal life was Hobbesian, or ‘uncivilised’. Rather, he wrote:
its principle and its ethos are variations on a single theme—continuity, constancy, balance, symmetry, regularity … There are no wars or invasions to seize territory. They do not enslave each other. There is no master–servant relation. There is no class division. There is no property or income inequality. The result is a homeostasis, far-reaching and stable.8
Checks and balances. No master–servant relation. Homeostasis. Far-reaching stability. And a rule of laws and not of men. Sounds a lot like a democracy to me.
This interlocking system of Indigenous local governments led to what Pascoe has called the great achievement of Aboriginal civilisation. Australia then was a continent populated by many Indigenous nations speaking hundreds of different languages. Yet the First Australians traded and travelled across vast distances (South Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria; New South Wales to the Kimberley); intermarried, and lived largely at peace with their neighbours. Conflicts occurred of course, since Aborigines are human beings. But these were skirmishes, not wars, because Aboriginal Law establishes authority relating to land in such profoundly psychological terms that conflict over land ownership was—at that time if not today—unthinkable.
Such conflicts as there were—skirmishes over resources rather than battles waged for empires—were managed in regulated ways by the recognised authorities under the ‘rule of law not men’. And this massive achievement, this Aboriginal philosophy of structured peace, prevailed until colonisation occurred.
The catastrophe that began in 1788 killed law-makers and diplomats, warriors and grandmothers, artists and philosophers. It forced remnant Aboriginal nations together in the mess and anguish of missions and reserves. Languages, Indigenous government and religion were forbidden. Children were systematically taken away. A continent was stolen. Very quickly, as the British implemented what they were pleased to call ‘civilisation’, the central organising concept of Australia—Aboriginal political autonomy—became a very hollow joke. Two centuries of political struggle ensued.
And today? Along with the extremely poor and marginalised of other backgrounds, Aboriginal people enjoy only meagre fruits of Australian democracy. Where there was once democratic process involving at the bare minimum every adult male, here there is now largely disenfranchisement. Where there was once widespread Aboriginal prosperity, there is largely Aboriginal poverty and despair. Not all Aborigines are poor, but Yolngu men in the Northern Territory live as long as Sudanese people do. (Read that sentence again.) Australia is the only developed country in the world in which trachoma is present. The black people who are going blind here from trachoma are the very same people who are told how lucky they are to live in a first-world democracy, where they have a real say, a voice in the national story. Incarceration rates for us are higher than those for blacks in apartheid South Africa.
In 2004 Mulrunji Doomadgee had his liver cleaved in two by a white policeman on Palm Island, a white policeman who not only walks the streets a free man, but still enjoys a position in the Queensland Police Service. And Mulrunji’s tragedy has been repeated dozens of times in the years since the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody. You can be killed by the state in Australia with scarce consequences if you are Aboriginal. This is the democracy we now enjoy.
Where there was once self-determination, there is dependence. And where there was carefully constructed peace, there is now all too often war, a black-on-black war waged by the dispossessed upon ourselves, with regular police brutality to season the mix. Cook dropped anchor in 1788 and saw a continent of park-like expanses populated by, in his words, ‘the happiest people upon the face of the earth’. The parks (actually managed Aboriginal estates) remain, some of them, but they are overwhelmingly in white hands, and Aboriginal joy is in pretty short supply these days. A solid dose of democracy could help bring it back. But what would that look like?
Mainstream politics now has a tiny scattering of Aboriginal faces, but there is a sharp limit to what can be achieved in non-Aboriginal parliaments while we remain 3 per cent of the population. These Indigenous politicians are a necessary but totally insufficient condition for Aboriginal democracy to exist once more in Australia. We need to look elsewhere, to places where Indigenous populations aren’t living with trachoma, or dying in custody while locked up for unpaid traffic fines, or forced off homelands to starve on the margins of country towns, reviled by their fellow citizens. Places where it isn’t normal to be unemployed for decades or to die at fifty, simply for being Indigenous.
The United States, Canada and New Zealand are three such places. All three have treaty relations with their Indigenous peoples. Only in Australia is it seen as radical or at all controversial to suggest that negotiations be held with the indigenes to establish a new path forward. Only in Australia are First Nations assumed to be inherently incompetent to run our own affairs, to practise self-determination. Treaties may not be a silver bullet. But a treaty or set of treaties is a big part of the answer. Aboriginal people have tried for two centuries to accommodate the loud demands of white governments that we live, work, play, speak, celebrate, worship, reproduce, and—above all—think as they do. It hasn’t worked. Aboriginal people die young, and fill jails and hospitals and asylums every week, because of the incapacity of Australia to ask if there could be another, better way.
Yanyuwa businessman John Moriarty put it this way: ‘We’ve been trying to get through to them for decades. I don’t know whether they’re really slow learners—or we’re just really bad teachers.’ They talk about closing the gap. Nice words. But the real gap isn’t in health, education, or housing. The real gap is in the aspirations of mainstream society for us (stop whinging, shut up and assimilate, already) and the aspirations of Aboriginal people to be left the hell alone by incompetent white governments, to manage our own lives in ways that work in the twenty-first century.
A treaty process will happen. There is no real alternative to the slowly unravelling disaster that is Aboriginal affairs in this country. And for it to happen, Australia will need to unlearn much of its ingrained racism and try to reimagine Aborigines as at least equally competent to run our own affairs as, say, Barnaby Joyce. Sooner or later Australia will learn to remember the leadership of the Wurundjeri man Barak, and that of Windradyne and Mannalargenna too. Australia will listen in the present day to leaders such as Peter Yu, Bruce Pascoe, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and the late Tracker Tilmouth, and a host of other important voices, as well as to those that are more comforting to hear. Sooner or later, Australia will advance to a state of mind where it is able to consider Aborigines as ordinary people, who don’t need our hands held by white authority in order to make decisions about how best to live. Australia will accept the need for a treaty with the Aboriginal nations and be willing to stomach the justice of reparations. And then democracy will at last return to our peoples, as Aboriginal self-determination based on principles of real democracy can be reinstated.
The ‘natural’ destiny of an Aboriginal person in Australia will then transform from that of mendicant and prisoner and alien. Our roles will revert to what they were for millennia, this time in a twenty-first-century context: landholders, managers, parents, grandparents, diplomats, scientists, adventurers, teachers, entrepreneurs, creatives and full citizens with agency over our lives. Like the Native Americans and Native Canadians, we will exercise real decision-making power in our own domains. A revolutionary thought for the Great Southern Land, but not an impossible one.
There is some slight recognition of Aboriginal competence, and Aboriginal humanity, beginning to appear in the south, in dribs and drabs, after a lot of hard work by Aboriginal people and our friends. But there are still no adequate paths to real political representation, in the south or anywhere else. In the west, the centre and the north, things are as undemocratic as they have ever been in the past several millennia for Aboriginal people. The Northern Territory Intervention is still crushing Aboriginal lives in the name of child protection. The Little Children Are Sacred report pleaded for urgent action to ensure that Aboriginal people, adults and children, could live without terror;9 instead what arrived was neo-colonial farce. The Intervention has deliberately stripped power from Aboriginal communities and individuals, rather than ask how those communities can be assisted to be orderly, self-managing and sustainable. In Western Australia, the Kimberley spokesperson Peter Yu said of the Abbott government in March 2015:
[Theirs] is an ideologically driven agenda that aims to shift people from their traditional lands and their cultural base. How else can you explain 70% of the successful funding applications going to non-Indigenous organisations and agencies? For Indigenous people it has all the historical resonance of being adopted out to white families. [This is] … the most dysfunctional and incompetent government process I have witnessed in forty years of working with remote communities. The lack of transparency in the government’s process has been breathtaking. The previous system was bad enough but they have set a new benchmark in dysfunction and hypocrisy.
Remote Western Australian Aboriginal cultures, viable for ten, or fifteen, or perhaps even twenty thousand years, are now regarded as irrelevant to the nation. Their remote communities are the homes and homelands of people with close to zero political clout in modern Australia. Before invasion, every adult male and every senior woman (at a minimum) would have had significant power in the daily decisions of their Aboriginal governments. Now they have sweet bugger all.
These Western Australian residents are technically Australian citizens and technically enjoy formal legal protection under Australian law. Yet, caught in formal equality like bugs in aspic, these residents no longer have the working economy their ancestors built. They enjoy third-world living standards, and have no way to prevent their electricity and water supplies from being cut off at the whim of distant white governments. They make up far less than 3 per cent of the Western Australian electorate. With an insignificant role in the polity and in the modern economy, they have mostly been allowed to become Aboriginal mendicants. Some have already become fringe-dwelling refugees after the bulldozing of houses at Oombulgurri in 2014. Western Australia has profited massively for decades from the exploitation of huge mineral wealth mined on stolen Aboriginal land. Clearly, it intends to profit some more, once those pesky blacks are completely out of the way. A treaty process with reparations could help restore certainty and economic viability to Aboriginal lives. It might also wipe the shame of Aboriginal poverty and dispossession substantially off the nation’s international name.
Democracy as practised in twenty-first-century Australia offers Aboriginal people little beyond legal entitlements to welfare and lip service. ‘Lifestyle choices’ are the issue, according to Prime Minister Abbott. It’s time for these Aboriginal people to change their ‘lifestyle choices’ and abandon thousands of years of tradition. They must learn to speak English, ignore entrenched personal and institutional racism from the white population, and magically assimilate into the large towns or cities of Western Australia. Where the houses, jobs, non-lethal policing and wider social acceptance are going to come from hasn’t yet been made clear, by Abbott or anybody else. Fury is now rising across black Australia as this kind of ham-fisted political incompetence continues to threaten the lives of Aboriginal people in remote communities.
British theoretician David Runciman has argued that a key danger of modern liberal democracies is that no serious alternative to them exists. The sorry example of Venezuela aside, the socialist and communist paradigms of the twentieth century are defunct. As a citizen, Runciman writes, you might not like what ‘democracy’ in Britain, the United States or Australia offers you, but you’re pretty much stuck with it. There are no longer any rival ideas to keep these democracies honest: ‘It is the perennial temptation of a democratic system to think it’s never as bad as it looks, but sometimes it is as bad as it looks …’10
In an Aboriginal context, Runciman is both right and wrong. Most Aboriginal people are acutely aware of what Western ‘democracy’ has brought to their communities here and aware too of what it has taken away: land and life, Aboriginal governance, language, freedom of movement and expression, children, autonomy, dignity—the list goes forever on. Every Aboriginal person I know does have some kind of alternative to propose, most often one based on a return to Aboriginal self-government, fairness and actual not putative democracy. Runciman is right though, in that the general Australian population has no hope—or perhaps no concept—of such a change towards democracy, either for themselves or for First Nations. An unhappy impasse has been reached. As Leonard Cohen sings, it’s an open secret—Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton, and ‘everybody knows’.
Young activists, and some not so young, in Aboriginal communities are now talking more about the need for radical action to spur change. Since John Howard abolished our representative body ATSIC, and created the deeply hated NT Intervention, Aboriginal people have felt increasingly under siege. Now, with the proposed closures and actual bulldozing of remote communities, flashpoints are rising everywhere. When no widely recognised Aboriginal representation exists nationally (National Congress has little authority, widely being seen, wrongly, as an arm of government), the vacuum must be filled. Increasingly, I hear ideas of asymmetrical warfare being discussed by radicals in cities and the bush alike. What good is the vote, they ask, to people whose relatives have just been murdered in custody? To someone whose house has just been bulldozed? To someone who has had their fifth relative suicide in just under a year? When Aboriginal people are a tiny, near-voiceless minority? When funding for vital services to some of the world’s poorest and sickest people continues to be diverted or ceases altogether? A young activist asked angrily on Facebook recently why nothing changes, why appealing to the conscience of white Australia is so futile, why governments behave the way they do in defiance of all our human rights. I automatically typed out a quick answer—because there are no consequences—then paused. I went back and deleted my words, fearing what the logical response to that very simple truth must eventually become.
Like others in Australia, Aboriginal people watch the news and access the internet, and see the battles being waged globally. We see the increased attention paid by the West to the Taliban, to ISIS, to al-Qaeda. Some of us see the plight of the Palestinian people and conclude that there is no peaceful path to justice, only a choice either to take up arms or to languish and die in our own countries. Elders generally, though not always, counsel patience, diplomacy, peaceful protest. But across Australia I hear more and more Aboriginal men and women saying they are tired of endless cant in defence of the savages who arrived in 1788 and kicked off the heads of Aboriginal babies while claiming to bring the Enlightenment. Whether it will take asymmetric warfare to restore Aborigines to a place of political autonomy in our own countries after two centuries of struggle is anybody’s guess. But only a fool would fail to ask the question.
- Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala Books, Broome, WA, 2013.
- Robert A. Dahl, ‘Democracy’, <www.brittanica.com>, accessed 2 May 2015.
- Fred Myers, ‘Emotions and the Self: A Theory of Personhood and Political Order among Pintupi Aborigines’, Ethos, vol. 7, no. 4 (2009), p. 368.
- J. Bulmer, quoted in Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier, Penguin, Melbourne, 1984 (1981), p. 151.
- W.E.H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2011, p. 66.
- Dianne Bell, Daughters of the Dreaming, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 1982, p. 182.
- Aunty Mary Graham, public talk, ‘Conversation about Country’ with Melissa Lucashenko, Federal Town Hall, Federal, NSW, February 2015.
- Stanner, The Dreaming, p. 72.
- R. Wild and P. Anderson, Little Children Are Sacred, report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, 2007, accessed 1 June 2015.
- David Runciman, ‘The Trouble with Democracy’, Guardian (UK), 21 November 2013.