First published in Quadrant Online on 10th November, 2023 as The Language and Logic of Sedition
Whether she was aware of the threat from early on in the campaign, or only fully realised its extent in conducting the post-mortem, Janet Albrechtsen exposed the wound in her article entitled Radical Idea About ‘Occupied Australia’ Must Be Confronted, published a fortnight after the referendum in The Weekend Australian.
She noted that, as if to validate the concerns of those like her who had vigorously opposed the referendum proposal, an anonymous group claiming to represent the “collective insights and views of a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, community members and organisations who supported Yes” brazenly claimed in an open letter that
Australia is our country … We do not for one moment accept that this country is not ours. Always was. Always will be. It is the legitimacy of the non-Indigenous occupation in this country that requires recognition, not the other way around. Our sovereignty has never been ceded.
This is not some ratbag fringe speaking, even if the anonymity of the group were to indicate that these opinions were not shared by a substantial majority of ATSI Yes promoters, or at least would not be so openly enunciated by the majority. This is a declaration of independence; it is a throwing down of the gauntlet by the legitimate sovereigns of the continent of Australia to the illegitimate usurpers of that sovereignty.
Such a position is not arrived at spontaneously. It has first to be crafted by an intellectual vanguard, and then inculcated into the minds of the group or groups which this elite wishes to form into a resistance, on the basis of a moral right and duty to resist. Ms Albrechtsen has located such a intellectual vanguard within Australia’s legal academy.
[The anonymous authors] have made clear what was already received wisdom inside certain of our law schools but had gone unnoticed.
As I have previously written, the belief inside legal academe that Australia is illegitimate and that the voice would go some way to sharing sovereignty pending a full treaty was hiding in plain sight. Until I read Treaty by [George] Williams and Harry Hobbs, and the academic paper Voice versus Rights: The First Nations Voice and the Australian Constitutional Legitimacy Crisis by Gabrielle Appleby, Ron Levy and Helen Whalan, I had no idea this school of thought was behind the Uluru statement and the push for a voice.
If the structures of governance in Australia are illegitimate, then the modes and methods of that governance, for example elections and referenda, are obviously illegitimate also.
[L]aw professor George Williams wrote on Monday: “Australia’s system of constitutional reform is broken and there is little point in heading back to the polls until this is fixed.” … For Williams…democracy is a terrible disappointment and would benefit from a little supervision from some expert group – preferably consisting of suitably educated and right-minded lawyers. This explains why so many lawyers want a bill of rights so that when elected politicians fail to act on proposals smart lawyers really like, or enact the wrong ideas, a judicial elite can correct them.
What might Williams mean by “fixed”? The referendum was defeated by a massive majority, and only in Canberra, which does not count towards the required majority of States, was the proposal carried. This was one of the more comprehensive defeats ever handed to a referendum proposal, so what can be meant by “fixed”? The only way to “fix” such a thrashing is to ensure that such a proposal can be implemented without the noisome requirement to go to the electorate. Yet the only way to implement such a change is through a referendum.
Either this obvious contradiction has not occurred to Williams, or, more likely, he holds some hope of circumventing this inconvenience. However reluctant Williams is to spell it out, what else can he possibly mean? Ms Albrechtsen alludes to this inevitable conclusion in her introductory reference to Brecht’s play Die Lösung, about the East German uprising of 1953.
Would it not be easier In that case for the government To dissolve the people And elect another?
South Africa offers an example of the destruction of an existing Constitution through decades of relentless international pressure, but there are no coherent parallels with Australia, and besides, the Voice cohort is seeking to implement an apartheid-like system. Neither do New Zealand or Canada offer useful examples. Australia is unique. But transnational organisations and lobby groups exist to promote, among other things, damaging mythologies about the nation states they choose to target, so there is always scope for harming Australia’s reputation in the eyes other counties’ citizens, given that nearly 40% of Australians could be persuaded to undermine their own Constitutional order. This degree of success was achieved by making Australia shameful in the eyes of that substantial proportion of citizens. If that can be achieved among us, what are the possibilities amid the isolated and privileged elites of international and transnational organisations who exercise grossly disproportionate influence on the world stage?
More immediately dangerous is the radicalisation of aboriginal activists here, as evidenced by the anonymous statement quoted above, denying the legitimacy of the Australian nation state. This is the logic of sedition. It is not merely a declaration of independence from the constitutional structure of Australia; it is a denial that that constitutional structure has any valid authority over anyone. Into such an ideology violence flows like water down a drain.
Yet we will wait in vain for guardians of the constitutional order to publicly caution against the danger of terrorism developing amid the ranks of the most fanatical Voice proponents and supporters, black, white or brindle, all the while issuing dire warnings about the dangers of Christian extremism.