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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 6 (1999)

Citizenship and Indigenous Australians: Changing Conceptions and Possibilities, edited by Nicolas Peterson and Will Sanders (1999). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, xiii + 222 pp.


Reviewed by Michèle D. Dominy, Department of Anthropology, Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, New York.

In this tightly integrated collection, each author contributes to an understanding of the central tension articulated by editors Peterson and Sanders, who ask in their comprehensive introduction: "how can the descendants of precolonial indigenous Australians reconcile citizenship, with its emphasis on individual rights, with their surviving indigeneity in which loyalty to one's own people has primacy, especially within the contemporary nation state context where Australian aboriginal peoples assert indigenous rights and make demands for self-determination and land restitution?"

In thinking about citizenship from the perspective of the multicultural present, the volume is concerned both with the surviving indigeneity of precolonial Australians and with the legacy of dispossession that advantages non-indigenous Australians. Peter Read characterizes this latter state of non-belonging as "the other side of the postcolonial coin" as he asks "can each accept the other as belonging in a legitimate but different way?" (p. 175). In this vein, at least two categories of citizens must reconceptualize citizenship at the close of the twentieth century. This sort of balanced refusal to oppositionalize and homogenize is one of the volume's strengths.

Another strength is the volume's long historical sweep. The first section traces the period of settlement to the nineteenth century in Margaret Wood's chapter, through the period of assimilation and welfare colonialism in chapters by Geoffrey Grey, Tim Rowse and Nicolas Peterson, to the 1967 Aboriginal Rights Referendum in Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus's piece, to the 1977 Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) Scheme in Will Sander's contribution. In its second half, Citizenship and Indigenous Australians moves to detailed cases examining citizenship in the multicultural present. David Trigger examines Aboriginal responses to mining resource development, Garth Nettheim examines the role of international law in protecting indigenous rights, Henry Reynolds focuses on the concept of sovereignty, and Peter Read and Richard Mulgan ask difficult questions about the responsibilities of non-indigenous Australians in facing up to colonial dispossession and claiming responsibility in the present.

This historical scope points the attentive reader to the analytic potential for understanding changes in the liberal democratic state through a juxtaposition of the 1890s and the 1990s. The 1890s and Federation mark the moment for a legally binding loss of rights at the state, territorial and federal levels. The Constitution of 1901 marks, according to Peterson, the high point of racism in Australia's colonial, post-, and neo-colonial histories. As Woods shows, the doctrine of terra nullius tightened in New South Wales, effectively denying either possession or economic use to its inhabitants, while indigenous sociocultural systems were systematically constituted and undermined through bureaucratic processes. By mid-century, assimilationist policies predominated. These are well-documented in Grey's sympathetic and yet critical analysis of A.P. Elkin's commitment to social justice as Elkin worked to "civilize" indigenous peoples and train them in self-reliance as a way of incorporating them into full and equal citizenship. The emphasis on equality and equal individual rights gave way to an emphasis on difference and group indigenous rights and separation in the 1970s (Sanders, p. 152); Sanders effectively documents and illustrates this shift in his case study of the CDEP Scheme. One hundred years later, Reynolds notes, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders challenge federalism by turning to international forums as they seek the right to run their own affairs. Reynolds conceptually separates nation from state as he acknowledges that the state can contain multiple nations. And Mulgan suggests replacing reconciliation and consensus with accommodation and compromise as a strategy for creating a legitimate state for all of its diverse citizens.

Balanced and fine-grained historical and ethnographic analyses by Tim Rowse, Nicolas Peterson, and David Trigger reveal complex cultural entanglements and nuanced and overlapping articulations between and within these categories. Rowse and Peterson examine the cost of protectionist government policies for the integrity of the indigenous social order. Policies such as managed consumption simultaneously promoted a state of dependence and preserved the separation of indigenous social orders. On the other hand, the social rights accompanying citizenship, as in assimilation policy, have neocolonialist consequences; assimilation, for example, undermines Aboriginal unity and ends "colonial mechanisms of protection." In his analysis of the shift from rations to cash, from managed consumption to self-determination, Rowse explores the responsibilities inherent in indigenous citizenship, namely the responsibility for reproducing an indigenous social order (p. 79). Importantly, he asks, "how can the state promote collective forms of indigenous self-determination if indigenous people do not strive to reproduce their social forms and identity as a more or less officially recognized enclave within the Australian nation? (p. 80). Peterson criticizes the focus on political entitlement predominant in the concept of welfare colonialism by arguing that such an approach simultaneously neglects the cultural and economic components of welfare colonialism as well as the reception of such entitlements by indigenous peoples. Subsuming economics to the political in this way diverts our attention from the material conditions of, and challenges in, daily life that result from the experience of being a "double citizen" in divergent cultural systems (p. 113). Through a discourse and practice approach Trigger argues similarly that citizenship is a "contested concept." Trigger examines Aboriginal peoples' attitudes to large scale mining resource development projects in the Gulf States. While acknowledging variations in responses, he is able to argue that aboriginal resistance to mining goes against predominant notions of citizenship that assert pro-development values and the productivity of land as essential for the national good. He concludes that "indigenous logics currently find expression in different common sense views about what should be done with land, what the rights and responsibilities of Aboriginal people should be, and what the dimensions of a fair Îtrade' are with respect to the flow of benefits from large projects" (p. 163).

Writing clarity, the editors' carefully systematic sequencing of chapters, and the detailed substantive historical and case-based content of the separate chapters help the non-specialist reader to understand key concepts in political theory as they relate to citizenship and indigenous rights in Australia and beyond. These include: citizenship as it comprises civil, political and social rights; the relationship between nationalism and liberal political theory, assimilation and the contrasting concept of self-determination, federalism and its relationship to identity politics, sovereignty and its challenge to federalism, the sources of and interplay of international law with state based legislation, and multicultural citizenship in the nation state. Equally helpful for the non-Australian based reader is the overview that these chapters, taken collectively, provide of Australian Aboriginal and international human rights legislation. This includes, for example, the mutually reinforcing 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, the Mabo vs. Queensland 1992 native title decision, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) in Garth Nettheim's "The International Law Context." Nettheim's discussion, like Mulgan's on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, highlights the particular challenges to citizenship and its liberal democratic concerns for political and economic equality posed by indigenous rights demands for self-determination and land restitution. The theoretical influence of Will Kymlicka's multicultural commitment to "the accommodation of differences [as] the essence of true equality" (p. 27) is evident here and throughout the edited collection as it closes with his solution to the volume's guiding but unanswered question "how can people from different cultural and historical backgrounds be members of a common society on equal terms?" David Trigger's formulation of difference ÷ with its potential for either nurturance or subordination ÷ is similarly pertinent, and he presents the concept of "cultural citizenship" for encapsulated minorities as a way of resolving the tension between liberal ideals of citizenship and indigenous social orders for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In this way, Trigger, like Rowse turns to an anthropological frame which allows for the possibility of an indigenous formulation of citizenship, one in which "the indigenous collectivity is a political scene with its own internal dynamics and tensions, its own philosophical issues of liberty and obligation" (Rowse, p. 97). 

In its optimistic and uniform approach, the volume lacks perspectives that provide a deeply critical read of liberal multiculturalism (as formulated above by Kymlicka) and its relationship to the late modern democratic nation state and its technologies of power, such as shame and reconciliation. Whereas Citizenship and Indigenous Australians speaks to the possibility of reconciling citizenship with indigeneity, Elizabeth Povinelli in "The State of Shame: Australian Multiculturalism and the Crisis of Indigenous Citizenship" (Critical Inquiry 24[1998]:575-610) sees the "discourses, desires and imaginaries" of the nation and its subalterns as incommensurate. Alterity, she argues, should be a threat to national coherence rather than part of an incorporative project (p. 582). In this sense the volume is not successful in responding to Povinelli's challenge to unveil the ways in which the optimism of Australian multiculturalism works to "seduce critical thinking away from an analysis of how dominant social relations of power rely on a multicultural imaginary and discourse in order to adjust core state institutions and narratives to new discursive, capital and state conditions, not to transform them (p. 583.). Her challenge converges with Trigger's and Rowse's suggestion for an indigenous formulation of citizenship, one that the volume's contributors do not articulate but suggest.