Australia’s Impending Election (4)


Next year it will be 25 years since the MABO decision of June 3rd 1992. The story of the Mabo case can be found here. In part it reads:

On 3 June 1992, six of the seven High Court judges upheld the claim and ruled that the lands of this continent were not terra nulls or ‘land belonging to no-one’ when European settlement occurred, and that the Meriam people were ‘entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands’.

In Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2), judgments of the High Court inserted the legal doctrine of native title into Australian law. The High Court recognised the fact that Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs. They had been dispossessed of their lands piece by piece as the colony grew and that very dispossession underwrote the development of Australia as a nation.

Now let us confirm that the people of the Murray Islands, the Meriam people, are Torres Strait Islanders and therefore Melanesian people.


Flying high in 2016 from City of Greater Geelong.

This significant decision, which powerfully alters public-legal understanding of legality (and of the injustices) of colonisation in Australia, has not been without regional implications; it means Australia is also politically and legally within the region known as Melanesia, and not merely alongside of it. The former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, writing in his book Engagement: Australia faces the Asia-Pacific (Pan MacMillan, Sydney, 2000) understood this. He recognised in the Mabo decision a window of opportunity for state-crafting and nation-building that is inherently multi-cultural in nature. He wrote:

Just as I wanted to defend a multicultural society in Australia, so I thought that the way we dealt with our own Indigenous inhabitants, members of the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, was central to any hope we had of taking our place in the Asia Pacific. We could hardly go around to our neighbours saying that we wanted to forge our future in this region while at the same time treating as some of our own people as second-class citizens (p.263).

Look again at those flags flying from the Geelong Town Hall. The same picture might be seen at Fremantle in southern Western Australia or in Hobart. Here is visual confirmation that Australia is not only near to Melanesia; in terms of its governance and laws it is in an important respect within Melanesia; the Australian polity is ruled according to laws that recognise the land-rights of Melanesian people.

We have an election pending in early July. And yesterday, a meeting was convened in Westminster, attended by government leaders of various South West Pacific island states and British parliamentary supporters (but none, it seems from Australia). For a report of that meeting, see here. The declaration about the rights of the West Papuan people for self-determination is a small but decisive step forward for justice in that colonised province of Indonesia. But it was not convened in Canberra. We need to think carefully about that and reckon with the misshapen political and diplomatic relations that renders it out of step with the neo-liberal realpolitik on both sides of parliament, let alone with any Indonesian “father of all nesias” ideology.

The London meeting, however, has effectively endorsed the view that it is long past the time for the rights and land rights of the Melanesian people of West Papua to be accorded justice. That is to challenge Indonesia’s adoption of neo-colonialism in an era the Americans and their allies are all too quick to dub as “post-colonial”. West Papua has been colonised since before 1962 and with the bogus “Act of Free Choice” of 1969 has ever since been paraded as a territory where Jakarta’s rights cannot be challenged.

So, I am suggesting that here is a regional matter that is directly related to the 1992 Mabo judgement, and that has to be part of our Christian political option for the region as well as for Australia’s polity. The rights of West Papuan Melanesians in their own land should be raised and urgently promoted by Christian citizens, also in this polity. So, find out what the candidates say about Melanesian land rights when they come to show off their policies in a public hall near you! Seek an opportunity to ask inconvenient questions that direct their attention to the Torres Strait Islander flag flying at your nearby town hall and ask them why their party is not getting in line with the Mabo 1992 judgement with respect to its regional political consequences! And then there is Manus Island and Nauru where asylum seeker detention centres have been set up by the Australian Government to challenge the “business model” of people smugglers.

So, seeking justice for “Melanesian” people comes within our immediate political responsibilities. Do we need convincing that it is a vital political issue? Should we not be advocates of a comprehensive system of inter- and trans-national just governance in our region?

Successive attempts at this “Pacific solution” by successive governments in Canberra have not only seriously malformed Australia’s “Melanesian connection”, but have warped the national self-respect and self-understanding that should be characterising our post-Mabo citizenship. To use Nauru and Papua New Guinea as “dumping grounds” for the processing and settlement of asylum seekers is counter to the spirit of Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministerial apology of 2008, even if they have dangerously negotiated the seas in order to reach our northern shores through the Indonesian archipelago and the Indian ocean (from Sri Lanka). In the 2008 “apology” we may have given voice to a strong desire across this nation to avoid in the future the “dumping grounds” of the past, but now we see that device used again to allow us to ignore those seeking a new life away from the carnage and strife that has engulfed their former homelands.

In November 2007 Australia, Labor under Kevin Rudd’s leadership resoundingly defeated the Liberal Government, and shortly thereafter, on the 13th February, 2008, the nation joined together in that  remarkable “apology” event led by the Federal Parliament. Australia’s indigenous peoples, particularly the Stolen Generations and their families and communities, had endured laws and policies which “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”. Now, it seems, we have an entrenched “both sides” policy that simply refuses to attend to the grief, suffering and loss of those holed up in Nauru and Manus Island (not forgetting Christmas Island), a policy that recklessly uses these fragile island states to avoid our greater moral and regional responsibilities.

The Australia Government’s decision to join in the unilateral engagement in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq from 2003, outside UN guidelines (let alone any genuine application of just war criteria for military action), means that this nation, all our Government’s stated noble intentions notwithstanding, are already part of the mayhem that makes people susceptible to people smugglers. And this historical event has also shaped our regional relationships, our place in Melanesia and Polynesia, in decisive ways. Our region has now undergone significant political changes since Paul Keating penned his 2000 book. And it should not be forgotten that it was another bout of “unilateral action” by Fiji’s military commander which brought on a December 2006 “regime change” in Suva, that Canberra has ever since indulged.

But consider that only 2 months after the remarkable apology for the stolen generations, on 19-20 April, 2008, Prime Minister Rudd convened the “2020 Summit”, a gathering “to shape a long-term strategy for the nation’s future, to tackle the long-term challenges confronting Australia by thinking in new ways”. Consider that Australia 2020 Summit Final Report as a resource for Australia’s self-understanding in the region. And what do we find? There is virtually no indication whatsoever that Australia exists within Melanesia, that we live in the South West Pacific region.

Last week the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that detaining men on Manus Island breached PNG’s constitution. And so, on cue, as it were, we were given further confirmation of Sean Dorney’s recent book, Embarrassed Colonialist (Lowy Institute 2016) which is the long-time journalist’s lament about the lack of an Australian sense of regional neighbourliness. Even though Australia brought PNG to independence back in September 1975, his book documents the prevailing sense that PNG does not figure in any public sense within Australia. If there is a sense of isolation in the Australian “national psyche” it is from cultural, political and economic power-houses furthest away – the UK, Europe and North America. Dorney’s book is an insightful description of the conundrum we are discussing here: Australia as a political entity, a western antipodean “presence” in the South West Pacific, now seems to find itself isolated from its nearest neighbours. There are implications from his carefully crafted analysis of PNG, and of its relationship to Australia, that can be drawn for Australia’s relationships with other South West Pacific nations as well, across Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, including Fiji and New Zealand.

The question arises: what is it about Australian political culture that makes its so difficult to overcome its ignorance and its emotional distance from its closest regional neighbours? Why doesn’t Australia understand itself in terms of its own region? Are we too embarrassed to see ourselves in South West Pacific terms?

A Christian democratic network across the South West Pacific will welcome the kind of discussion that Dorney has now provoked. We need to be prodded to deepen our understanding of why we, as Christian citizens of this region of the world – 1/7th of world’s total surface with less than half of 1% of the world’s population (40 million of 7,416 million) – are so isolated from each other. But we should not hide behind some kind of nationalist or semi-nationalist lament. Could it be that the peoples of the South West Pacific are so isolated from each other, and so susceptible to tempting cultural and economic alliances from further afield (China, Russia, North America, Europe and more latterly Indonesia) because we Christians have failed to embrace each other as regional brothers and sisters in the Lord who have a political work to perform together? Further, how is our under-developed understanding of Christian citizenship related to this lack of a genuine Christian community, to any authentic Christian regional expression of our koinonia in Christ?

The Mabo decision of 1992 needs to be part of our consciously formed understanding of how Australia is placed within the region, within Melanesia in particular. But the region also includes Polynesia, that reaches from New Zealand to Hawaii and this too is predominantly Christian. As we give thought to this, here, in conclusion are two contributions from New Zealand that have been made to the understanding of state-crafting in Aotearoa (New Zealand) from a Christian standpoint. One is an article by Dr Duncan Roper on Wiremu Tamihana, the King Country Maori Christian chief who made an important contribution to the emerging polity of Aotearoa. The other is a Submission in Response to the Report by the Waitangi Tribunal on Stage One of the Te Paparahi O Te Raki inquiry entitled “He Whakaputanga Me Te Tiriti – The Declaration of Independence and the Treaty” (November 2014) submitted jointly by The Tamihana Foundation & The Reformational Christian Studies Trust.

I am not suggesting that what I have set forth here will have much “clout” in the upcoming Australian Federal election. However I would hope that by giving some thought to our regional political responsibilities to promote public justice for all, Christian citizens across Australia and across the region, may begin to think about the kind of political unity and solidarity that is required of those claiming to be followers of Jesus Christ. How are we to “link arms together” and regionally promote public justice in the name of the King of Kings?

Bruce C. Wearne
Point Lonsdale

4 May 2016


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