The world sure is a strange place these days. Gaslighting is the order of the day and the perennial question is “are they doing it on purpose?” I made the mistake recently of taking something on face value, a big no-no, and ended up going down an interesting rabbit hole.
This particular rabbit hole involves a referendum to be held in Australia later this year that purports to enshrine a “Voice” for aboriginal Australians in the constitution of the country (it will actually be called The Voice). What exactly will be the nature of this Voice is unclear. The politicians tell us they will sort out the details later, which doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence. It’s kinda like buying a car from a used car salesman sight unseen.
I admit, I haven’t been following the debate around the issue very closely and so I decided recently to go and read the document called the Uluru Statement from the Heart which was written by delegates to the same convention which proposed The Voice. The interested reader can view it here.
Naively, I expected a statement from the heart to contain, well, a statement from the heart. Now, I’ve never read a statement from the heart before, so I had no point of reference. But I anticipated some kind of poetic language or, at the very least, the everyday language of real people. Given the subject matter of the issue, perhaps it would even be written in indigenous languages with an English translation.
What I found instead was a document written in mild legalese. It actually contains the words thereto, therefrom and thither. I suspect 99.99% of Australians of any background have never used thither in their life. If they know the word at all, it would only be from their high school readings of Shakespeare. How did such arcane language make it into an indigenous “statement from the heart”? What is really going on here?
It’s probably my background in linguistics, but I did recognise the style of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It belongs to a genre that has a tradition going back centuries. And here is where we go down the rabbit hole because the genre in question is declarations of independence.
Declarations of Independence
The most famous declaration of independence is, of course, the American one written in 1776. But Thomas Jefferson almost certainly took inspiration from the Act of Abjuration which was written in 1581. That document signalled the intention of the provinces of the Netherlands to no longer be under the rule of Philip II of Spain. As with almost all declarations of independence, it was written at the end of a long war.
What marked the Act of Abjuration as unusual, and made it arguably the first exemplar of modern declarations of independence, was that it featured a long preamble outlining the ideological commitments of the newly independent nation. That ideology was inspired by various anti-monarchical ideas that had roots in Calvinism. In the same way, the US Declaration of Independence would later be strongly influenced by the political theory of John Locke. Both documents can only be understood in light of the breakdown of the divine right of kings ushered in by the Reformation. I talked about this issue in detail in a recent post.
The purpose of the preamble was, therefore, to provide an ideological basis for sovereignty that replaced the old divine right of kings. On this basis, a new political structure would be formed. We might call declarations of independence propaganda tools in the old-fashioned, non-pejorative sense of the word since they were designed to unify a group of people behind an idea. Written propaganda was especially suited to protestant nations since literacy rates were high due to the desire to be able to read the bible for oneself. All of this cultural context is necessary to understand why declarations of independence came into being.
The formation of the United States provides a useful case study here because it’s not well remembered that war was not originally waged for independence. In fact, when war broke out in 1775, most colonists were not thinking of independence. Thomas Paine published Common Sense in early 1776 and his book became the lightning rod which sparked the idea of independence. When the Declaration of Independence was written later that year, its purpose was to give coherence to the ideology of the new movement and, just like the Dutch had done earlier, to point out how the monarch they were declaring independence from had failed to fulfil his obligations to the people.
Thus, modern declarations of independence contain three core elements: 1) the ideological basis of the claim to sovereignty; 2) a list of grievances against the old ruler justifying his removal; 3) details of the new political entity which would replace the old.
It’s important to understand that all this is highly context-specific. There may have been declarations of independence in other cultures or throughout history, but the written form which would become the pattern for the modern world originated in post-Reformation Europe with the United States as the poster child for the idea.
Within the context of protestant culture, it can be said that declarations of independence come “from the heart” because of the special place of the bible as the foundational text of that culture. Paine’s Common Sense drew heavily on biblical references as did much of the political propaganda of the time. This mixing of religion and politics was very old. The Magna Carta, for example, was read out in churches across England back in the day. Europeans were used to the idea that written texts could not just be heartfelt but the actual word of God. It was, in some sense, the word of God that the declarers of independence were claiming to have access to. Hence, “all men are endowed by their creator”.
In the aftermath of the war of independence, numerous other declarations of independence were written as various nations were inspired by the US example to throw off the yoke of “tyranny”. Almost all of the South American nations made declarations of independence during the revolutionary period of the early 19th century as they broke free from Spanish and Portuguese rule. The Mexican declaration is of particular interest to the current Australian debate as it contains the concept of a “voice”:
The Mexican Nation, which for three hundred years had neither had its own will, nor free use of its voice, leaves today the oppression in which it has lived.
The document also contains obvious references to the US declaration of independence.
Restored then this part of the North to the exercise of all the rights given by the Author of Nature and recognized as unalienable and sacred by the civilized nations of the Earth, in liberty to constitute itself in the manner which best suits its happiness and through representatives who can manifest its will and plans,
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness granted by the “author of nature”. The other core concept used is that of will and here we see the influence of Enlightenment ideas which proclaimed that the will of the people was paramount and based in natural law which “tyrants” may not supercede.
It was Edmund Burke who saw the problem with all of this early on. In his analysis, even two countries as similar as England and France had divergent enough public institutions and cultural practices that for one country to copy the other as the French attempted to do in the French Revolution would not work.
The British model provided inspiration for the US model and it has worked out fine for both of those countries as well as for Australia, New Zealand and Canada which were culturally tied to Britain anyway. Did it work elsewhere? Arguably not. It was a disaster in France and a worse disaster in Germany later on.
Constitutions and declarations of independence are just the tip of the Burkean iceberg. They are predicated on a vast base of shared beliefs and cultural traditions that make the whole thing possible in the first place. In the absence of such a base, they become little more than cargo cults.
New Zealand as Case Study
And this bring us to an example close to home that can shed light on the current Australian debate.
Recall the three elements in a modern declaration of independence: 1) statement of sovereignty (based in ideology); 2) list of grievances against the incumbent; 3) declaration of the new political form which will replace the old.
Some Maori chiefs on the north island of New Zealand made a declaration of independence in 1835. The problem was that there was nobody to declare independence from since New Zealand was not unified as a country and the chiefs themselves were the leaders, at least of their own tribes. So what was really going on?
All 3 of the elements of a declaration of independence were formally present in the document. The chiefs began by claiming sovereignty. The basis of that sovereignty was “mana from the land”.
Step 2 is the list of grievances but the the Maori chiefs’ grievances were not against an incumbent but against their political rivals in the south who were invited to drop their “animosity” and join the northerners.
Then, in the final section which is supposed to outline the new form of government, we see a request to the King of England who is asked to “continue to be the parent of their infant State, and that he will become its Protector from all attempts upon its independence.” The chiefs did not desire independence but protection. So, what was the point in writing a declaration of independence?
The answer to that can be found in an occurrence that happened some years later; namely, the Treaty of Waitangi. International law requires that treaties can be made only by sovereign nations. But New Zealand had not been a unified country with a sovereign government in the form required to make a treaty with the British. Thus, the declaration of independence in this case was in fact used to assert the sovereignty of the Maori chiefs of the north island for the purposes of signing the treaty. That’s why the document makes an explicit request for recognition by the British crown.
Why did the Maori chiefs want to sign a treaty? Here we see some of the major differences which distinguished European contact with the Maori from European contact with indigenous Australians.
Both missionaries and traders had set up relations with the Maori well before both the declaration of independence and the subsequent Treaty of Waitangi. This had allowed cultural and economic exchange to take place resulting in the development of an understanding between the Maori and the pakeha. For example, the Maori had adopted a written script for their language, something they previously did not have. Certain Maori chiefs had even fought alongside the British in battle.
What happened in New Zealand was a more reciprocal arrangement based on trade and the Treaty of Waitangi was there to facilitate and enhance that state of affairs. We shouldn’t sugar coat it, of course. The British were experts at divide and conquer by this time and it seems certain that they were playing exactly that game in New Zealand.
And things didn’t go smoothly after the signing of the treaty. It turned out the Maori understanding of the word “sovereign” differed from the British. As is always the case, things that make sense in theory turn out rather different in practice. A treaty is one thing but the everyday business of government is another. The disagreements about political decision-making eventually ended in armed conflict.
Why none of that happened in Australia is one of those eternal debates for which there is no absolute answer. But we can see some of the reasons in the comparison with New Zealand. There is the obvious problem of size. Australia is geographically far larger than New Zealand. The Maori language was spoken in the whole of New Zealand while Australian aboriginals had about 300 distinct languages at the time of white settlement with many more distinct political groupings. Even if every aboriginal tribe had wanted a treaty with the British, negotiating one at the national level was as good as impossible on logistical, political and linguistic grounds. For that and many other reasons, no treaty was made.
And this brings us to the current issue at hand in Australia. What the New Zealand example showed was how formal declarations of independence can be, errr, adapted for other purposes. In that case it was a treaty which at least a segment of the Maori population was in favour of. Alongside the declaration of independence, the Maori also developed a flag and a form of government that could uphold the treaty obligations. We might summarise this formula thusly: declaration of independence + flag + form of government = treaty.
As I noted earlier, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is in the form of a declaration of independence. It meets the 3 critieria.
Firstly, there is a claim to sovereignty: “This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature…” [Note the similarity to the Maori “manna from the land”].
Secondly, there is a list of grievances: “Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet.”
The third element would be a declaration of the new political entity to come into being and that’s exactly what we see: “We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution…”.
Following the Maori example, we have a declaration of independence/sovereignty and a form of governance (The Voice). What we would then need is a flag and that would pave the way for a treaty. By coincidence, the Australian government purchased the aboriginal flag just a few years ago. Does that mean we can expect a treaty? The statement from the heart puts it this way:
“We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations…”
Surely this “agreement-making” is code for treaty.
If the point of all this is to sign a treaty, why not just say so. Why not call the Statement from the Heart a Declaration of Independence, The Voice a sovereign government and the Makarrata Commission a Treaty Commission?
There’s numerous reasons why this can’t happen but the most obvious is that it would be a direct challenge to the existing sovereignty of Australia. So, instead we get all the exact forms of a declaration of sovereignty but we change the names and pretend they are something else. It’s not hard to see why some people are convinced the whole thing is a trick.
Why the need for any of this and why the need for a big bang treaty at the national level at all since there are already numerous local treaties across Australia that have been negotiated with individual aboriginal nations?
Here we come to the final piece of the puzzle.
Equal but Different
In 2007, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Curiously, only four nations voted No: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. Then, almost simultaneously, those same countries changed their mind in 2009 and supported the declaration. Canada has subsequently passed a bill through their parliament in 2021 to adopt UNDRIP into Canadian law. It’s pretty clear that The Voice is the Australian version of the same idea.
Have any other nations adopted UNDRIP into law? The answer seems to be no. So why is it that this is an issue only in Anglo countries and why did those same countries seemingly change their position in unison after initial objections? Seems like a very big coincidence to me. Could it be that the Anglo model of governance which achieved hegemony in the post-war years is being targeted directly?
One of the things that model of governance achieved was equality before the law in the 1960s through the civil rights movement. The most famous exponent of that movement was Martin Luther King and the future he envisioned was one of integration of all races within the democratic system of government.
King’s belief was that you started with equality before the law and then you supplemented that with various social programs to address economic inequality since it was previous discrimination which had led to things like high crime rates. As King stated:
If there are lagging standards in the Negro community, and there certainly are, they lag because of segregation and discrimination. Criminal responses are environmental and not racial. Poverty, ignorance, social isolation, economic deprivation, breed crime whatever the racial group may be and it is a torturous logic to use the tragic results of segregation as an argument for the continuation of it.
If there is any country that should understand that message it should be Australia since the country was established as a penal colony for white European criminals. As my surname suggests, my ancestry is mostly Irish. The Irish were not criminals through choice or because of race. They were criminals because they had been ground under the wheels of British imperialism. Per Dr King, you need to solve the discrimination problem in order to solve the crime problem. That was the idea inherent in the civil rights movement. It could best be summed up by a word that King used a lot – integration.
If democratic integration and equality before the law were the guiding principles of the civil rights movement, what is the guiding principle behind UNDRIP? The second paragraph of UNDRIP states:
Affirming that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such,
It goes on to say that indigenous people should be free to exercise their “right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests… which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources”.
The whole historical problem with nation states was that there was an underlying assumption that Edmund Burke was prescient enough to understand. That assumption was an indigenous populace with a relatively homogeneous shared interest, social structure, culture, spiritual tradition etc. As we saw earlier, the whole business around declarations of independence was the product of the shared heritage of Protestant Europe. It came out of a specific cultural milieu. When the same idea was transplanted into a different milieu, as in New Zealand, it caused problems due to cultural misunderstandings.
UNDRIP takes the starting assumption of the nation state and applies it to “indigenous people” who are also assumed to be perfectly homogenous in relation to shared interest, social structure etc. It then requires that such a people be free to pursue their shared interest within existing nation states. Viewed this way, UNDRIP aims to create nation states within nation states. We see this idea in the language of the Uluru Statement from the Heart:
They (indigenous children) will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
Again, isn’t “world” here just a euphemism for “nation”? The Voice will create two “worlds” within Australia: one for the indigenous and one for the rest of us. What this amounts to is the segregation and separation that Dr King railed against. He went so far as to say that “if democracy is to live, segregation must die”. And yet here we are about to reintroduce separation and, in fact, to put it in the constitution of the country.
Which us brings us back to the original question: are “they” doing it on purpose? Depends who you mean by “they”. There is the they which wants a national treaty in Australia and a they which even wants full sovereignty for aboriginal Australians. It has been suggested in the past, for example, to turn the Northern Territory into a separate sovereign nation just for aboriginals.
On the other hand, there are the unelected and unaccountable “experts” who writes things like UNDRIP and the bureaucrats in the Australian government who make their living managing the results. Then there are the politicians who love heroic gestures that will see their names etched in the history books. Finally, there are the smart political operatives who understand how power works and can see that the indigenous question is an easy way to keep the public divided.
Note that this constellation of interests is very similar to the one which brought us corona. There are the unaccountable global institutions (UN, WHO), the opaque globalist NGOs with mysterious funding models who handle the propaganda activities, the government bureaucrats who earn their living from the issue, the egomaniac politicians living out their dreams of exercising power and the vested interests who stand to make significant financial gain.
If The Voice does get up, I expect it will work out about as well as corona. I suspect Dr King was right. You can’t have segregation and democracy. But maybe that’s the whole point. The central problem of democracy was always how to prevent a tyranny of the majority. A little appreciated fact of the Anglo tradition was that it avoided a tyranny of the majority while both France and Germany fell into that trap. In our highly networked society, it’s fair to say our “elites” are more terrified than ever of demagogues and mob rule.
So, perhaps the degradation of democracy is a feature and not a bug of the new proposal. Once upon a time, such matters were handled quietly behind closed doors. Now they are handled by gaslighting, fabrications and outright lies. As I pointed out a couple of posts ago, this politics of division allows the government to leverage the minority rule to their advantage. The “elites” have always had an interest in ensuring that the will of the majority can be subverted where necesary.