Updating the Written Agreement: Voice, Sovereignty and a Fuller Expression Of Nationhood

Australia’s First Peoples and Nations lost their voice in their own affairs beginning 22 August 1770 continuing through to the present. On that date, an agent of the British Crown named Captain James Cook took possession of the east coast by his use of magic legalese words and a magic cloth. Through the cunning use of flags, Cook claimed possession while not even standing on the Australian Mainland. The only voices that then mattered carved up First Nations lands and waters whilst sitting around swish rooms in London. The guy who invented the sandwich had the loudest voice.

By ‘magic’, I mean the powers vested in King George III’s agents in the Pacific by virtue of the Crown’s ability to control the then most powerful navy on the planet. There’s a reason for a past Australian obsession with 21 gun salutes. Supreme naval power enabled the taking of physical possession of land and waters without continuing physical occupancy of them for another 18 years. No other colonial power settled them so by 1788 the British had made the conscious decision to dump a sizeable portion of the underclass spat out by the Industrial Revolution (plus soldiers to guard them) here. For me that is Wallumedegal and Dharug Country. First Country Stolen. Sovereignty never ceded.

“Straya happened” partly to make up for the American Colonies George III lost, partly to jettison the bodies that would foment a revolution against the British Crown as was occurring across most of Europe to the Sovereign’s rellies, and partly to occupy the territory so someone else wouldn’t – a real life game of Risk if ever there was one. European Colonialism isn’t something that “just happened”. Some thought and planning went into it.

The whole process was extra kooky when you consider George III possibly lacked capacity on the date possession was taken by Cook. 1770 saw one of his early phases of talking to a rosebush he believed was his cousin the King of Prussia. Sadly, there’s no 1770’s common law authority that says a Sovereign must be sane in order to receive stolen land and waters. Not surprising that Australia’s current legal owner King Charles III is a descendant of the same line. Clive James was convinced Charles talks to trees and I for one believe him. His son William, the future Head of State on both sides of the ditch comes out of the Harry-Meghan Nuclear Option looking like a bloke you don’t want in your house. Ironic considering as King he’ll be the guy who’ll be granting you the right to occupy your house (more likely your landlord’s) because that’s what a Crown Grant in fee simple actually means.

When it comes to Australia, the Brits did the legal act of dispossession by way of might and madness. When it comes to Aotearoa they did it with might and guile with a hint of madness in later claiming to not understand some really simple shit in Te Tiriti.

Terra Nullius being applied to Australia was just nonsense that came later.* Cook knew there was a civilisation here. Likewise in Aotearoa where he claimed a chunk here and there. By 1839 the Brits couldn’t overdo the shoot n’ landgrab approach to securing title in land because Māori were accustomed to agreements with Pakeha being made and consideration being paid by missionary-churchy types. The first European whaling settlement in Kororāreka was also a pretty loose place because it was commercially driven. Fungible tokens were now in play.

Leaning heavily on many actual historians but mostly Bain Attwood whose work looks at both sides of the ditch properly, it seems Cook formed the basic view that both sets of natives were incapable of militarily overpowering the British therefore they did not need to be treated with. Plant flag, claim land, sail away. Whether the natives engaged in trade with him, as the Māori did or whether they completely blew Cook off because, quite frankly, the trinkets he tried to push on the natives of New Holland were useless to them, this Cook bloke still knocked off a lot of land.

Despite Cook and Joseph Banks admiring Māori villages and diarising clear indicia of land ownership by them, Cook did the same magical flag wavey thing there in 1769-70 also. At his Tōtaranui stop, Cook had to bribe the locals with three pennies, nails and an empty wine bottle as an incentive to not pull down his magic flagpole after he left.

This chopping down flagpoles thing became a repeating meme of enforcing the terms of Te Tiriti as Māori understood them to be.

Cook’s use of an uninhabited island to claim the Australian mainland suddenly doesn’t look so nonsensical. Plant your flag where the locals won’t nick it.

His diaries for claiming possession of New Holland report that some local mob did turn up and eye him off before shrugging their shoulders and walking away – never in a million years conceiving that a pretty whacky looking corroboree was about to take place and it would mean the decimation of their peoples within their lifetime.

Talk about the opposite of a meeting of the minds.

Australia is now a country where pretty much most people grasp the vibe of what a Welcome to Country is. Our top sporting codes sometimes breed a tornado of alcohol-fuelled and gambling-driven pain, but on the issue of putting the very basic notion of traditional ownership before the voting bogan and helping them make sense of it, they’ve mostly done good.

Of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done by elite sports clubs in ensuring indigenous athletes are not treated like chattel on a 19th Century or cattle station or any Australian prison between then and now. Most incarcerated on earth.

My point is that a majority of Australian voters will be going into the August referendum with a greater level of understanding of their history. During  Mabo No. 2, the overwhelming majority of the electorate fearing the implications of Native Title on the family home would have run a mile from the notion of acknowledging pre-existing laws and customs. The Libs & Nats made sure they did. Let’s not let them do it again.


For funsies, the British Crown acknowledged Native Title in New Zealand pretty early on in the 1800’s when it became apparent that they couldn’t just nick land as the locals had guns and numbers. Sovereignty would have to be negotiated.**

To date, the more traditional and well-known understanding of Cook’s subjective state of mind in taking possession of half a continent was that his acts were more akin to an agent of Empire staking a claim in land for the purpose of establishing a prior claim against another colonial power. This is essentially true.

But EVERYONE was doing it which made it ok. There’s a remarkably similar psychology at play between a kid who smashes up a hotel room with his mates and an Empires that go around the planet laying claims on landmasses where other people live.

For the intervening 18 years between Cook taking possession and Governor Arthur Phillip assuming sovereignty of New South Wales on 26 January 1788, all those other colonial powers had a voice or opportunity to occupy these lands and waters. They didn’t. The British did. The people living here for 60,000 years didn’t have a voice and that’s… sorta what we’re trying to partially rectify with the enshrining of a constitutional mechanism to give them one. One that can’t be snatched away by conservative capriciousness.

A fuller understanding of historical facts has come to light and the founding written agreement which created Australia needs to change. It’s that simple. It’s about recognising these facts in a manner that future governments can’t undo unless by way of further referendum. More on that later.

I’ve barely even touched on one half of the Australian continent in skipping through all the dealings in east coast Country. Now for the west coast and Tasmania.

It’s an eerily similar pattern but with clogs.

1602 – Dutch East India Company (VOC) formed to steal anything on the planet not nailed down.

1642 – An employee of the VOC landed on and took possession for the company of what is now called Tasmania. But he decided to name it Van Diemen’s Land after his boss, because that’s what a good company man does.

Not that the Dutch stuck around, but the Palawa People living on this island had no voice any of this nor in what the British did in one of the fiercest and most structured theatres of the Australian Wars which followed 180 years later.

1699 – A Science-Pirate from England called William Dampier landed in a spot on the west coast of what he called New Holland. He named the location Shark Bay. He was an ideas man.

The Malgana, Nhanda and Yingkarta people had no say in any of this or in any governance framework inflicted on them as the British Colony expanded west across the Nullarbor and east from Perth. Dampier didn’t stay, but he provided maps and data to enable future agents of the British Crown to locate and lay claim to Terra Australis in future.

You can apply a real Wild De-colonial Boy approach to our history by revisiting what Cook taking possession and Phillip assuming sovereignty of NSW actually looks like when you slowly step through the chronology of it all. Sure, another boatload of Frenchies could have ripped up Cook’s markers between 1770-1788 and claimed possession or the Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese. But they didn’t. We have to deal with the historical facts as they are. Sometimes that means disregarding over-contextualised excuses for past conduct. Sure, you can accept Cook and Phillip as creatures of their time and not lay a modern lens over things but this is not an argument about their intent, its about making good for the destruction wrought on a people by agents of the British Crown acting on instruction from their principal. At-least that’s what the various charters and decrees say. But let’s start the make-good with the founding document.

What is the Constitution but a written legal agreement between a bunch of former colonies of Britain. Legal agreements get updated and amended as new facts come to light or times evolve and change, giving us a new slant on previously known facts or simply the courage to face the old facts head on without flinching: there was an invasion followed by theatres of war where physical possession and control of land changed hands. Guns, germs and steel. Europeans were partly able to expand to Parramatta and the fertile Cumberland Plain because smallpox decimated the Wallumedegal and Dharug Peoples who controlled those lands. Flying musket balls and fear of them did the rest. The Crown’s agents rewarded the victors (a troop Royal Marines) with the first land grants in 1792. The Fatal Shore take on this was Phillip wanted to keep men of good breeding in the colony when he alienated the first parcels land that Cook originally claimed possession of 22 years prior. Unsurprisingly the bicentennial plaque is out by two years and glosses over precisely who received the first land grant.

A retrospective tip for Arthur Phillip. Maybe don’t go naming land grants after the Roman God of War if you want the colony’s descendants to believe the rubbery ambiguity around peaceful dispossession.

For 235 years the majority of non-indigenous Australians have held to the orthodoxy of Britain’s assumed sovereignty in 1788 being a case of “and that’s that”. Like Cook, Phillip formed the view that if the natives couldn’t overpower the colony militarily then he could just assume sovereignty and deal in land as the powers granted by the Crown enabled him to do.

The weird little property law-centric tale told above is what assumed sovereignty looks like on the basis of it being “and that’s that/end of story”. A familiar tale of the strong crushing the weak. The fuller expression of nationhood offered in the Uluru Statement from the Heart presents a much more satisfying and decent basis upon which to assume the sovereignty which holds our current system of government and occupation of these lands and waters together.

x x x x

In the opening paragraph I used the terms ‘magic legalese’ and ‘magic flags’ pejoratively because it takes a gigantic leap into absurdism to square away the ethics of failing to properly recognise Australia’s indigenous peoples in the founding document from 1901 – 2023. Let’s fix this first. Let’s get it over the line. Damn the distractions. Don’t repeat em, don’t give em airtime or water cooler time.

Constitutional recognition is also a magical thing but in a good way. The document is essentially a piece of paper that reflects the agreement of what 25-million people (bar a handful of batshit Sov Cits) agree upon. They agree that Australia as a functioning polity exists as a real and tangible thing. All the culture, ideas, vision, pride and day-to-day identity of being an Australian is all the stuff that has magically come into being because of the pre-existence of this one underlying document over the last 122 years. Point: David Boon drinks 52 beers on a plane and a whole generation of Australian men decide that this is what it means to be an Aussie. Magic.

If stepping through the facts and hearing the truths to come (for the first time) is a ghastly slap of moral horror for non-indigenous Aussies, imagine what it must feel like from the perspective of the dispossessed.

235 years of unbelievable barbarism and cruelty. How have they responded? They huddled in the desert in 2017 and emerged with the Uluru Statement A most astoundingly generous offer to walk with them.

Amending the Constitution in favour of those with 60,000 years prior possession of these lands and waters will help Australia move forward on that walk, to truth telling and a treaty, eventually towards what the authors of that offer call a more fuller expression of Australia’s Nationhood.  

For context, every single person in Australia who is NOT indigenous provides independent advice to Parliament and Government all the time. Think Tanks, corporate lobbyists, esteemed academics, captains of industry both local and global, unions, sports people, ex-MP’s, ministers of religion even celebrities.

At the barest minimum, the referendum passing would mean the tacit (but not express) acknowledgement of the prior possession and yes, sovereignty, rooted in pre-existing laws and customs going back to time immemorial. If the majority of Australia can grasp that. A meaningful treaty will eventually be possible. There are some fixated on the order of Voice, Truth, Treaty. The way my lawyer-brain puts things together I’m seeing a central Voice as having the best shot at setting up a comprehensive Makarrata Committee where a truth telling process can foster a treaty agreement reflecting what actually happened during the Great Australian Silence. But that’s just me. Perhaps Australian Māori are the last bloody people who should be giving out treaty advice to anyone. In many respects, the failure of Te Tiriti is what forced my tupuna to cross the ditch to Sydney in 1910.

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament as proposed in its first drafting is a leveller in its simplicity. No need for me to discuss models because it’s the principle, stupid. Let’s accept the generous offer to establish the Voice. Then let’s listen to it and the truth telling to follow. May the Statement lead to a Voice, to Truth then to Treaty and to the co-existence of two sovereignties. The one that existed for 60,000 years and the one that existed for 235. The latter sovereignty, as I’ve illustrated is technically based on sailors in wigs prancing around the globe in boats and stealing shit for mad old men in wigs who live in big castles – all them cousins.

The former sovereignty is ancient. It is from-and-of-the-soil, it is predicated on prior discovery and occupation, solid rock, sacred ground. Not conquest and theft. If it can shine through then we all win. Love, logic and equity win. Injustice loses. It will mean we chose to walk with them.

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*Bain Attwood, Empire and the Making of Native Title: Sovereignty, Property and Indigenous People Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. p56 (but the whole chapter really). The colonial history parts of this article are partly a sweary re-take of Attwood’s work. It accords with my own innate view that you can’t understand the conduct of the British in their dealings with Australia’s First Nations without comparing it with Tangata Whenua. Go read the book.

**Ibid p36