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Rethinking Mabo as a clash of constitutional languages

Robson, Stephen (2006) Rethinking Mabo as a clash of constitutional languages. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The 1992 decision of the High Court of Australia to uphold the claim of the Meriam people was welcomed as beginning a new era where the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would gain recognition. Intense debate and activity ensued with federal parliament adopting a legislative framework to recognise native title and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation considering its broader constitutional implications. Fourteen years on though much of the promise of Mabo lies unfulfilled.

This thesis draws upon the work of Canadian philosopher James Tully. He writes of contemporary constitutionalism in Western society and its inability to give more than superficial recognition to cultural difference. He locates the problem as lying with the dominant language of modern constitutionalism. This language provides for two main forms of recognition: the equality of self-governing nation states and the equality of individual citizens. Tully locates a way forward through the presence of another constitutional language. Common constitutionalism has enabled an accommodation of cultural differences guided by its three conventions of mutual recognition, continuity, and consent. Moreover, it is beneficial to analysing other studies about the ability of common law to recognise the claims of Indigenous people.

Tully's contribution is applied to an examination of the Mabo events in a way that takes account of Australia's constitutional traditions. The aim is to clarify the languages employed by the representatives of Australia's institutions of governance and whether this places obstacles in the way of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The inquiry considers the events prior to the High Court's decision, the Keating government's response, and the Howard Government's native title changes. Other chapters examine the constitutional language used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the significance of the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation.

The central argument of this study is that once it is accepted that the claims of Indigenous people in Australia are constitutional, it becomes possible to appreciate that these were largely voiced through the language of human rights and common constitutionalism. In contrast, when the claims were considered by the High Court and federal parliament significant aspects were articulated through the modern constitutional language. Another thread running through the events was a desire to confront and overcome the influence of the language of White Australia. The thesis concludes by considering the significance of the findings for a settlement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy
Supervisor(s): Barns, Ian
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