Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Politics of Reconciliation: The Constituent Power of the Aboriginal Embassy in Australia
Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
As a re-occupation of land immediately in front of Parliament House for six months in 1972, the Aboriginal Embassy was an inspiring demonstration of Aboriginal self-determination and land rights. The Embassy re-appeared intermittently throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with a demonstration held at the site annually on Australia/Invasion Day. It has maintained a continuous presence in Canberra since it was reinstated on its twentieth anniversary in 1992 to declare Aboriginal sovereignty in opposition to the formal reconciliation process. Reconciliation is understood as aligned with a progressive politics within mainstream public discourse in Australia. In this paper, we examine the reactionary politics of reconciliation vis-à-vis the struggle for land rights that the Embassy embodies. To this end we examine a debate within legal theory about the relation between ‘constituted power’ (state sovereignty) and ‘constituent power’ (democratic praxis). Following Antonio Negri, the Embassy can be understood as one manifestation of the constituent power of Aboriginal people (and their non- Aboriginal supporters) that the Australian state appropriates to shore up its own defective claim to sovereignty. We illustrate this by comparing the symbolism of the Aboriginal Embassy with that of Reconciliation Place in Canberra. We complicate this analysis by discussing how the Embassy strategically exploits the ambiguous status of Aboriginal people as citizens within and without the community presupposed by the Australian state. In doing so the Embassy makes present the possibility of a break with the colonial past that is often invoked in the politics of reconciliation but which the Australian state has failed to enact.
Paper submitted to special issue of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Special Issue on Citizenship Without Community, ed. Vicki Squire and Angharad Closs Stephens