Confounded by Recognition: The Apology, the High Court and the Tent Embassy in Australia
In postcolonial states reconciliation processes can be understood as civic forums in which the suffering inflicted upon certain identity groups as a result of misrecognition are adjudicated and addressed. Reconciliation begins, or rather an appreciation of the need for it arises, with the (belated) recognition of the mistreatment of an identity group. It is only when past practices are negatively re-evaluated in light of contemporary moral norms and Indigenous perspectives that postcolonial states are drawn towards making symbolic and material reparations to these identity groups in an attempt to restore legitimacy and trust in their institutions. Generally speaking, however, none of this occurs without a bitter struggle. Attempts by identity groups to stake ‘claims for recognition’ – which, in this case, means recognition as ‘victims’ of certain hegemonic cultural practices – have tended to spark ‘culture wars’ in which the extent of the harm, the nature of the wrong and the appropriate mode of redress are all contested. If it is possible to speak of a process of reconciliation, therefore, it is first and foremost a process of civic adjudication in relation to the harms of the past. Positioning itself in the role of mediator, the postcolonial state enacts reconciliation as a way of establishing a consensus about the nature and meaning of Indigenous suffering. Reconciliation processes have sometimes provided productive ways of responding to the ongoing legacy of colonial practices of dispossession and assimilation. Yet, in focusing upon the victim of injustice rather than the agent of injustice, such processes risk entrenching the view of the state as a neutral arbiter and diverting attention from the underlying source of identity-based harms. In line with Patchen Markell’s more general critique of the politics of recognition, a potential problem with processes of reconciliation is that the meaning of misrecognition is only examined from the perspective of those who suffer it, not the perspective of those who commit it. This leaves it open to treat misrecognition as an ‘unfortunate fact’, attributable to outdated belief systems, rather than interrogating its deeper sources in the desire for identity itself (Markell 2003:21). Put differently, the transformative potential of the politics of grievance might not lie in the recognition and reparation of suffering (though these are by no means insignificant). Rather it might lie in exposing the deeper sources of misrecognition in the identity-making practices of the colonial state itself. Viewed in a more agonistic light, claims for the recognition of suffering present a challenge to existing social relations, not because their satisfaction requires the postcolonial state in engage in extraordinary acts of supplication, but because they draw attention to the deeper sources of misrecognition in the desire for sovereign unity. In this chapter we seek to draw out some of the more agonistic (and antagonistic) dimensions of the demand for recognition by looking at the politics surrounding the two identity-based harms tangled up in the reconciliation debate in Australia: the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and the denial of Aboriginal sovereignty. As it unfolded in the 1990s, the reconciliation process gradually became identified with the tragedy of the ‘Stolen Generations’ and the poverty of the official response to the findings of Bringing Them Home, a report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. By far the most publicly controversial aspect of the reconciliation process was the charge of genocide levelled in relation to such removals and the call for an official apology that would give due recognition to the suffering inflicted upon Aboriginal people through earlier policies of absorption and assimilation (Goot and Rowse 2007: 141). When the newly elected Rudd government finally delivered the apology in February 2008, therefore, it was officially hailed as the crowning achievement of the reconciliation process. What was largely obscured by the public celebration over this sovereign act of recognition, however, was the underlying cause of this terrible assault upon Aboriginal identity. While the apology provided a measure of recognition (both of the suffering endured by Indigenous people and of the value of their culture), it was marred by an ongoing failure on the part of the Australian state to properly acknowledge what the history of its relations with Indigenous people disclosed about its identity. In principle revelations about the forced removal of Aboriginal children provided a perfect opportunity to focus critical attention upon the identity-making practices of the Australian state: the history of strategic attempts to incorporate the Indigenous peoples of the territory into the Australian nation as citizens. Ironically, however, the apology presumptively addressed Indigenous people as members of the nation, passing over the fact that it was precisely the attempt to turn them into ‘fellow Australians’ that was responsible for the tragedy of the ‘Stolen Generations’. The ambiguity of this situation was heightened even further by Prime Minister Rudd’s attempt to put the apology into the service of the nation-building project to which it provided an implicit critique by declaring it the moment of arrival of a fully unified people. It is this ongoing inability on the part of the Australian state to properly acknowledge the underlying connection between its own pursuit of identity and the damage inflicted upon the identity of others that provides the critical impetus for our examination of the struggle for recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty. Turning our attention to the High Court case of Coe v Commonwealth and the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, we discuss how the Australian state is pressed to confront the deeper sources of misrecognition in its own desire for unity and sovereign control when confronted by Aboriginal claims for Sovereignty. Paradoxically, we suggest, it is when the Australian state is forced to acknowledge the failure of its own identity and the project of identity-making, that it can begin to do justice to others.
In Alexander Hirsch (ed) Theorizing Post-Conflict Reconciliation: Agonism, Restitution and Repair. London & New York: Routledge, 2011.