On 26 January each year, Australia commemorates the first sustained invasion of Aboriginal lands. Prior to this incursion, traditional Aboriginal nations were the sovereign rulers of these lands for over 60,000 years. The sovereignty held by these peoples was never ceded to the new arrivals. Nor did these settlers seek to resolve questions of sovereignty through negotiation of a treaty. Instead, such questions were pushed aside, and the false narrative of terra nullius adopted to cover over the violence and dispossession of colonisation.
Such beginnings have left a long moral shadow over the legitimacy of the nation, and all settler institutions. Consistent, and in recent years, growing demands from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for recognition of their sovereignty remain an unresolved question in the psyche of the nation.
The treaty process now established in Victoria under the Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Act 2018 (Treaty Act), provides a unique opportunity for this problem to be directly addressed for the first time.
Questions of sovereignty are implicit in discussions about treaty, which are generally defined as agreements between sovereign entities. However, sovereignty is a complex term, and political rhetoric can often further obscure its exact meaning. While many Aboriginal people forcefully demand recognition of their sovereignty, there does not appear to be any consensus on how this should occur and be realised in the present day.
This paper will seek to address these issues, particularly examining the concept of sovereignty, how it has been addressed in Australia, as well as internationally, and how it may be embedded and recognised through the Victorian treaty process.
To do so, this paper is divided into five parts:
Part 1: What is sovereignty?
Part 2: How has sovereignty been dealt with in Australia?
Part 3: How has sovereignty been dealt with in other settler nations?
Part 4: Is the Indigenous concept of sovereignty the same as the Western concept?
Part 5: How could Aboriginal sovereignty be exercised in Victoria?
This paper is the second in a series of discussion papers presented by the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations (the Federation), following the first discussion paper Understanding the landscape: the foundations and scope of a Victorian treaty. These papers do not purport to represent the firm or fixed positions of the Federation, rather, they seek to contribute to the thinking around treaty-making in Victoria by presenting a potential treaty model, which can be further explored, critiqued and refined. It is hoped that these papers may focus discussions and provide a starting point to begin the process of building consensus among Victorian Aboriginal people and Traditional Owner communities, as to their aims and objectives in the treaty process.