Fri, Mar 14, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Conflicting narratives over colonial past

Henry Reynolds says the frontier war — his term for the violent dispossession of Australia’s Aborigines — raises questions of global importance about the sovereignty of an entire continent

By Paul Daley  /  The Guardian

Despite the growing awareness since the ’50s about the dark heart of Australian nationhood, there is still enormous room for cultural enlightenment.

Reynolds has been a long-time agitator for the Australian War Memorial to acknowledge frontier conflict in its exhibits — something the memorial’s director, Brendan Nelson, insists will not happen under his watch.

In 2010, Reynolds and Lake published What’s Wrong with ANZAC? The Militarisation of Australian History.

It dared challenge perhaps the greatest shibboleth of Australian cultural identity — the Anzac legend — and questioned the way political leaders have contorted Australian military history to suit their nationalistic ends. They are themes that will reverberate through Australia’s four-year festival of commemoration for World War I.

“Anzac 100”, the federal government’s commemoration program, almost guarantees that frontier war will not be a commonwealth speaking point until at least 2019, unless, of course, it forms part of the national conversation around Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s determination to acknowledge the indigenous Australians in the constitution.

Precisely how that acknowledgement is made is one of the legal questions that now preoccupies 75-year-old Reynolds.

“Is it just going to be ‘we acknowledge them because, oh yes, they were here before us?’ Or is it going to be ‘because of course they had sovereignty,’ which has never been determined in an Australian court, as I think it must eventually be,” he said, referring to the 1992 high court judgment which overturned terra nullius, but did not acknowledge Aboriginal sovereignty.

“Then the conflict becomes infinitely more significant because it is about those great geopolitical issues — and that is what makes what happened a war too,” he said. “It’s not just about the killing and how it was done, where it was fought or over what period of time. It was conflict about these great issues, issues of global importance — the sovereignty and the ownership of a whole continent.”

“It seems to me to raise those fundamental questions — which the Australian judicial system has said we can’t deal with this, our courts were set up as a result of the claim of sovereignty by the British, we can’t go behind that decision. It’s a bit of a cop out,” he said. “I think if the high court won’t do it, I just think what has to be done is that Australia should be forced to go into the international court of justice for an opinion.”

Reynolds may be done with evidencing frontier war. On that front Forgotten War will probably, he said, be his “last word.”

“On the question of constitutional recognition... I will certainly write something about that,” he said.

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