Some reflections

One thing that I found striking in all the applications with which I dealt was the peaceful and law-abiding way in which Aboriginals pressed their claims, and their capacity to be understanding of their opponents. The only occasion in which the question of violence was raised was in relation to Boobera Lagoon. As I described in my report, the Aboriginals of the area had a long history of pressing their claims lawfully and constructively whenever the opportunity arose, and no one could have credibly predicted violence on their part. It was white residents who predicted that if a declaration were made prohibiting water-skiing, water-skiers would resort to violence and defy it, and that the white community would also react vindictively against Aboriginals, for example by refusing them employment. Two members of Parliament hinted at the same thing when, in opposing protection, they expressed their fear that it might ‘lead to a worsening of the already fragile relations’. The supposition in all these submissions was that the threat of white violence was a reason for refusing the Aboriginal claim, a view that I rejected, although I did recommend a strategy of community public relations to head it off.[9]

The reaction of the Aboriginal community was stoic. The submission on their behalf read:

Any racial violence which flows from the granting of the declarations will merely be a continuation of what they have had to tolerate since the beginning of European occupation. Concern about the possibility of racial violence should not sway the Minister away from making the declarations. To do so would be a grave injustice to Aboriginal people. It would be a continuation of what is already perceived to be a flawed system biased against Aboriginal people. It would be the law succumbing to intimidation from those prepared to threaten violence by the use of illegitimate force to obtain their ends.

This was a view with which I agreed, and one that in my view the state must be prepared to stand up for in negotiating the sacred in a multicultural community.

The Australian state on whose behalf I was acting is essentially secular. Although its Constitution was expressly adopted in humble reliance on the blessing of Almighty God, it gave no powers or privileges to God or God’s representatives or adherents and expressly forbade the Commonwealth from establishing any religion, imposing any religious observance, prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, or requiring any religious test for any Commonwealth office or public trust. As it happens, my personal outlook is secular, although I hope respectful and understanding of other views, but even if I had not been, it would have been my duty to act in a manner becoming the secular agent of a secular state. From this secular viewpoint, the beliefs of Aboriginal claimants, whether sacred in character or not, were not something to be judged as right or wrong, or as better or worse, or more or less credible, than other beliefs, but something to be respected, not merely as an expression of their liberal right to different views, but as part of their human identity. It may well be that it is easier for a secular state to negotiate the sacred, than it would be for one committed to a particular view of the sacred as the official and correct one.