The Republic and First Nations Peoples: Gregory Phillips on The Soapbox

Gregory Phillips provides what he sees as the key challenges underlying the Australian state and entrenching the divide between First Nations peoples and others, including genocide and its denial, the 'white values' and assumptions of our society's dominant science and religion, and the greed at the heart of neoliberalism. He offers a rationale for change - and makes suggestions about how positive change can come.

Gregory Phillips Lunchbox / Soapbox: The Wheeler Centre10 April 2014

Aunty Joy Murphy, Aunty Di Kerr, Aunty Caroline Briggs and many other Kulin Nation and other Elders have welcomed and embraced this stranger from the north with open arms, respect and love. For this I am very grateful and humbled, and I can only hope my time and effort here on their country bears their people and all of us some good fruit.

Challenges: Genocide, the values of whiteness and unchecked greed

There are three major challenges confronting the Australian state: genocide and its denial, the values of whiteness, and unchecked greed dressed up as democracy. The first two problems are psychological and social in nature, and play out in very real ways in the cut and thrust of everyday Australian politics today. It is on these - genocide and whiteness - that I ponder here. I make some observations about the final problem - unchecked greed - yet I shake my head at what we might do to redress it. Actually no, I reckon there are some real things we can do to make good on the promise of a truly free and equal land.

*Captain Arthur Phillips' convicts turned up here as outcasts, rejected and isolated from their homelands and peoples. In their rejection and isolation from the Motherland, they found some comfort in the arms of Aboriginal peoples, but when Aboriginal peoples got in the way of their chance to make something better for themselves - to turn from being seen as criminal to being seen as landowners - then the embrace of Aboriginal people was no match for their chance for redemption. Their pain turned into greed. Stealing the land and murdering children was just a side-effect of 'bettering themselves' in the colonial economy.

'Genocide occurred in Australia'

Genocide occurred in Australia. It hasn't been acknowledged. As a nation, we've said sorry and a couple of prime ministers have rightly acknowledged some massacres and murders. But has the reality of this sunk into the soul of Australia? Have we chewed on it, grieved it, admitted it, written the word in our history books, atoned for the wrongs, memorialised and committed to 'never again'? Not really. We tend to hope it goes away and that Aborigines stop whingeing - apparently that's what we're doing when we speak the truth.

Australia admires Germany and Japan for atoning and memorialising their war atrocities, and we memorialise the ANZACS, but we are ashamed to admit war atrocities on Aboriginal peoples. This shame prevents us from grieving properly, from admitting and from atoning. It prevents us from changing for the better. Our soul is unhealed.

But white people are good people, like all. Deep somewhere in their hearts they wish for the right thing to be done, to atone, to heal, to make it better for everyone. It's just that the way many white people attempt to make things better for and to us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, is a product of the same diseased motivations of shame and guilt.

Moving on - on Aboriginal terms

I'm hoping one day we seriously look into the mirror - a Truth and Reconciliation Commission - so we can actually move on. Aboriginal peoples speak the truth about genocide, not because we want to live in the 1800s forever, but because we want to move on. It is because of many white people's refusal to do the hard work of admission, atonement and change that we cannot move on. Most white people want to move on; on their terms. They apparently want to heal us, change us, educate us, house us and help us - like eighteenth-century nuns - but really, they want to control us. They want to make us conform to their values and ways of living. We want to move on, on our terms; or shared terms, even. Imagine that.

The Northern Territory intervention was about many white people being in denial about sexual abuse and alcoholism in their own communities, preferring to keep it under wraps, and being horrified that it was visible in someone else's backyard. It wasn't that alcoholism or sexual abuse was occurring in Aboriginal communities that bothered them - if they were, there were very scarce health resources deployed. It was that alcoholism in some Aboriginal communities was visible. It reminded whites of their own alcoholism. So they sought to control it, and us. They projected their horror and fear onto us, claiming that they were saving us, all the while denying sexual abuse and alcoholism in suburbs, cities and towns across white Australia. But the Royal Commission into church and other institutional sexual abuse, the inquiries into sexual abuse in the armed forces and the national alcoholism crisis confronting white Australia are good steps forward. Admission is the first step. Atonement? We'll see. Change is harder, but not impossible.

'White is always right': science, religion and neo-liberalism

So if genocide and its denial occurred here, and the effects of this denial are still being felt, what is the vector, the thinking, or the motivation, the juice, that allows this ongoing fallacy? What are its implications?

I have mentioned shame and guilt as motivating factors, and also the issue of feelings of isolation and rejection from the Motherland; of feeling discombobulated from the strange new land the convicts found themselves in. But I need to shine some light on two other important factors. They are the values of whiteness and the values of neo-liberalism. Whiteness is the set of values, the mindset, the habitus, that white is always right.

These values include science as religion, religion as control, and inequality as normal and acceptable. As Thomas King, the revered First Nations scholar from Canada, has stated ' ... race was a divine sanction, a scientific certainty and an economic imperative'. Science is apparently objective, value-free and gold-standard. Bullshit. Science is as culturally bound and euro-centric as cricket is for drunks.

Organised religion is apparently for the faithful. Bullshit. Organised religion is for people who want to control others. There is no doubt that spirituality and faith are wonderful pursuits and attributes that we all should aspire, and sometimes we might even happen upon those things in religion. But organised religion tries to monopolise those attributes and control people; mostly women.

Inequality and poverty is apparently pre-ordained, normal and acceptable. In many cultures where they have given up their spiritual love for each other to the greed of the corporations, it is now apparently 'just the way things are' that people in Broadmeadows or Doomadgee generally have less healthy food to eat or less resourced schools to attend. Apparently the open market economy and democracy are the same thing. Bullshit. We have capitalist oligarchies now - a handful of billionaires worldwide who control governments, churches, corporations and the media. They work together to maintain control. It is called neo-liberalism, or more simply, greed.

Of course, whiteness is not the premise of white people alone. It comes from there. But whiteness and neo-liberal values are now accepted in countries as diverse as China, South Africa, Japan, the USA, Russia and Chile. These countries all worship the God of greed above human rights, social justice and true equality. They see profits and fairness as incompatible, or that inevitably, one must prevail. It is not that the market economy in and of itself is a bad thing - socialist countries prefer state control of the people too - it's just that market economy greed has taken over true democracy.

'Helping' Aboriginal peoples, on white terms

These values of whiteness and neo-liberalism are why many white people want to intervene and 'help' Aboriginal peoples on white terms. Many white people often don't even know they have culturally bound values, and thus, see themselves as normal, and everyone else as 'other' or strange; they can't see their own values or the limitations of them. They can't understand why Aborigines want help, but not the kind of help that maintains white power and Black poverty. That is, white people want to help if they remain in power. If they continue to dominate the apparatus of state, the terms of power, the terms of interaction, the terms of government, the terms of law, the terms of equality; then they are only too gracious in offering us some scraps of 'their' table.

Apparently we should grovel and be thankful to white miners for raping our lands (without our permission) and then 'graciously' offering us some traineeships. Reconciliation in Australia becomes a movement of making white people feel good about doing charity for Aborigines. It's not a movement of substantive social justice, or the truth. It's not about peace-making after the wars of genocide; it's about including Aborigines on terms of white powerful benevolence. Constitutional recognition is not about substantive equality, social justice or true wealth and power-sharing. It's about wiping out Aboriginal sovereignty and enfolding us into white rules of occupation.

The values of whiteness and neo-liberalism mean many white and some new Australians cannot and will not see Aboriginal people as anything other than 'a problem'. Problem children need strict fathers. I think that's what Noel Pearson and Tony Abbott are on about.

But here's the rub. The same values that are oppressing Aboriginal people today are oppressing ordinary white and new Australians too. If the values of whiteness and neo-liberalism - or greed at any costs - work together to maintain corporate control of the world economy, what hope do common people, the citizens of countries and the world, let alone Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples or other political minorities, have in bringing about true equality?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander values and traditions 'missing link in human sustainability'

In any chaotic situation, there is opportunity. I don't want to dwell on the problems, I want to propose how they could be shifted. But first I want to suggest why we should make peace and change.

I am reminded by Aunty Lilla Watson's powerful dreaming:

If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time ... But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then, let us walk together.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are actually world leaders. Our spiritual and philosophical traditions have served us well. We have only survived the onslaught of genocide and continuing colonisation because of our values and beliefs. Some white people think that because they cannot visibly see some of our values and traditions, they do not exist.

Actually these values will serve Australia well, if the Australian state is ready for them.

Our values and traditions are the essential missing link in human sustainability - both environmental and economic. Our survival systems correctly link social cohesion to political autonomy, economic sustainability and environmental balance. The 'modern' world's challenges of drought, poverty, obesity, cancers, war and greed can be fixed or ameliorated if we listen to that still, small voice within called the truth. Most Elders have not forgotten this truth, some change it to suit themselves, but many hold it and are ready to share it when the world is ready to hear it. It would be irresponsible to share this knowledge if the world is not ready to respect and implement it properly.

If Australia respectfully atoned, set ourselves on a course for positive change, and implemented instruments of power and resource-sharing, then Australia would have the edge over China or any other world power; we would be truly confident resting on our own laurels in the family of nations. We would enact and cheerfully share the elements of an Australian nation-state and republic like no other. The Republic is our opportunity to dream, to re-make and build the state we truly want. We could re-make the state into a republic where economic sustainability, not greed; environmental growth, not degradation; social equity, not poverty; and citizen-state power-sharing, not capitalist oligarchy, are the mainstays of our traditions.

True power and resource sharing essential

In less lofty ways, the need to bring about true power and resource sharing in Australia between Aborigines and others is essential if we want our tax dollars to work. Investments in Aboriginal programs won't work unless the terms of power sharing are equalised. If Aboriginal communities share decision-making power over government programs, they work better. The evidence supports it. If Aboriginal communities have measures of self-government and self-control, there is less youth suicide. The evidence supports it. Power and resource sharing must be jointly agreed, not doled out from one party to the other.

But perhaps the greatest reason to address power-sharing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is what Paul Keating referred to when he said the greatest issue facing Australia today is a psychological one - securing our future place in Asia, not separate from it. Aboriginal-white relations are inextricably linked to Australian-Asian relations by virtue of notions of race, ownership and place. We cannot be confident in Asia unless we're confident at home.

Power-sharing is deeply psychological. It means white Australians may have to give up their deep attachments to Mother England and Father USA. We will have to grow as a nation on our own two feet. We will always revere our psychological parents, and respect them, visit them, pay homage to them. But it is an acknowledgement that our spiritual parents, our Ancestors, our heritage, is actually here; right under our feet. Like a wise grandparent or distant relative, we often learn as much from these people than we do our own parents. What if white Australians started seeing and respecting Aboriginal Elders as their Elders?

Opportunities for change

What if white Australians started seeing Aboriginal sacred sites as what they are - the oldest records of human history - rather than opportunities for graffiti and pillage? What if white Australians, and others with the diseases of whiteness, neo-liberalism and greed, started seeing Aboriginal people as the holders of the keys to humanity's survival?

Maybe then we wouldn't be scared of people with dark skin. We would see the human inside. Maybe then we wouldn't be scared of Asia and Asians. Maybe then we would relate to them as human beings. Maybe we could hear the Indonesians properly when they ever so graciously tell us to stop being so rude as to dump asylum seekers on their doors with no orderly agreements. Maybe then we would not see asylum seekers as people to be scared of, but people who could help us. Maybe we could see them as something other than scavengers. Maybe we would treat them the same as white asylum seekers?

Maybe we could hear Aboriginal people when they tell us how to manage fires and drought. Maybe we could hear Aboriginal people when they tell us how to deal with difficult problems like sexual abuse, forced adoptions, alcoholism and comprehensive primary health care - Aboriginal people are actually intellectual and political leaders in these areas.

These are our opportunities for change, and our rationale.

'Fortunately or unfortunately, we need each other'

First, I want to state clearly that I am not advocating separatism. The redress of colonisation and power-imbalance is not for two parties to develop and make their own decisions separately. The opposite of white power is not black power. The opposite of white power dominating Black peoples is Black and White people equally sharing power. Fortunately or unfortunately, we need each other.

I'm not sure why the great Ancestral beings, or Gods or Creator, or just universal history, put white and black peoples together here in Australia. I mean, apart from white peoples' greed and fear, why really do we have to put up with each other? Why are we forced together in this accident of time and space?

Whatever, here we are.

We've tried a couple of hundred years of dominance, and recently a few years of benevolence. But it's not substantive equality. It's not equal power and resource sharing on equal terms. It's not peace-making after the wars have settled. The war rages, just silently through benevolence and charity now. Killing us softly.

Change will come through a series of things. First, white people must admit genocide, atone, and take responsibility to change. That might take ten years. At the same time, Black people must deal with our demons, give up any lingering victimhood, and see ourselves as owning the nation-state. This is our country. We must have an equal share in governing it, with all the responsibility that implies. Our people must prepare ourselves to govern, as Mamphela Ramphele so eloquently suggested. This doesn't mean we should be viewed with benevolence to 'lift us up to white standards'. It means we must prepare ourselves.

Second, Australia should begin a national dialogue about the values we want a modern republic to uphold. We should look deeply into our historical, sociological and political memory, compare ourselves to other republics, and identify the principles and values we hold most sacred. These could include: immense pride in the oldest human heritage and culture's one earth; the primacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the republic; that the movement of a new republic must be a grass-roots one - of and for all citizens; that 'a fair go' must have true meaning in law; that mateship should mean social justice and equity; that economic survival means a green economy; that Aboriginal wisdom is sacrosanct, along with western science; that sport and art and philosophy are equally revered; and that the uniting feature of our existence, the great red landscape and her waters, are cherished most deeply.

Making peace between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of the country

When we have seriously progressed this work and dialogue, only then are we ready to begin debating the twin essential components of a new Australia. First, we have to make peace between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of the country. Secondly, we must form a new republic for all. These two things are inseparable. To form a new republic, or begin debating its components, without addressing peace-making between Black and White and New, is a serious mistake. It will mean, once again, Aboriginal people will be relegated to the sidelines while their special place in the instruments of state are ignored. Conversely, to make peace with Aboriginal peoples without addressing issues like whiteness, neo-liberalism and greed, will consign not just Aboriginal, but all Australians, to a very unhappy future in a desert of psycho-geopolitical confusion about race, ownership and place.

In terms of negotiating peace between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal Australians, various options could be considered. Whichever option for peace-making is chosen, the following principles must be guaranteed: nation-to-nation terms of negotiation; self-governance and self-determination for Aboriginal peoples; and the flexibility for adaptation to local agreement-making and representation.

Constitutional recognition, treaty, autonomous region or dual sovereignty?

The weakest option for peace-making would be constitutional recognition, where the good charitable white parliament would 'include' 'us' in 'their' constitution. How benevolent of them! No matter how strong these articles were, they would still guarantee the power of the crown as a singular sovereign white power, and relegate us to secondary status as merely a concerned group of citizens. They would never guarantee us equal power and resource sharing. And as I said previously, the current constitution guarantees power for rich white greedy men, not everyone else.

The second strongest option would be a treaty, or formal agreement between the Australian state and Aboriginal peoples. As I have said elsewhere, this may include nation-to-nation negotiations, a critical principle, but this principle risks being watered down in implementation by virtue of it needing to be 'recognised' or subsumed into the current Australian constitution. Again, this is not equal power and resource sharing. Look no further than North America and Aotearoa/New Zealand to see that treaties are simply documents the Crown ignores when it feels like it.

Others have suggested the establishment of an Aboriginal state, or autonomous region, similar to Nunavut in Canada and Norfolk Island in Australia. These options require serious investigation and have some merit, although they would need to solve the very real issue of geographic diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and that whichever piece of land was chosen, it would not be traditional country for all of us. Still, the possibility of it being a virtual autonomous government or state could have serious benefits.

By far the strongest option would be to consider and build a new republic based on dual sovereignty. Dual sovereignty would enshrine the power of both the oldest living cultures on Earth and their essential place in a new nation-state, and the strength of western and other traditions, values and benefits. Why can't we equally share power and resources? This may be a naïve question perhaps; but only if you accept white male greed as inevitable.

The Republic

Before we start arguing about a directly elected president or one appointed by parliament, and other similarly ego-fuelled and vacuous arguments, as I said before, we must have completed the hard work of truth-telling, atonement and a national values dialogue as the essential foundations for negotiation. Then we can work together with humility and vision.

When we have completed that work, we have an opportunity to dream of a new model for a republic. We can take the best from Aboriginal traditions of survival and governance, the traditions of the Westminster democracy, the USA model of a republic - which, incidentally, is a stolen model from the Iroquois Native American system of participatory democracy - and other models of representation and governance from the rest of the world. Let's build something brave and new, yet old and enduring.

The components of a new Australian state could be based on:

  • dual sovereignty, where the new constitution guarantees power and resource-sharing between a national parliament and an Aboriginal autonomous parliament
  • citizen participation in preselecting candidates, in parliamentary budgets, and in expenditure review an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander president - a great way of both tangibly sharing power, and symbolically presenting confidence and pride to the world in our new national identity
  • a national parliament and prime minister, similar to what currently exists, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are encouraged to run for election
  • an Aboriginal parliament, which jointly negotiates with the regular parliament
  • New Australians should get their citizenship from local Aboriginal Elders and local MPs as representatives of equally sovereign parties
  • a national commitment to the human family and all its cultures
  • a trust fund where 2.5% of national GDP would be directed for autonomous management and control by the Aboriginal parliament for the maintenance of identity, land and cultures. Health, education, housing, employment and justice programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be directed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parliament, and jointly implemented by the existing bureaucracy and Aboriginal parliament officers
  • a new flag representing White and Black symbolism
  • a new national anthem, representing Black and White sounds.


To summarise, we as a nation must: confront, admit and atone for genocide; interrogate and free ourselves of the inevitability of whiteness and neo-liberal greed; and begin a national dialogue about shared values and beliefs. We must make peace between Black and White. Only then will we be mature enough to negotiate the precepts of a new republic, where dual sovereignty is enshrined, and take our rightful place among the family of nations. Then our great red land and her waters will better sustain us all as a part of Asia, and more strongly guarantee our survival in the face of immense global environmental and political challenges.

This is the edited text of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address given at the Wheeler Centre.

* The beginning of this line has been edited by Soverign Union

Gregory Phillips is from the Waanyi and Jaru peoples, and comes from Cloncurry and Mount Isa. He is a medical anthropologist, has a research Master's degree in medical science, and his thesis, Addictions and Healing in Aboriginal Country, was published as a book in 2003.

Gregory has twenty years work experience in healing, alcohol and other drugs, youth empowerment, medical education and health workforce. He developed an accredited Indigenous health curriculum for all medical schools in Australia and New Zealand, founded the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education Network, and wrote a national Indigenous health workforce strategy.

He established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation Ltd in the wake of the federal apology to Indigenous Australians, has advised federal ministers on Indigenous health inequality, and was honoured in 2011 with an ADC Australian Leadership Forum Award.

Gregory is currently Executive Director of ABSTARR Consulting, and is completing his PhD in psychology on Aboriginal health, cultural safety and medical education.

The content in this article is not necessarily the opinion of the Sovereign Union and is included for reference and general information purposes only.