From Sovereignty in Australia to Australian Sovereignty

Raia Prokhovnik

Dr Raia Prokhovnik is Head of Politics and International Studies at The Open University, UK.

Working as a political theorist in the UK over the past 30 years has given me the opportunity now to engage with political concepts in the politics of my country of birth, Australia.  I’ve been exploring the concept of sovereignty – and its conceptions over time – in a general way for ten years, and recently became fascinated with how sovereignty in Australia has developed and been shaped.  The more I looked into it, the more it struck me that sovereignty in Australia is still very much a work in progress.

The key insight that my work on sovereignty more generally over the past ten years has shown me is the connection between the political settlement a polity makes around its sovereignty, in order to establish political order and stability, and the way it conducts its politics.  Sovereignty settlements can come about through events like the American Revolution or the French Revolution, but also in a more fine-grained way with each new generation in a country rethinking its values and what counts as political.  And the thing about a sovereignty settlement is that it is made to be fixed forever, but is in fact, over time, conditional and subject to change.  Sovereignty functions for us as an enduring idea, a regulative ideal, an organising principle, and provides a reflective self-identity for the political community, above the turbulent fray of our politics, and yet it can change through political contestation and a new stable political order can be formed. 

Sovereignty isn’t just about the location of supreme power and authority within a bounded territory.  The sovereignty settlement sets out how ruling is determined, whether by democratic or other means; who counts as a political agent and can vote and have a voice; what the constitution says about the identity of that polity; how political change can take place; what the role of the rule of law is etc.  A sovereignty settlement sets out the way politics is done (for instance, street protest continues to be an important feature of politics in France, but is regarded with suspicion in the UK), and the limits of politics (where participation is thought to cross the line into unlawful dissent).  And the politics of a political community contains debates about who can be a citizen, what are the social norms informing a country’s collective deliberations, who has rights, and which rights they have etc.  Without that connection between the sovereignty settlement made in a particular country and its way of doing politics, sovereignty remains a very abstract and unhelpful concept on the domestic political stage.

Researching the history of the construction of sovereignty in Australia, I was struck by the continued absence of indigenous voices, by the continued marginalisation and dispossession of indigenous people, and by the lack of meaningful recognition of indigenous peoples as equal political actors.  However, indigenous challenges framed in the language of sovereignty, provide an opportunity for sovereignty in Australia to be re-imagined in a more inclusive manner.

My article in the journal, Political Studies (Vol.63 2015) argues that sovereignty will not be fully established in Australian until indigenous voices are heard and are accepted as equal political agents.  I put forward a case for a constitutional amendment that seeks to show how that could come about in practice.

 


Raia Prokhovnik's full article from Political Studies can be found here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9248.12069/full

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