Some wrongs can never be made right, but an Indigenous Voice is a start

Bravo Prime Minister Scott Morrison! How many of those very few who predicted his re-election also foresaw that he would announce shortly after that he is “committed” to constitutional recognition? Good. None of you. And yet for the Prime Minister it is brilliant politics.

As he is all but solely being credited with the election victory, how impressive if he can use his unchallenged authority to wrong-foot his critics and steer a bipartisan push – that would help heal the national divide – towards something important that is so long overdue? Yes, an actual legacy!

Would the hard right of media and politics bitterly criticise the Prime Minister, if he pushed it hard? Perhaps, a very little. But he would get support, and respect, from broad swathes of those to the left of him who could never have imagined him being so wise.



For at issue are some deep truths in our national story. The central point of the First Peoples is that they never ceded sovereignty in the first place, and that the Australian Constitution is therefore built on a false premise is simply irrefutable. The aspect that particularly interests me – as one now finishing the final draft of a book on Captain Cook – is the first claim of British sovereignty on these lands. Given the importance of the current debate for both recognition and the coming Australian republic, I have gone deeply into what happened.


In the last half of August 1770, Captain Cook is just coming to the northern end of the east coast of “New Holland” – Australia – whereupon the plan is to turn west, ideally to go across the top of the continent and get to the Dutch outpost of Batavia before heading home.

But before leaving these climes, there is something he must do, which is why the Endeavour drops anchor beside an island just to the west of the tip of “Cape York”, as he names it.

Shortly after he is rowed ashore by 12 marines, in the company of botanist Joseph Banks among others. After climbing a hill on the island to determine the best way through the many shoals, Cook descends to rejoin the marines, all glittering in their red coats, white breeches and tricorn hats. They have been ordered to dress in the most formal of their finery. It is time to perform a particular ceremony.

First the Union Jack is taken from its pack, attached to a pole, and lifted high. Now taking the Letters Patent from his inside pocket, Captain Cook makes a statement whereby in the name of King George III, Captain Cook does hereby claim for Great Britain “the Eastern Coast [of New Holland] from the Latitude of 38 degrees South . . . to this place”.

At the conclusion of his words, the marines, with their muskets pointed to the sky fire off three volleys. Within a minute the reply is answered with three joyous volleys of muskets from the ship.

It is done. From the point of view of Great Britain at least, this ancient land is now the sovereign territory of Great Britain. The ancient land itself does not blink, just as her ancient people have not the tiniest awareness of the significance of what has occurred.

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This act of claiming possession by Captain Cook – he subsequently calls the place “Possession Island” and marks it on his map – will of course, resonate through the ages, with every era interpreting it differently, according to the mores of the time. For imperial Britain, it was just another act of appropriation, of no more particular significance at the time, than the other. As ever, Cook was eager to follow orders and this was simply a matter of following his instructions from Admiralty to “with the Consent of the Natives . . . take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain”.

What is more, “if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.”

Now, under the circumstances, claiming possession “with the Consent of the Natives”, is simply not possible. This is first because on this island here are none to be found who could consent, second because even if there were the Indigenous did not have a concept of themselves owning a land that could be ceded, so much as themselves being of the land. And finally because even if a few tribal elders could have been found to agree to hand over land on which their people had lived since the Dreamtime, there is no way they could be speaking for the other 750,000 Indigenous people living in Australia at a time, speaking more than 700 different languages and dialects.

The act was a sham, a British conceit which an enlightened age must concede did not establish British sovereignty.

Of course righting so many ancient wrongs of history is not possible. But giving recognition in the constitution to the First Peoples via a Voice to Parliament is a good start, and if Scott Morrison – with no doubt the full support of Anthony Albanese – can push that through in this term of Parliament, both will be on the right side of history, will be remembered for it and we, as a people, will be stronger.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz