Black sovereignty call highlights just how moderate the Voice proposal is

Posted on 23 Feb 2023

By Denis Moriarty

Aboriginal Flag i Stock 1400518081

Senator Lidia Thorpe has left her party and gone on to the crossbench, showing, among other things, that she was unable to get more than 8.3% – her alone out of 12 Greens – of a fairly sympathetic audience on her side. It’s not, on the face of it, a good preview for a campaign that’s presumably directed at persuading Australia to adopt her proposal for Indigenous sovereignty rather than the Voice.

To be fair, it doesn’t actually look as if she’s trying to persuade Australia as a whole. She’s trying, rather, to persuade the Indigenous population that Black sovereignty is the key. She believes, and wants them to believe, that Indigenous people already have sovereignty, by right, and that anything – like the Voice – that implies they have to ask the rest of Australia for permission to exercise it would compromise their rights.

Lidia Thorpe
Lidia Thorpe addresses protestors in Melbourne.

You can see her point. We colonisers have robbed Indigenous people of their lands continuously for several hundred years, and massacred those who got in the way. We have built Australia on their shoulders and over their bones. They’re owed recompense and redistribution. But that’s not what sovereignty is.

Both here and in the related sovereign citizen movement, sovereignty is regarded as a God-given right , a certificate from a higher authority making it clear that the holder is not bound by the legal trammels that governments and courts and police try to fasten on their shoulders. They can walk free in the open ground outside society, bound only by the agreements that they themselves freely enter into.

Lidia Thorpe
Lidia Thorpe is now an independent senator.

The source of legitimacy for Australian laws is, to be sure, pretty iffy. The Australian constitution is an act of the UK parliament, and in pure theory the UK parliament could revoke it and bring us back to being a colony. In practice, of course, that would be impossible – but ‘in practice’ is a big concession for people who want to stand on principle.

In legal-historical terms nobody can agree on the date when Australia actually became independent (it certainly wasn’t 1900, at which time the UK retained control of most foreign affairs). It’s the old philosophical problem of ‘How many hairs make a beard?’ Things tick over day by day and then you look around and something is different. The laws may not have changed, but the world has. It’s fuzzy.

We live in a country where there are institutions and laws that cover a remarkably small section of what we do on any given day. Within those laws we operate under loose conventions (there’s nothing that says we have to have a prime minister) and unspoken habits of mind. Which laws we break, and which we enforce, varies from class to class and race to race and context to context. As a people we put up with the system’s abuses and unfairness and oppressions, until we don’t.

We elect members into theoretically representative bodies, where their reforming impulses find themselves closely hemmed in by vested interests, political imperatives, and capitalist disciplines. We reign ourselves in, to varying extents, to take account of the things that churches preach, neighbours condemn, and media attack. We’re free, like children in a maze, to go wherever we can, all things considered.

As a defence of the system, I have to concede, that’s weak. When you add in that the entire system is riddled with obvious anomalies, unintended consequences, historical oppressions, and unexamined assumptions it’s easy to see why people might want to set it all aside and start over from square one.

But there is no square one. If Australia does return rights to Indigenous people – and it should – it will be by changing the course of the vast ungainly flopping and buzzing fuzzy Australian polity in that direction, not by lifting it all off the territory to reveal the pristine First Nations sovereignty underneath.

There’s a lot to be said for impractical demands, including Black sovereignty. If nothing else, they demonstrate how reasonable and moderate the Voice to Parliament would be.

But sovereignty? At no time in our history has any Australian government, let alone any Australian citizen, been free to do whatever they wanted. Still less can Thorpe’s partisans skip over the need to move the mood of the community they say is holding them down. The truer that accusation is, the less effective their all-or-nothing remedies are going to be.

Australia has barely begun to incorporate Indigenous genius into its ideals and its myths and its self-image, and we suffer from that every day. Our culture needs to change. Our politics need to acknowledge what we have usurped. We need to listen both to the Voice and to its dissidents. We need to start now. But ‘now’ means 2023, not 1788.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of, a social enterprise that helps the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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