During her long reign, Queen Elizabeth II exhibited values fundamental to First Nations people.
Since the Queen’s death, I have been asked on several occasions about the relationship she had with First Nations people in Australia.
While many First Nations people continue to feel the full force and consequences of colonisation through subsequent generational trauma and remain aggrieved at the lack of progress at restorative justice through addressing the all too well-known inequities and a formal settlement, I can say confidently that most First Nations people throughout Australia held her in great affection and respect.
On one level that affection can be explained by the values she exhibited over her long reign: values fundamental to First Nations people.
On her many visits to Australia, she was at times confronted by the hostility of a colonised people, but she engaged with First Nations people with nurturing empathy, respect and recognition of our status as traditional owners. On a more substantial level that relationship is deep and complex.
Her position as monarch defined a special relationship she had with First Nations people that she did not have with other Australians. It was a relationship imbued with historic responsibility that she upheld and traversed with grace and civility. As monarch she was embedded in our historical identity as a people whose lives were shaped by British colonisation.
Our dispossession was based on theft based on crown land grants to settlers and their forebears, and their descendants engaged with coercive settler authority and brutality that was symbolised by the Crown: police, the justice system and prisons and the systems of government that entangled all our lives.
In October 1999, I was part of a First Nations delegation who had an audience with Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace, led by Patrick Dodson and which also included Marcia Langton, Lowitja O’Donoghue and the late Gatjil Djerrkura. The context of that meeting was the lead-up to the 1999 referendum that sought approval from the Australian people to sever our nation’s constitutional connection to the British monarch.
The position of First Nations people was almost entirely overlooked in the superficiality of the debate over Australia becoming a republic and to install an Australian resident as head of state. We went to London at the request of Kimberly cultural leaders to explain to Her Majesty fundamental historical truths.
In 1770 when James Cook, the commander of the Endeavour, raised the Union Jack on the shores of where Sydney now stands, he did so under the written instructions of King George III, the Queen’s third great grandfather.
Those instructions to Cook were clear and unambiguous to take possession – with the consent of the First Nations peoples. That First Nations people’s consent was never negotiated or given remains fundamental to Australia’s unresolved history. The Queen listened as we talked to that history with a sense of deep knowingness of her historical transcended role in our story.
The significance of the occasion was coincidently elevated by urgent political matters taking place within the British government that day. As we walked out of our meeting, we crossed paths with Blair government ministers Peter Mandelson and Mo Mowlam, who had come to the palace for the Queen to formally reassign the ministerial responsibility for secretary of Northern Ireland at a critical period in the aftermath of the Good Friday peace agreement.
The irony of the Queen dealing with the unresolved legacies of the British Empire was poignant. It was a warm, fleeting moment that shone a light on her monumental role in world history. She was the monarch who helped transition the most expansive empire in human history to be a family of nations that continues to deal with the legacies of conquest and colonisation.
Her articulation of the values of human rights, respect for cultural diversity and self-determination provided critical philosophical underpinnings for global decolonisation.
She was a living embodiment of world history. The 18-year period between 1770 and 1788 when the first British invaders set foot on Australian soil had seen a monumental change in global order. Under King George III a cluster of North American British colonies had defeated the British in a war of independence.
By the time Governor Phillip led the fledgling British colony in NSW, George Washington had been installed as first president of the United States.
The American experience emboldened Australian settlers to colonise Australia without regard for the English common law. They entrenched the concept of terra nullius into Australia’s legal architecture, absolving the settlers from responsibility to reach agreement with First Nations people who had no protection over their dispossession.
Thirty years ago, the High Court in the Mabo case ruled that the concept of terra nullius was a fiction and that First Nations common law rights had survived the acquisition of Australian lands by the British.
Australia is now at a point of history to resolve the unfinished business of our nation’s creation and development.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart offers a pathway to honour the British monarch’s intention for the Australian Settler Nation State to reach a lasting settlement with First Nations people through a constitutional empowered voice, treaty and truth telling.
In the spirit of the British monarch’s historic responsibility, we look forward to a continuing relationship with King Charles III who clearly embodies the values of his mother.
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