Governance Systems of the First Australians

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Steven Liaros:

"First Australians also had a comprehensive and effective governance system — one that was distributed rather than centralised. The evidence of this is provided again in the journals and diaries of the first Europeans to arrive in Australia.

Bill Gammage brings this together in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011). Gammage describes how hundreds of different cultures and languages across the continent were bound together by a common worldview:

Estate [definition]: Although comprising many ways of maintaining land, and managers mostly unknown to each other, this vast area was governed by a single religious philosophy, called in English the Dreaming. The Dreaming and its practices made the continent a single estate (Gammage, 2011)

There was no wilderness. The Law — an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction — compelled people to care for all their country… an uncertain climate and nature’s restless cycles demanded myriad practices shaped and varied by local conditions. Management was active not passive, alert to season and circumstance, committed to a balance of life.

The chief ally was fire. [this was] a planned, precise, fine-grained local caring. …Means were local, ends were universal. Successfully managing such diverse material was an impressive achievement; making from it a single estate was a breathtaking leap of imagination. (Gammage 2011:2)

This is an example of plurality and diversity bound together by a common narrative. Local communities were autonomous and also respectful of the autonomy of their neighbours. There was no central government enforcing its views over the entire continent but a network of societies all choosing to be responsible for their part of the country and their local community. Borders followed natural bioregional boundaries, so the law varied from one jurisdiction to another because the ecosystems in different bioregions functioned differently.

This is perhaps the greatest challenge and obstacle to becoming indigenous. To become a part of this Country, we must change not just our system of social organisation but our objectives and worldview.

Irene Watson provides a detailed discussion of the indigenous worldview in Raw Law: Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism and International Law (2015). Also referred to as relational philosophy, Watson compares and contrasts this with non-indigenous philosophy."

Indigenous Non-indigenous
obligations to renew land (stewardship) land ownership
blance (moderation) and renewal (regeneration) progress, accumulation, control (excess and growth)
lateral thinking (holistic, systems thinking) linear thinking (logic, silos with externalities)
consensus (equality) hierarchical patriarchy (hierarchy)
reciprocity one-way exchange
justice, harmony (distributed power) adversarial punishment (centralised power)
relationships (dualities) binaries (dichotomies)
eternal time (cyclical time) linear or machine time