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Vol 40 No 4

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Martin Wilson MSC

Dawn Cordona

Lorraine Erlandson

Pat Mullins SJ

Peter Hearn MSC

John Wilcken SJ

Patrick McInerney

Abe Ata

Anthony Gooley

Kevin Mark



The Alice Springs Address and the Concept of Nation


THE TITLE OF this paper may seem surprising, given that the word ‘nation’ does not occur in Pope John Paul’s address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, on 29 November 1986. The Pope’s emphasis was on other significant themes, such as respect for Indigenous cultural and religious traditions, the tragic history of the original inhabitants of this land since 1788, and the importance of developing a genuinely Aboriginal Christianity. Nevertheless the concept of nation was hovering in the background, and it is important that, at some stage, attention be focussed on this fundamental concept. It is the aim of this present paper to do this, although in a quite introductory way.

Paul V1 in 1970

Pope John Paul quotes from the address of Pope Paul V1 to the Aboriginal people of Australia, which he gave in Sydney on 2nd December 1970. Brief as it was, this statement was of considerable significance. It addressed its hearers as ‘the descendants of Australia’s first inhabitants’, affirmed the value of their life-style and culture and proclaimed that Aboriginal people ‘have all human and civic rights’, as well as ‘certain duties and obligations’. The Pope spoke of the enrichment of Australian society by Aboriginal culture, and said: ‘We deeply respect your dignity and reiterate our deep affection for you’ (Paul V1, 1970, 69). These are all positive features of the address.

Understandably—given the date of 1970, and also the brevity of the message—there were also limitations. Here I wish to make two points. First, the Pope says to his Indigenous hearers: ‘… you, like all other ethnic minorities…’ One would now want to make a clear distinction between the original inhabitants of this land and ‘other ethnic minorities’, i.e. presumably groups of non-Anglo-Celts, or perhaps, of non-Europeans).

The second point is more subtle, but significant. The Pope declares:

The Church proclaims that you, like all other ethnic minorities, have all human and civic rights—in every way the equal of those in the majority.

This statement is both important and—up to a point—unexceptionable. It is rightly affirming of Aboriginal people. However, apart from the problem that they are equated with ‘other ethnic minorities’, there is the difficulty that the statement seems to presuppose the structural status quo of Australian society. If the ‘human and civic rights’ are simply ‘the equal of those in the majority’, then no really fundamental change to the way things are in Australia seems to be contemplated. Yet it can be argued that for Indigenous people to have ‘all human and civic rights’, fundamental change is required.

The same presupposition seems to be implied in a statement a little later in the message: ‘society itself is enriched by the presence of different cultural and ethnic elements’. Presumably the word ‘society’ here means Australia as presently constituted, i.e. the status quo.

This second point may seem carping criticism, but I hope its significance will emerge as this paper proceeds. Meanwhile I want to reiterate that Pope Paul’s message was a powerful and inspiring one for its time.

John Paul II in 1986

Pope John Paul begins his speech in Alice Springs by addressing himself to ‘the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia’ (John Paul II, 1986, 93). Thereafter he simply uses the word ‘Aboriginal’, but one can presume that it is meant to include Torres Strait Islanders as well. Then, in his own text, he does not use the word ‘ethnic’, or speak of Aboriginal or Islander people as another ethnic group. (The word ‘ethnic’ does occur in a quote from Paul VI.) The long introductory section on the first inhabitants of Australia makes it clear that he sees their descendants as forming a very special group, with unique rights to the land.

Although the Mabo decision of the High Court was not given till nearly six years later, the Pope speaks of ‘the legal fiction adopted by European settlers that this land was terra nullius—nobody’s country’ (John Paul II, 1986, 97). He goes on to say:

Let it not be said that the fair and equitable recognition of Aboriginal rights to land is discrimination. To call for the acknowledgement of the land rights of people who have never surrendered those rights is not discrimination (p. 98).

Thus the pope is stating that Aboriginal people already occupied, and were in possession of, the land before the Europeans arrived, and that they have never surrendered their rights. He is appropriately cautious, however, about the way forward:

Certainly what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow.

Immense damage has been done to the Aboriginal societies (nations?) which existed before the Europeans came, and obviously no simple return to the pre-1788 situation is possible. As to what can be done, the Pope speaks in general terms, but nevertheless he conveys an important message:

The establishment of a new society for Aboriginal people cannot go forward without just and mutually recognised agreements with regard to these human problems, even though their causes lie in the past.

The underlying question here is: who are the partners that will be involved in establishing these ‘just and mutually recognised agreements’? Presumably one partner will be the Commonwealth Government of Australia (or perhaps each state government). But the critical question is: who will be the other partner (or partners)? One must keep in mind the Pope’s assertion that the Aboriginal people ‘have never surrendered’ their rights to the land.

These rights, or course, pre-date any British legal rights of ownership, and are more fundamental than property rights established under British or non-Indigenous Australian law. Here we are faced with the still-unfinished business of the relationship between the settlers who arrived in 1788 and the original inhabitants of the land. Presumably the other partner in the process of establishing ‘just and mutually recognised agreements’ must be the Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait Islanders.

What Is a Nation?

Henry Reynolds, in his 1996 book, Aboriginal Sovereignty, discusses the concept of ‘nation’, and points out that it is not the same as the concept of ‘state’. He writes:

Definitions of a nation have remained remarkably constant since the nineteenth century. They are concerned with culture, traditions, descent and identity. States, on the other hand, are legal, political and constitutional institutions (Reynolds 1996, 176).

He notes that in other countries this distinction is clearly recognised. For example, ‘Canadians both commonly and officially refer to the Inuit, the Indians and the Métis as first nations’ (p. 177). Nevertheless these are all part of the one state, one political entity, namely Canada. In Australia, from federation onwards, there has been the desire to affirm that we are not only one state, but also one nation. The White Australia Policy was meant to ensure this; and it was believed at the time of federation that the Aboriginal people were dying out. But, as Reynolds writes:

We have never been one nation, popular rhetoric notwithstanding…we share a country, a continent and a state, but not a nation (Reynolds 1996, 178).

He suggests that perhaps we are, or could become, three nations in the one state; but two of these nations would be very small, namely the Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait Islanders (p. 177).

Two Founding Peoples:

Christopher Prowse, in an article published in 1997, makes use of the concept of ‘founding peoples’. He writes:

I wonder if it may be helpful, therefore, to encourage a concept in our present times which begins with the premise that there has existed not one but two founding peoples of Australia. The vision would be that Australians of the third millennium living in one of the most pluri-cultural nations on earth, would look back in gratitude on its history and praise the mutually enriching contributions of its two founding peoples: Aboriginal Australians and largely Anglo-Celtic Australians (Prowse, 1997, 77).

And he continues:

If this concept is to be encouraged then a more attentive, sustained and positive assessment of the Aboriginal contribution to Australia’s present way of life ought to become a part of the nation’s reflex thinking.

There are some comments to be made on these quotations. First, although only Aboriginal people are mentioned, the term is presumably meant to include Torres Strait Islanders. Further, Prowse applies the word ‘nation’ to Australia’, i.e. to the political entity. Thus he writes of Australia as ‘one of the most pluri-cultural nations’ on earth; and then also he refers to ‘the nation’s reflex thinking’. Thus there is still the notion of one nation. His significant contribution to the debate is to speak of ‘two founding peoples’. Here the word ‘people’ refers to a cultural tradition; and in putting on equal terms the Aboriginal and the ‘largely Anglo-Celtic’ cultural traditions, he is putting far greater emphasis on the Aboriginal contribution than we have done up to this time. Now it is true that he does speak of this as a contribution ‘to Australia’s present way of life’, which would seem to imply some kind of acceptance of the status quo. Yet his notion of ‘two founding peoples’, with the assumption that both are of essential importance to Australia today, does mean that considerable structural changes are required in our society, in order to give proper expression to this notion. This is confirmed by a passage later in the article, where he writes of:

… a healing social environment from which may emerge formalised social realities such as, for example, a more adequately expressed Australian Constitution that acknowledges Aboriginal people as the first Australians, a more courageous approach to the formulation of a treaty with the Aboriginal people, a reconciling response to the legal consequences of the Mabo decision and a greater determination to fulfil Australia’s international obligations (Prowse, 1997, 82).

Especially noteworthy here is the reference to ‘the formulation of a treaty with the Aboriginal people’. Such a treaty presumably would be between nations. Yet there is no thought here of Aboriginal secession from the political state of Australia.


In the Conclusion of his book, Aboriginal Sovereignty, Henry Reynolds muses over the question: what direction should Australia take in the future? At one point he makes some illuminating comments about the concept of reconciliation. He asks:

What of the process of reconciliation? It is manifestly a worthy objective but it is not completely clear who is to be reconciled to what or to whom (p. 183).

Looking at the matter from an Aboriginal and Islander point of view, he makes the ironic comment:

Presumably Aborigines and Islanders are to be reconciled to loss of land and sovereignty. If that is the case they have already delivered.

The more pressing question concerns non-Indigenous Australians, and what they are to be reconciled with. His suggestion is challenging:

What might be expected is an acceptance of the existence and validity of indigenous nationalism and a commitment to seek ways in which it can be accommodated beneath the overarching roof of the Australia state. That would be a gesture of appropriate gravity, magnitude and generosity (p. 184).

One can only hope that the non-Indigenous people of Australia, and the government that represents them, can have the sense of justice, the greatness of spirit, and the basic humanity to make such a gesture.

Fr John Wilcken SJ lectures on theology in the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. In recent years he has reflected on the relationship between Christian Theology and Aboriginal Religious Traditions and has written a number of articles in this area.

Paul V1, 1970, ‘Ad Continentis Australiani Aborigines’, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol 63, 1971, 69).
John Paul II, 1986, ‘Pope John Paul speaks to Aborigines’, in F. Brennan (ed.) Reconciling Our Differences, Melbourne: Aurora/David Lovell, 1992, 93-101. (The official text of the address can be found in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol 79, 1987, pp 973-9.)
Henry Reynolds, 1996, Aboriginal Sovereignty, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Christopher Prowse, 1997, ‘Australia’s Two Founding Peoples—Implications for Pastoral Directions’, in The Australasian Catholic Record, lxxiv one, January 1997, 75-85.

At the beginning of time, as God’s Spirit moved over the waters, he began to communicate something of his goodness and beauty to all creation. When God then created man and woman, he gave them the good things of the earth for their use and benefit; and he put into their hearts abilities and powers, which were his gifts. And to all human beings throughout the ages God has given a desire for himself, a desire which different cultures have tried to express in their own ways.
As the human family spread over the face of the earth, your people settled and lived in this big country that stood apart from all the others. Other people did not even know this land was here; they only knew that somewhere in the southern oceans of the world there was ‘The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit’.
But for thousands of years you have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day. And during all this time, the Spirit of God has been with you. Your ‘Dreaming’, which influences your lives so strongly that, no matter what happens, you remain for ever people of your culture, is your only way of touching the mystery of God’s Spirit in you and in creation. You must keep your striving for God and hold on to it in your lives.
—John Paul II to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Blatherskite Park, Alice Springs, 29 November, 1986..