Friday, January 20, 2006

Michael Connor and terra nullius

For whatever reason, a raft of the Right has recently been peddling the assertion that Tasmanian academic Michael Connor’s new book, The Invention of Terra Nullius has been egregiously ignored. Christopher Pearson* reprised his now almost two-year old claim a few weeks ago, then Gregory Melleuish had a go, and now it is Frank Devine’s turn. Yawn.

At least in the blogosphere, I reckon that Michael Connor’s supposedly startling and new argument was put-down like the mangy dog it was (and is), in mid-2004.


In a nutshell, “terra nullius” indeed was a phrase not in use in the 18th or early-mid 19th centuries. But it is equally undeniable that the legal basis of Australian settlement was (and largely still is) that the Indigenous inhabitants had no property rights whatsoever – an understanding that persisted until 1992’s Mabo case, which recognized some limited Indigenous property rights.

All Michael Connor has done, in his 2004 article and now book, is to pimp-up some throwaway (and needlessly offensive) remarks in 1993 by Sir Harry Gibbs, retired Chief Justice of Australia:

"Australia was certainly not unoccupied in 1788 but it is another thing to say that the social organisation of the Aboriginal inhabitants was of a kind which the nations of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries recognised as civilised."

While Gibbs then immediately took a step back:

"Of course, the High Court understood the full extent of the common law principles, but public understanding is not assisted when those principles are described by a phrase which is misleading and perhaps emotive"**,

Michael Connor has decided that the High Court, as well as virtually Australia’s entire history profession, are active saboteurs of the “public understanding”, and only he can set things right. What a fruit-loop.

* Christopher Pearson, "History in the making", Australian 3 Dec 2005 (no URL)

** M A Stephenson and Suri Ratnapala (eds), Mabo: A Judicial Revolution (UQP 1993) xiv (Foreword by Harry Gibbs).

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