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our patch Arrow vol 6 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 3, 2007



Rethinking Sovereignty in Australia

Suvendrini Perera ed. Our Patch: Enacting Australian Sovereignty Post-2001 (Perth, Western Australia: Network Books, 2007).

Vijay Devadas
University of Otago



1. Our Patch is about sovereignty: it is about the enactment of sovereignty within the context of the Australian landscape since 2001—the year that marked the centenary of Federation, the arrival of Tampa on the shores of the nation's borders, and Australia's involvement in the global war on terror. Collectively, the essays examine "the ways in which sovereign power is enacted upon different non-citizen populations ... at the multiple borders of the nation ... [and] hopes to illuminate both the continuities and the reconfigurations of Australian sovereign power after 2001" (14). This is one objective that Our Patch sets itself up to interrogate. In other words, Our Patch seeks to demonsrate the limits and violences that take place in the name of sovereignty, and specifically in the mobilisation and dissemination of a particular and very narrow conception of sovereignty, a sovereignty that resides in, and is at the disposition of the nation-state (the 'legitimate' representative of the nation and of the people as citizens of the nation). It presumes and works through a foundational premise of political theory. This is how Hardt and Negri spell out the premise in their much-acclaimed book Multitude:

The entire tradition of political theory seems to agree on one basic principle: only 'the one' can rule, whether that one be conceived as the monarch, the state, the nation, the people, or the party. These three traditional forms of government that form the basis of ancient and modern European political thought—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—reduce, from this perspective to one single form. ... [This] concept of sovereignty dominates the tradition of political philosophy and serves as the foundation of all that is political precisely because it requires that one must always rule and decide. Only the one can be sovereign, the tradition tells us, and there can be no politics without sovereignty. ... We should emphasize once again, however, that modern sovereignty does not require that a single individual—an emperor, a führer, or a Caesar—stand alone above society and decide, but it does require that some unitary political subject—such as a party, a people, a nation fulfill that role (2004: 328-331).

It is precisely against such a narrow and particular understanding of sovereignty, and as a challenge to rethink sovereignty that we can locate the contributions offered by the various authors in this pertinent and provocative book. This is the second and more significant objective that Our Patch sets itself up to do: articulate "a new politics that transforms our enclosed and coercive model of sovereignty" (218). This new politics must disband the particular idea of sovereignty that rests on the unitary political subject—the nation in this case, which demarcates between us (lawful and law-abiding citizens) and them (the non-citizens—asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, the Muslims, the indigenous communities, the protestors)—and produce a politics that refuses to mortgage sovereignty in the name of the nation. The second task that Our Patch sets itself up for is well accomplished in that each of the essays strive to articulate this new politics and hence show not only that the particular form of sovereignty is violent but also that sovereignty has another side: that "sovereignty is, thus, necessarily, a dual system of power" (Hardt and Negri, 2004: 332).

2. Our Patch has a total of ten chapters and is segmented into three parts: 'Sovereign Imaginaries', 'Sovereign Horizons', and 'Sovereign Terror'. The focus and argument that the book presents is held together in the introduction, 'Acting Sovereign', where Suvendrini Perera outlines the conceptual framework through which we may understand the neoliberal force in Australia, the conservatism of the Howard regime, and "the relation between the sovereign aspiration to power and its violent enactments" (11). This framework draws from Foucault, specifically the notion of biopower and biopolitics—"the power of the sovereign to administer and organize the lives of its subjects at every level" (12)—and places this in relation to Mbembe's intervention through the notion of necropower and nercopolitics which he uses "to describe the persistence of 'contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death'" (12). For Mbembe, sovereignty is about both the administration of life and the right to kill, and not only about the disciplining of life as Foucault intends it. Taking up Mbembe's proposition, Perera sets up both biopolitics and necropolitics as twin modalities through which we can map and critique the various ways in which, what she calls "colonising sovereignty continues to be exercised over the bodies of Indigenous peoples [immigrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, and 'different non-citizen populations'] within Australia" (12-14). Put another way, the pairing of biopolitics and necropolitics produces a much more incisive framework for thinking about the ways in which sovereignty is constituted and imposed.

3. The three chapters by Irene Watson, Maria Giannacopoulos and Henry Reynolds make up the first section 'Sovereign Imaginaries' and collectively seek to question and put into crisis the operations of the state in defining, articulating and circumscribing the sovereign imaginaries of the nation. They seek, on the one hand, to demonstrate the limits of the multiple sovereign imaginaries through which the nation is imagined. On the other, they collectively also shore-up the violence of sovereignty as espoused through the nation-state, that is the violence of the Australian state as has been instituted most forcefully since the declaration of the war on terror.

4. The spectre of Derrida haunts the first two chapters by Watson and Giannacopoulos, specifically his work on the violence of law, the undeconstructability of justice, and the (im)possibility of forgiving. Returning to the "High Court's rejection of terra nullius " (29) in Mabo (No 2) , a decision which violently sought to write-off Australia's colonial history of theft and simultaneously affirm "that Australia was lawfully settled as an act of the state" (29), Watson asks what happens to the notion of Aboriginal sovereignty, how might we affirm Aboriginal sovereignty, what does it mean to assert Aboriginal sovereignty, and what is the relationship between state sovereignty and Aboriginal lives? These are crucial questions to ask, more so when "the idea of Aboriginal laws and their redundancy has grown further in the current global political climate and the war on terror" (24). In this context where Aboriginal sovereignty struggles, Watson argues that the recognition and engagement with Aboriginal sovereignty must begin from "the ground of 'impossibility'" (25): that difficult ground which simultaneously marks both the site where the question of "how to engage with Aboriginal sovereignties ... in the main becomes 'stuck'", as well as the ground which marks the site from "where our thinking should begin" (25). It is from this ambiguous and doubly marked ground—the ground that marks the violence of law and the claim for justice—that the "de-colonising practice" (40) can begin and address the question of Aboriginal sovereignty. Such a proposition through Derrida is not simply trying to make a philosophical point: it ties in this invocation back to the High Court's rejection of terra nullius , which Watson cogently shows does not, and cannot affirm the ground of impossibility precisely because to do so would both undermine the High Court's decision since it must necessarily acknowledge both colonial violence against the Aboriginal community and the conceit of terra nullius. In other words, the High Court could not have come to such a violent decision if it had begun thinking from and through the ground of impossibility. Keeping with the theme of the violence of law and the gap between law and justice, Giannacopoulos returns to the Mabo decision and the Tampa event "to expose the multiple exclusions contained within this ... singular act of exclusion ... [and] opens up the critical question about the ownership of Australian land and nation" (45). Drawing on Agamben and Moreton-Robinson (in addition to Derrida), the author seeks to argue that both cases highlight "the non-justiciability of sovereignty" (54); that is, the impossibility of justice within the model of sovereignty that the state relies upon and which it affirms. This is because both "contemporary law and sovereignty are very much predicated on exclusion" (49). In other words, the nation-state's articulation of sovereignty is not simply about who belongs, who is included, but more crucially premised upon who does not belong, who is excluded. It is also about what kinds of claims, rights, and stakes can belong, be included and those that do not belong, and which should be excluded. It is precisely through the affirmation of these zones of exclusion, the demarcation of who does not belong—in this case the asylum-seekers—and what cannot belong—in this case indigenous sovereignty—that the nation-state establishes its version of sovereignty. It is therefore without surprise that one finds that "the 'finding' that sovereignty is outside the reach of justice is precisely what brings sovereignty inside the legal order. And it is also this 'finding' ... which makes possible the racial violence in the name of the nation" (55). The theme of zones of exclusion is carried into Reynolds' contribution, which explores the constitution of Australian sovereignty during federation to illustrate that the contemporary enactment of sovereignty after Tampa does not differ much from the earlier manifestation. As Reynolds puts it:

so much seems the same. Australia's relationship with the United States has many of the characteristics of the earlier one with Britain. There is the same disparity in power; the same willingness to provide uncritical support; a similar readiness to become involved in an internationally unpopular and unnecessary war—in South Africa for Britain, in Iraq for America. Australia continues to live contentedly with the symbols of an earlier dependence   ... And once again we have anxiety about non-European arrivals on the north coast, an assertion of the need for border protection which goes far beyond what might reasonably be expected. (70)

What Reynolds does in tracing the assertion of sovereignty is demonstrate that contemporary sovereignty as articulated by the nation-state has a history; a colonial history of violence toward the indigenous and foreign other. In making this connection Reynolds' contribution can be seen to ask the same question as Watson's. And that is about the possibility of decolonisation that begins from the ground of impossibility, which the Australian nation state has not, and refuses to enter into.

5. The second section 'Sovereign Horizons' continues to interrogate the constitution and imposition of sovereignty by the nation-state, but this time focusing "over the ocean and surrounding regions" (16). Four chapters make up this section: Maxine Chi focuses on "the rights and interests of Aboriginal people over the sea, coast and intertidal zone" (73), to argue that the state's conception and manifestation of native title is highly deceitful precisely because the legitimacy of native title claims is contingent in that it must first be recognised as legitimate under Australian law. And this law, which is premised upon a particular notion of sovereignty, does not recognise Aboriginal sovereignty over the sea. Returning to her field research which explored the relationship between the Aboriginal people of Bardi descent in Broome with the sea, Chi demonstrates how the nation-state's foundational and violent notion of sovereignty produces an instrumental relationship to the sea that simultaneously disavows indigenous relationships (and rights) to the sea. The former is validated through recourse to the legal machinery, and this is why Chi suggests, in her conclusion, that perhaps a productive response to state deceit, theft and silencing of Aboriginal relationships to the sea, lies in "ask[ing] whether the act of claiming British sovereignty over their [Aboriginal] lands and waters was a legal act" (86)? The second chapter by Ruth Balint examines the politics of maritime sovereignty through the notion of mare nullius, "which describes a myth of the sea as empty and unoccupied and a process of maritime expansion that occurred without opposition, in which there was no dispossession and no significant loss" (93). Balint's bringing together of maritime sovereignty and the notion of mare nullius is particularly insightful in that it shores up the motivations behind the Australian federal government's decision in April 2000 to exhume a fresh grave that was found in Cartier Island: a motivation founded upon the principle of mare nullius which was a necessary condition that legitimised the nation-state's claim to sovereignty over the islands and reefs "that sit right on the rim of Australia's maritime boundary with Indonesia" (88). In other words, the exercising of sovereignty was only possible insofar as these places can be shown to be uninhabited; the presence of the buried body called the grounds on which the claim is made into question. The vigilant policing of these islands and reefs, the desecrating act of body theft, and the launching of "Operation Relex, a military operation confined to the waters between Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef" (99-100) is part of a larger discourse of border security, what Balint calls "the white ocean policy" (104). Linking this new policy with the White Australia Policy, Balint seeks to demonstrate that while the terrain (land/water) might have shifted, the ideological force underwriting the state's endeavour remains the same. Reading through Blaint one hears echoes of Reynolds in the sense that both papers show that the contemporary policies, acts, and decisions that are made by the Australian government in the wake of war on terror have a history (a history of privileging white sovereignty) and that rather unfortunately, not much has changed.

6. Keeping with the theme of maritime sovereignty and national security but extending on it, Tim Anderson critically examines the specific instance of "Australia's recent interventions in the Pacific, and the conflict over Indigenous lands" (105). Using the specific case of Papua New Guinea, Anderson demonstrates how two state driven policies—the Enhanced Cooperation Program which attempted (and failed) to take over the government administration of the country with Australian police and bureaucrats and the attack on customary title—aimed at reshaping the "Pacific nation's constitutions, electoral and land tenure system can be much better understood ... through a parallel examination of the problems of Australian national identity and institutions" (105-6). In other words, the state's blueprint for regional interventions into the Pacific is not dissimilar to the assaults launched on indigenous communities in the Australian nation or the xenophobic sentiments produced by and exploited by the state for its own ends, or the championing of a neoliberal market agenda as the basis for egalitarianism. And quite clearly, as Anderson concludes, such maneuvers and interventions have not worked, and the failure must be comprehended in terms of the state's own shortcoming, both of not understanding the region and its various complexities, and of not clearing the ground for "debate on the issues of independence, citizenship and egalitarianism" (116) to take place. If Anderson through his analysis of state policies links national interventions to regional intercession, Perera takes this one step further, and links them to the larger global war on terror in order to interrogate "the making and consolidation of Australia's horizons, racial, national, territorial, spatiotemporal" (119). This "appetite to take in the horizon" (119) is not simply a post-Tampa manifestation or one that emerged since the global war rhetoric. Rather, this appetite has a history which "lays bare the sweep of a colonial voracity" (119). Taking us through various governmental policies, discourses and interventions, Perera asks the following questions:

How does this appetite to take in the horizon shape our contemporary maps and the imaginative and affective borders of the national and regional in a period of renewed imperial aspiration, the global war on terror? When are the processes of spatialisation, the imaginative geographies and the territorial teleologies at work in a war that, through the active, racially marked, investment, emotional and material, of the state, remaps Australia's horizons? How do these imaginative geographies enable the spatialising of raced relations and contour the distributions, dispositions and temporalities of power that enact and reproduce differential forms of sovereignty over national-regional space (119-120, emphasis in original)?

These questions are addressed through a critical reading and mapping of the complex operations through which sovereignty is always at stake and constantly trampled on. The sites to which Perera turns to include "Australia's policy on the Pacific" (122); Australia's response to "indigenous native title claims" (138); the production of fear engendered through this in terms of the threat native title claims pose on the "Anglo-Australian backyard" (139); and the war on terror and the accompanying mobilisation of security as a means of instituting regimes of exclusion. By bringing these operations together, Perera demonstrates not only how the nation-state mobilizes "the geocultural space of the horizon" (144), but more crucially how this mobilisation "provoke[s] racial anxiety, xenophobia and exclusionary violence (144) that then functions to determine how lives are administered, organised, disciplined, and even put to death. This is the violence of thinking through 'our patch' in the terms set out by the Howard-led liberal government—"Our patch expands, seemingly without horizons, in time and space" (146), exterminating, violating, and murdering those who are a barrier to this limitless horizon.

7. The third section, entitled 'Sovereign Terror', is focused on the second modality—necropower and necropolitics—that frames Our Patch, that is "the sovereign power of 'exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection" (18). The three essays here explore and expose how in the name of sovereignty the right to kill is held as an inalienable right that belongs to the unitary political subject—the nation-sate as the legitimate bearer of sovereignty. Dinesh Wadiwel's essay, "A Particularly Governmental Form of Warfare", explores this issue with specific "reference to the foundation of Palm Island, the functioning of exception within the logic of Australian sovereignty, and ... the role of government in managing sovereign violence in the mission and reserve system" (152). The argument that Wadiwel puts forward is this: "Australian sovereignty post 2001 must be understood through the nexus of government, war and the zone of exception" (152). Drawing on Agamben (on exception), Foucault (on governmentality) and Mbembe (on sovereignty), Wadiwel constructs an analytically rigorous and conceptually strong cartography of the ways in which state policies on Palm Island has been a complete failure, and concludes that "there is no question that Palm Island remains within a zone of exception from Australia" (166). Jon Stratton's essay—"Dying to Come to Australia"—weaves together various moments or events in relation to the histories of migrations—settler, refugee, asylum-seeker, tourists and so on—to Australia. Beginning with the "anti-tourism campaign" launched in June 2000 with the release of "a triple video set commissioned for distribution to consulates and embassies in countries from which unwanted asylum seekers might be expected to arrive" (167), Stratton includes literature, films ( Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, and Wolf Creek ), quotidian culture (the beach as site of pleasure and racial violence), historical events such as the arrival of boat people in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the tourism campaigns from the 1980s onwards, which were designed "to make Australia appear recognizable, desirable and accessible (179), to argue that across these events there is a persistent "narrative of danger awaiting new arrivals to Australia" (167). In other words, the spectre of necropower and necropolitics continues to be a haunting presence within the Australian imaginary. This is why Stratton's response to the question posed in the 2006 tourist promotion campaign—"So where the bloody hell are you"—"Too fucking frightened to come!" (196) seems very apt.

8. The final essay by Anthony Burke—"Security Politics and Us"—turns to the concept of security and security politics, specifically to the ways in which the Australian state has employed security as an "effective political technology" (202) framed around "three dangerous, self-regarding axioms: We are insecure. We are good. We must act " (199, emphasis in original). In the framing of contemporary politics and governance around these three axioms, what takes place is the production of "an ontology of permanent threat [which] then generates often harsh and hubristic forms of instrumental action in the pursuit of security, of which militarism and repressive legal mechanisms are the most common examples" (202). It is in the name of a condition of perpetual insecurity that regimes of exclusion, border policing, military and non-military interventions, government policies and the general thrust of politics is conceptualised. Against this, Burke turns to the works of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas to call for

an entirely new model of politics, whose form is yet unclear. It requires an understanding of the psychologies underpinning current forms of social power, and all kinds of efforts to address them with a new kind of language and image of national and transnational existence—one that will make us more, rather than less, secure (217).

The politics to come that Burke has in mind, one whose form and trajectory cannot be predetermined, requires a radical shift from "an obsessive politics of borders and barriers—whether they be lines on maps, or acts of legislation, incarceration or force" (218) and the forging of

a new politics that transforms our enclosed and coercive model of sovereignty into one that is based on both the fact of and obligation of interconnection. This would be a politics based in very practical and communicative ways .... in which existence is not lived behind a wall of isolation but lived with and for others—and thus more genuinely and sustainably for us (218, emphasis in original).

9. Conceived in terms of these two objectives—providing a critique of the ways in which sovereignty is deployed and demanding a rethinking of sovereignty and consequently the formation of a new form of politics that is not premised upon regimes of inclusion and exclusion—Our Patch emerges as interventionist. Not only does the book provide a critical documentation of the policies, initiatives and geo-political interventions that have taken place post-2001, it also serves as a crucial reminder of the atrocities committed by the John Howard government during its term in office. In that sense, Our Patch functions as a powerful reminder of the violences that occur under the banner of democracy and at the same time reminds us of the potentialities of forming different ways of living, of forging relationships across cultural, religious, and racial divides that does not rely upon a politics of exclusion and inclusion. This, in my view, is an important and much needed contribution as it opens the possibilities of imagining another kind of our patch that is significantly different from the one espoused by Howard government, one that is ethically committed to thinking through and living with others.


Vijay Devadas is senior lecturer at the University of Otago where he teaches, supervises and researches in the areas of critical theory, media studies and postcolonial theory.


Hardt, M & Negri, A. (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. London: Routledge.

© borderlands ejournal 2007



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