Review: Henry Reynolds tackles the Great Australian Question of First Nations Sovereignty

  • Truth-telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, by Henry Reynolds. NewSouth, $34.99.

Do you believe the story of Terra Nullius?

Do you believe that when Captain Cook leered from the coast into the great, impenetrable continent, that the land he saw was empty?

Do you think that when Arthur Phillip looked over the treetops to the horizon, he did not see camp-smoke rising from the mountains?

The claim to sovereignty by the Uluru Statement is a strike at a raw spot in Australia. The sovereignty of the First Nations is a great Australian question, unanswered by the courts through the recognition of native title, and insufficiently addressed by the government.

It is a dialogue clouded by years and generations of oppressive silence, layered in disingenuous assertions, ad hoc narrative, and convenient falsehoods.

In Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty, and the Uluru Statement legendary Australian historian Henry Reynolds examines this question, seeking to bring clarity, light, and historical scrutiny to a discourse of Australian history that has been thrust into the shadows for far too long.

Over 13 chapters, he recites the history of Australian colonisation and interrogates topics of historical, legal, or contemporary significance, from the legal and practical urgency of treaty-making in the colonial process to the classification of Australia Day.

In particular Reynolds engages with primary accounts of colonial leaders and contemporaneous sources of international and commonwealth law to assess the strength of canonical bases for Australian sovereignty.

He tracks the ways in which precedent and principle was continually ignored in favour of "convenient falsehoods" enshrined into law, to the recorded consternation of some.

In the second half of his book, Reynolds considers the challenges of moving forward, including the place of international courts and domestic reform.

Ultimately however, his purpose is to shave away the nonsense that veils and confuses the question, and to express the urgency that underlies reform.

In this sense, the book's claim that it will "shake the foundations of the Australian system" is less a promise than an urgent hope.

In the answer to the question of First Nations Sovereignty, asserts Reynolds, is a stronger, more mature and enlightened sense of Australian nationhood; in the persistence of the question is hurt and hypocrisy.

Superlative may be the business of the Americans, but I believe this is a book that every Australian should read.

This story Seeking answers to great Australian question first appeared on The Canberra Times.