Law & Culture - 2016 - Vol 41(4)

Law and CultureIn our Law & Culture column, you will find original works of fiction, reviews of a wide range of publications — not just conventional legal texts — as well as broader cultural forms such as films, TV shows, CDs, DVDs, art exhibitions and so on. The column links in with the Alternative Law Journal’s focus on law for the disadvantaged, human rights law and law reform.

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Ministerial Advisers in Australia

Stephen Murray

ministerial-advisers-in-australia-smYee-Fui Ng; Federation Press; 2016; 240 pp; $99 (hardback)

On taking government in 1972, Gough Whitlam brought with him the first cohort of politically engaged ministerial staffers. Evan Williams, one of Whitlam’s speechwriters, tells of reporting on his first day to Sir John Bunting, the public servant who had headed the Prime Minister’s department since 1959. Bunting took a Bible from a drawer and asked Williams to swear allegiance to the Queen.

Learning of this later, Whitlam jokingly wanted to know why the oath was not of allegiance to him; unwittingly crystallising the ambiguous questions of duty, loyalty and accountability that accompany the function to this day.

(2016) 41(4) AltLJ 291

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Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story

Mary Heath

atomic-thunder-smElizabeth Tynan; NewSouth Books, 2016; 373 pp; $34.99 (paperback)

Atomic Thunder is a compelling reading experience. Not because it is written in the incandescent prose of outrage: it is not. Maralinga was the site of many (but by no means all) of the British nuclear tests in Australia. The facts themselves, and that it has taken decades for those facts to have partially emerged, are shocking enough.

Maralinga occupies the conjunction of colonial relations within Australia and colonial relations between Britain and Australia. At the time of the nuclear tests, Indigenous Australians had not yet been recognised as citizens. They were lied to, lied about and moved around like cattle in order to enable nuclear testing. The health of personnel involved in the testing was treated as largely irrelevant. Indigenous health received even less consideration. These ‘tests’ also cast a harsh light on Australia’s military policies during the Cold War and the aftermath of the Second World War. Tynan offers ‘nuclear colonialism’ as a framework for understanding the way that nuclear testing escalated the process of dispossession and injury inflicted on Indigenous Australians. At the same time, it revealed Australia as a junior and subservient partner to Britain.

(2016) 41(4) AltLJ 292

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Indigenous Peoples’ Status in the International Legal System

Harry Hobbs

Indigenous-Peoples-Status-in-the-International-Legal-SystemMattias Åhrén; OUP, 2016; 288 pages; £70 (hardback)

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been on the political agenda since 2010. Despite the various reports by Parliamentary and expert bodies, recognition in state constitutions and by the Commonwealth Parliament, and considerable public support, constitutional change appears distant. In December 2015 another body, the Referendum Council, was established to ‘advise … on progress and next steps towards a referendum’. Once tentatively scheduled for May 2017, that vote is now unlikely to occur before 2018. No government has committed to a specific proposal and debate still rages on the precise content and form of recognition.

Mattias Åhrén’s exceptional new book on the status of indigenous peoples under international law does not refer to Australia’s haphazard and belated approach to recognition, or our stalled reconciliation process, but it does provide an illuminating, albeit sobering, reality check on the conceptual limits of non-Indigenous Australians. Debate over constitutional recognition, hemmed in, as it is, by both constitutional conservatives and the difficulties involved in threading the s 128 needle, occurs almost entirely in the absence of developments in international law. As Åhrén ably explains, a paradigm shift within international law has transformed a legal construct created to legitimate colonisation into one of indigenous peoples’ closest allies (pp 119, 232). Closer examination of the rights of indigenous peoples under international law lays bare the deficiencies in current debate on constitutional change.

(2016) 41(4) AltLJ 293

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