Kirsty Gover: Aboriginality and Alienage: Legal Pluralism at the Australian Border

Datum: 7 september 2022
Tid: 10:00-11:45

Place: At the Institute for Futures Studies, Holländargatan 13, Stockholm, or online.

Research seminar with Kirsty Gover, Professor at Melbourne Law School.


The landmark Australian High Court case of Love-Thoms (2020) raised the possibility of constitutionalised Indigenous-settler legal pluralism. In this case, the Court accepted that an ‘Aboriginal Australian’, even if a non-citizen, could not be an ‘alien’ and so could not be placed in immigration detention or deported from Australia. In federal court cases applying Love-Thoms (and in the 2022 discontinued Montgomery proceedings in the High Court), judges have been asked in essence to decide whether it is ‘traditional law and custom’ that makes a person an Aboriginal Australian, and if so, whether Indigenous law can confer Aboriginality on persons who are not (or cannot show) that they are the biological descendants of Aboriginal ancestors. The Commonwealth and responsible Ministers have argued that endorsing the authority of traditional law and custom in this way would: 1. Amount to an unconstitutional recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and 2. Require settler officials to determine the content of multiple and varied bodies of traditional law and custom, a task they say renders the administration of immigration law and policy unreasonably uncertain and difficult. What should we make of claims about ‘uncertainty’ and ‘difficulty’ in a legally plural settler-colonial state? Why is ‘sovereignty’ still, after all these years, operating as a dead weight on judicial recognition of legal pluralism in settler states? In this presentation I attempt a reframing of the problem, and outline a way forward, building in part on a joint research project underway with Mary Spiers Williams (ANU) and on work done with colleagues at the Melbourne Law School Indigenous Law and Justice Hub in support of Indigenous intervenors in Montgomery. I propose that Indigenous legal and political theories emphasising the interdependence of human and non-human persons, coupled with settler legal doctrines of private international law (choice of law principles), can be used to bring sovereignty and ‘Country’ into a more just relationship with one another. This approach would invite attention to Indigenous philosophical conceptions of Country as possessed of its own authority, an authority that is expressed in Indigenous law, and which is foundational to the legitimacy of the settler state.

Join the seminar online or at the Institute for Futures Studies. If you will join on site, please check the box in the registration form.

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