My social media brought an article about the Chaser – comedians apparently – to my attention.
As Aussies continue to argue whether it’s okay to climb Uluru, a rock formation that’s incredibly sacred to Aboriginal Australians, The Chaser has tried to show what a Western equivalent would look like.
Julian Morrow decided to head to St John’s Cathedral in Canberra and see if he could scale it and get to the top.
When the cops told Julian to come down he replied: “We don’t need to respect the owner’s wishes do we? It’s just there’s a really good photo up the top.”
This incident does generate some interesting ideas.
In the first instance, we need to think about the difference between private ownership and “traditional” ownership. It turns out that a building in building in Canberra owned by a church is private property and if you try to climb it the owners may very well call the police. They are exercising their right to exclude non-owners from using the building in particular ways. I think this is somewhat uncontroversial.
But what does traditional ownership mean? At the very least, it is obviously not private ownership. The term is nuanced and complex.
But what does the term ‘traditional owner’ actually mean? It does not appear anywhere in the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) and yet it is common for many Indigenous Land Use Agreements, which are provided for under the Act, to name the Indigenous group or groups which are party to the agreement as those asserting ‘traditional ownership’ of the area of that agreement.
As a practical matter I suspect we have a working definition: would-have-had-possession-but-for-colonisation. Okay. But here we are. Colonisation happened and indigenous Australians were dispossessed of their property.
So let’s think about Uluru.
Uluru has been privatised. It has moved from being within a public property rights regime – non-rival and non-excludable to to being a club-good; still non-rival, but now excludable. The ownership of Uluru has changed from the Commonwealth government (presumably on behalf of the citizens of Australia – but that is basically just propaganda) to a subset of those citizens. Now in many respects this is no different from any other form of privatisation.
But now we should as the same sorts of question that we would of any privatisation process. To what end? Why? Who gets the rents? What is the benefit to the community? Is the broader community getting good value from the privatisation? etc. etc. etc.
Once we see this issue in this light, we can have a legitimate debate about what is happening, without religious bigotry coming into play.