The Politics of Makarrata: Understanding Indigenous–Settler Relations in Australia

AuthorAdrian Little
Published date01 February 2020
Date01 February 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2020, Vol. 48(1) 30 –56
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591719849023
The Politics
of Makarrata:
Relations in Australia
Adrian Little1
In May 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was released, providing
an Indigenous response to debates on recognition of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples in the Australian constitution. The document
advocated for a “Makarrata Commission,” which would oversee truth telling
and agreement making. This essay analyzes the concept of Makarrata as it
has emerged in the context of Indigenous–settler relations in Australia and
argues for a deeper engagement of non-Indigenous people with Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander concepts and practices. By extending some of
the methods of comparative political theory to incorporate endogenous
as well as exogenous comparisons, the article demonstrates the ways in
which Makarrata is likely to contribute to continuing contestation and
disagreement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. While the
Uluru Statement marked a significant point in the Australian recognition
debate because it reflected a relatively consensual Indigenous message
articulated on its own terms, the article suggests that “Makarrata” must
not be appropriated into a benign settler discourse of reconciliation, if
the concept’s potential to inform substantive change in Indigenous–settler
relations is to be realized.
1School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Adrian Little, Professor of Political Theory, School of Social and Political Sciences, University
of Melbourne, John Medley Building, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia.
849023PTXXXX10.1177/0090591719849023Political TheoryLittle
Little 31
Indigenous politics, constitutional recognition, Australia, Makarrata,
In May 2017, following a constitutional convention of Indigenous leaders
and activists at Uluru in Central Australia, a statement was released reacting
to the decade-long debate over constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islanders as the original inhabitants of Australia. This statement
was entitled “The Uluru Statement from the Heart.”1 This decade of debate
about recognition followed twenty-five years of discussion of Indigenous–
settler relations in Australia under the auspices of the concept of reconcilia-
tion and a longer contested dialogue over the nature of Australia’s colonial
history and the political relationship between the Australian state, settler-
descended, and migrant Australians and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander peoples.2 While there have been some advances in understanding
these issues through the reconciliation and recognition processes, the debate
is still relatively underdeveloped and the need for ongoing cultivation of
these conflictual relationships is not well understood. To summarize the
Uluru Statement from the Heart, it called for a “Makarrata Commission” to
facilitate truth telling and processes of agreement making, as well as an
Indigenous voice to parliament as a way of advancing this debate.3
Building on these foundations, this article examines the nature of
Indigenous–settler relations in Australia through the prism of comparative
political theory (CPT). While CPT frequently focuses on deeply embedded
concepts of different intellectual traditions and how these traditions relate to
one another,4 the object of analysis is usually centered on texts rather than
particular problems in context. The argument here is that the tools of CPT can
also be used profitably to examine discourses around practical problems.
CPT equips analysts with the tools to engage in both endogenous and exog-
enous comparisons to shed light on the ways in which the concepts used to
mediate Indigenous–settler relations in Australia have developed relationally
with debates internal to and outside Australian society. As such, the argument
demonstrates the hitherto neglected ways in which CPT can be used to make
sense of relational development of concepts in the experience of settler colo-
nial societies.
One of the key authors in CPT debates, Andrew March, argues that to
conduct comparative theoretical analysis “there have to be not only distinct
units, but their differences also have to be somehow enduring and generative
of knowledge or insights greater than what is derived from treating them in
noncomparative ways.”5 The distinct units in this case are Aboriginal and

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