ANU Spaces - Diana Anderssen

2 June 2020

Meet Diana Anderssen, who is a PhD Scholar with the National Centre for Indigenous Studies. Diana is also the community coordinator at Toad Hall, and a sessional lecturer with the ANU College of Law.

Diana thank you for speaking to us. Can you please tell us what you are studying at ANU? (what year are you in also, of your study?)

I'm in the final year of my PhD in Indigenous Studies and Law, researching the way Indigenous Australian law is portrayed in Anglo-Australian legal thought.

For over two hundred years, the orthodox legal view had been that Indigenous Australian peoples were without law. That idea, that Indigenous Australian peoples were 'so low on the scale of civilisation' as to be without law, was unequivocally swept away by the High Court in its landmark Mabo decision in 1992. And since then, the existence of Indigenous Australian 'traditional laws and customs' has been explicitly acknowledged in Australian law.

My research asks how Indigenous Australian law is conceptualised within Anglo-Australian law in the wake of the apparent rejection of terra nullius.

I investigated two hundred years of British and Anglo-Australian legal theory, analysing primary and secondary theoretical and legal materials, and exploring how the law of Indigenous Australian peoples is depicted in those texts. I was particularly interested in how Indigenous Australian law was portrayed vis-à-vis the concept of 'law'.

I looked at how western law has perceived itself in relation to Indigenous law and how that relationship has informed the parameters of western concepts of law.

I examined the legal interpretation of Indigenous Australian 'traditional laws and customs' and I was shocked to find that the very definition of Indigenous law in Australia is still based upon a denial of its status as 'law'.

In fact, I argue that the western concept of law itself depends upon the denial of law to Indigenous Australians.

Do you have a favourite spot on campus? If so, where is it and why?

The banks of the creek! I walk along the creek every day (often a few times a day), admiring the water, the bird life and the trees and plants on the banks. Of course, I live on the bank of the creek (at Toad Hall) and my research and teaching has been conducted here at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies and the law school, so the creek is part of my every day.

I feel so privileged to live and work here on this beautiful campus - at the foot of Black Mountain - on the land of peoples whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in the world.

I'm very conscious of the traditional owners and their custodianship of this place, and I'm very grateful to be living and learning on their ancestral lands.

Tell us why you have gone into studying law focusing on Indigenous rights?

A strong sense of justice - of outrage at past injustice - and incredulity that that injustice is continuing to this day.

A hope that my research can make a difference ... and at the very least, a determination to challenge the silence that has historically typified the non-Indigenous history of this continent.

How are you hoping your research and work will help Indigenous communities?

I hope that my research will lead to the meaningful recognition, within the Australian legal system, of Indigenous Australian law. And of course, since for many Indigenous Australians, the law is directly linked to the health of the people and of the planet, there are obvious flow-on effects from that.

I think that my research has the capacity to change the legal understanding of law itself, particularly, within Australian court and educational systems, and I hope that in part, it can contribute to a better understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.


For more information on the work that is undertaken at the ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies, visit their website.