The End of an Era


Anyone watching John Howard and Mal Brough’s performance last Thursday would have known immediately that it was the end of an era.

Specifically, the era that encompassed the 1967 Referendum, Land Rights, Reconciliation and Mabo (represented by Prime Ministers Harold Holt, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating) has ended. And the John Howard era of interventionist Indigenous policy has begun.

When histories are written about this moment, it will be argued that the old paradigm was never given a chance to succeed, and that from 1996 the potential positives coming out of the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions were slowly and methodically stalled, confused and finally strangled by Howard’s spoiling tactics (otherwise known as ‘practical reconciliation’).

The histories will say that ABC TV’s Lateline 21 June 2006 story on Mutitjulu was the trigger for this paradigm shift and that Clare Martin’s NT Government’s plodding approach to the release of the Little Children Are Sacred Report provided a convenient and inept target for Howard’s first barrage.

It was the fallout from that Mutitjulu story that forced Martin to set up the inquiry behind the Report, and it was her office that sat on the results for eight weeks. The findings were both shocking (‘appalling’ to use Howard’s term) and utterly predictable and treated in the business-as-usual, bureaucratic manner that Australian Governments (both State and Federal) have treated similar reports for decades. If anyone were in doubt about the inaction of the Northern Territory Government, all they need to do is read the transcript of Tony Jones’s forensic grilling of Clare Martin on 18 June’s Lateline program after the Little Children Report was released but before Howard’s media conference.

In this inaction, Howard saw his opportunity.

There is little reason to doubt that Howard’s concern about the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children (as revealed in the Report) is real. But there is equally little doubt that he would have immediately seen the political ramifications of the situation. To watch Howard line Martin up and demolish her was to watch a svengali of politics deliver a masterclass on how to govern through media spin.

On the last day of sittings before Federal Parliament’s winter recess, in an election year where his opponent has had constant media attention and consistently positive results in every opinion poll, Howard parachuted into the heart of an issue which most commentators would have chalked up as an ALP ‘win’, and with one media conference stole it away.

Overnight, Howard went from the bogeyman and a dead weight in the area of Indigenous Affairs, to being hailed as a man of action, willing to brush away years of inertia and shame by sending in the troops, the cops and (most importantly) the money. Immediately, a wedge appeared between Kevin Rudd and his ALP colleagues running the States. Some of them promised to help by sending contingents of their own police forces, while others complained, carped and criticised.

And what’s most remarkable is how Rudd (the focus of so much media attention over the past six months) has hardly been mentioned for days. Howard’s move has sucked in all the media oxygen.

Howard has brilliantly plugged into the general community’s conflicted feelings of guilt and impotence. The feeling that there is something profoundly and shamefully wrong about the way Indigenous people live in this country, combined with frustration at how nothing we try ever seems to work. Howard has admitted that we’ve got it wrong, that we’ve failed miserably. And by confessing that he’d been trying for the last 11 years to do things the ‘old way’, he’s deflected the responsibility to his predecessors right back to Whitlam and Holt.

By not consulting with Martin, the other State Premiers, Rudd, Noel Pearson or even Sue Gordon (Chair of his own National Indigenous Council) before making his announcement, Howard has managed to take all the focus, all the kudos.

The response, so far, has been mixed but predictable, some quarters hailing Howard as a man of vision, others condemning him for racism and human rights violations. What the detractors forget is that Howard actually encourages and (sometimes, it seems) enjoys their attacks. They allow him to present himself as cutting through the irrelevant ‘niceties’ of so-called civil liberties or human rights guarantees and cut to the ‘practicalities’ of action and results. Howard wants protestors chanting and performing street theatre outside his office on this (and most other issues). He knows his constituents will identify with him, not with them.

The beauty of this move for Howard is two-fold. First, it fits in perfectly with Howard’s entire political identity: his fear of and distaste for collective social structures and his championing of robust and self-reliant individualism; his moralistic, censorious and punitive stance on ethical issues; his suspicion of people who highlight their difference rather than attempt to assimilate to the mainstream. Howard comes out of this with a reinforced political profile he’s the same as he ever was, and even more so. The challenge for his opponents now is how to respond to an agenda that Howard’s hijacked, and remain equally consistent.

And already, Howard has delivered the threat that if the measures employed in the Northern Territory work there, then he’d be willing to examine translating them to other equally difficult patches in the social fabric. Get the message?

Secondly, the timing for Howard is perfect. Over the next few months, as we hurtle towards an election, there will be troops and police to be deployed, infrastructure to be built, doctors and other professionals to be flown in, legislation to be debated and passed, communities to be ‘consulted’ and religious leaders to be placated. You can also bet your life that there will be previous reports re-discovered, more horrendous stories revealed, and billions of dollars allocated and spent.

Love him or hate him, no one will evermore accuse Howard of sitting on his hands on this issue. As the election looms, he will be the man of action who ushered in a new era. And if it all turns out to be a paternalistic, over-policed, over-bureaucratised shambles, well we won’t be certain about that until a couple of years down the track at least, maybe even longer. And Howard will be long gone by then.

José Borghino

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.