‘Some will no doubt want to portray my remarks tonight as a form of Damascus Road conversion’, the Prime Minister told the Sydney Institute on Thursday night, as he pledged a referendum which would propose the incorporation of a ‘statement of reconciliation’ into the preamble to the Constitution. But Saul’s change of mind all those years ago hardly seems of the same order of magnitude as the Prime Minister’s electoral death-bed conversion. The Liberals face a selling job of gargantuan proportions if they are to convince the electorate of the sincerity of the Prime Minister’s propositions.
Many will see the Prime Minister’s audacious utterances as deeply cynical in the context of his parlous polling figures in the shadows of an election. It would have been hardly more surprising if Howard had described himself as a reborn Socialist and called upon Australian workers to rise up and rid themselves of their capitalist oppressor. Indeed, he might have equally denounced the war in Iraq as an imperialist adventure, confessed that he found test-cricket boring, and announced plans to double the funding of the ABC and guarantee its political independence.
Finger on the pulse… seven years too late
The text of Howard’s speech to the Sydney Institute is itself revealing. What was doubtless intended to appear as a magnanimous concession still looks somehow curmudgeonly. Howard began by using language which evoked memories of former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s watershed Redfern Park speech on that hot summer’s day in 1992. In a remarkable departure from the dour managerialism which characterises Howard’s way, he spoke of ‘a deep yearning in the national psyche for a more positive and unifying approach to reconciliation’. Howard is a deft and calculating politician, who has mastered the media and conquered the parliamentary bear-pit. But he is no statesman and these words simply don’t ring true.
As the epistle unfolded, it became clear that this brave, new reconciliation would be on Howard’s terms and in Howard’s timeframe. It began with a statement of the prime-ministerial premise that ‘individual rights and national sovereignty prevail over group rights’. It’s safe to assume he was not alluding to the Yorta Yorta nation, nor the Arrernte nation, nor any of the 500-odd nations which once constituted this continent. ‘We are one great tribe’ brazened the Prime Minister, without making it clear if he was also intending to embrace those pesky Sudanese who have had it so good for so long while fleeing their troubled homelands and spending years in refugee camps.
Likewise, his gracious, if long-delayed, concession that symbolism was after all important, arrived burdened by the proviso that ‘it has to occur and be expressed in a way that is acceptable to traditional Australia.’ Again, readers may safely assume that he is talking about traditions which date back 200 years, rather than 20,000 years.
The Prime Minister’s attempt to portray the controversial and troubled NT intervention as an unmitigated success story is also a drastically premature piece of spin. The jury on this doubtful grab-bag of measures is still very much out. Indeed, the style as much as the substance of the NT intervention is telling in this context. The intervention is a top-down, one-size-fits-all program instigated without proper consultation with Aboriginal people. This methodology defies the overwhelming evidence that the most effective solutions to the problems that beset Aboriginal Australia are those which are substantially of Indigenous making.
The perpendicular pronoun was scattered liberally through Howard’s speech, as the Prime Minister ostensibly bared his soul. ‘I have never felt comfortable with the dominant paradigm for Indigenous policy one based on the shame and guilt of non-Indigenous Australians’, he told his audience. It has often been noted that Howard is prepared to leap with alacrity onto the triumphs of Australian sporting terms, but that these vicarious victories are not accompanied by a willingness to identify with some of the less noble exploits of his countrymen.
The demands of Indigenous justice are too desperate and too immediate to become mired down in the self-absorption of shame and guilt. Better that the Prime Minister focus on his statement that ‘Indigenous Australians should enjoy the full bounty that this country has to offer; that their economic, social and cultural well-being should be comparable to that of other Australians.’ Jingoistic Howard needs to look no further than the great Aussie doctrine of the ‘fair go’.
Lowitja O’Donoghue is a considered and moderate woman. These are two of the qualities which saw her appointed by the Hawke Government as the inaugural chair of the late, lamented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. However, O’Donoghue is managing to restrain her enthusiasm for the Prime Minister’s change of heart, telling The Age that ‘He has had 11 years and he has failed us’, and that ‘He wants to keep breaking our hearts.’ The Australian, too, found her in no mood for finessing. ‘It’s not before time’, she said. ‘It’s what we’ve fought for. But who believes him? I don’t.’
David Ross is the long-time director of the Central Land Council which manages all NT Indigenous land to the south of Tennant Creek on behalf of the traditional owners. He does not enjoy the media spotlight and is not given to bombast. Ross was not warmed by Howard’s offerings. ‘When a snake sheds his skin, he has a shiny new skin, but he’s still the same old snake, with the same old venom’, he said.
It was commendably honest for the Prime Minister to accept blame for his abject failure to advance the cause of reconciliation, despite his undertaking to do so on the night of his 1998 election victory. But he cannot reasonably expect the electorate to grant him another three years of stewardship over Indigenous affairs on the basis of five minutes of rhetorical sunshine in the wake of 11 years of culpable neglect.
Howard may well be the most skilled and cunning not to say manipulative politician this country has ever produced. It beggars belief to think that this latest position was arrived at without detailed tactical discussions about how it would wash in the electorate.
When Saul abandoned his persecution of Christians and decided to conduct himself in an altogether more gentlemanly fashion, this turnabout was doubtless greeted with some amazement by his contemporaries. But St Paul wasn’t responding to internal party-polling which presaged imminent electoral disaster.
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