17 October, 2007

White History, Black Heart

John Howard’s deathbed conversion to Aboriginal reconciliation is as transparent as cling wrap. It’s been hailed a ‘road to Damascus’ style conversion and an important, visionary move by some doyens of the mainstream media commentariat, but to me it’s nothing short of a man without empathy, seeking to re-define his legacy as he stares political annihilation in the face.

As is evidenced by his fascination with 1950’s Australian values, his obsession with faded sporting icons and his determination to white-wash Australian school history courses, he is a man who lives both in and for the past. He is a man who is also very prickly, stubborn and grudge-prone as history tells us. I’ve observed that his 12 years as Prime Minister have been like watching a schoolboy who was teased mercilessly in the playground seeking to even the score with his detractors. Aboriginal Australians who labelled him a racist were no exception.

Perhaps this analysis helps us understand why within weeks of coming to office, he tried to limit the inquiry into Australia’s ‘Stolen Generations’ of Aboriginal children and swore blind that he’d never utter a personal or collective apology to Indigenous Australians in recognition of two centuries of trauma inflicted by white Australia. In the subsequent 12 years, he’s burned so many bridges to Aboriginal Australia and alienated so many long-suffering people, history looked likely to record him as a divisive, xenophobic force.

Howard’s rejection of the findings of the Stolen Generations Inquiry, his derision of modern perspectives on Aboriginal history as ‘black arm-band views’ and the myriad other insults he heaped on Indigenous Australians saw a convention hall of prominent Aborigines stand and turn their backs on him during a speech he delivered a decade ago. In the intervening period, the reconciliation process - which looked so inspired and promising under Paul Keating’s leadership in the early 90’s - stagnated so badly, that Howard’s own hand-picked National Indigenous Council recently considered resigning in protest at the hopelessness of the situation.

Then, last week, on the eve of the federal election being called, he made a bid for a different legacy. Without any ministerial consultation, he announced plans for the inclusion of a new statement of reconciliation in the preamble of the Australian Constitution. He told the conservative think-tank, the Sydney Institute: “I will (if elected) put to the Australian people within 18 months a referendum to formally recognise indigenous Australians in our Constitution – their history as the first inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of culture and languages, and their special (though not separate) place within a reconciled, indivisible nation.” This from the man, who in 2000, chose to stay at home when his deputy, the Treasuer, Peter Costello, joined 10's of thousands of Australians who marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation and a national apology.

In an effort to explain such a radical shift in position, Howard went so far as to say he was willing to accept his share of the blame for the deterioration in white-black relations under his leadership (big of him). He certainly tried to sound genuine:

I recognise now that, though emotionally committed to the goal, I was mistaken in believing that it could be achieved in a form I truly believed in. The old paradigm’s emphasis on shame, guilt and apologies made it impossible to reconcile the goal with the path I was required to tread…The challenge I have faced around indigenous identity politics is in part an artefact of who I am and the time in which I grew up.

But struggle as I might, I just can’t accept that this man’s conversion is genuine. I just don’t believe him. Why not? Because in any relationship breakdown there is one word that’s crucial to mending wounds and rebuilding bridges – the very essence of reconciliation. That word is sorry and as the song says it is often the hardest word to say, but it is also the straightest path to genuine forgiveness, in turn, the healing power of relationship reconstruction. It's a word Aboriginal Australians and supporters of the reconciliation movement want to hear - in recognition of two centuries of massacre, abuse, disenfranchisement, discrimination and ongoing disadvantage. It's a word that's been uttered by many in public life - including the Federal Opposition - and it's been recommended as a course of action by countless committees and inquiries. But it’s a word the Prime Minister is still refusing to say. There may be a referendum, but there will be no personal or official apology on behalf of the Australian Government from John Howard if he's re-elected. He argues that this is because too many Australians would disagree with such a move.

I suspect the real reason is that he can’t bring himself to utter the word because he refuses to accept responsibility on behalf of our forebears for the devastation they wreaked upon Aboriginal Australia. This is not about guilt, Aboriginal Australia doesn’t want white Australia to feel guilty (although as a friend suggested to me recently, politically speaking, guilt may be the basis of social caring) but Indigenous Australians do want the past acknowledged and they need the healing that could flow from the utterance of that small word we all insist our children learn in their first grasp of language.

And, in Howard’s case, he has inflicted so many personal wounds on individual Aboriginal activists, nothing short of ‘sorry’ will convince them his apparent change of heart is any more than political trickery. One of them is Lowitja 'Lois' O'Donoghue, herself a member of the Stolen Generations and the former head of ATSIC. "Big deal," Ms O'Donoghue told The Australian. "Another bloody election promise. It's not before time, it's what we've fought for, but who believes him? I don't.” The first Aboriginal politician in the NSW parliament,Labor vice-president Linda Burney, was similarly skeptical "It's interesting he is talking about that in the preamble but if he is really on about rights then why was the Racial Discrimination Act suspended so that they could bring in the NT intervention? I welcome it, but looking at his record I'm suspicious." Relevantly, Howard actually cited the controversial Northern Territory intervention (which involved sending the military into Aboriginal communities and rescinding land rights under the guise of protecting abused children) as the very motivation for his about turn – but not for the reasons Burney may surmise. He believes the move "overturned 30 years of attitudes and thinking on indigenous policy" and paved the way for a groundswell of support for Aboriginal reconciliation within mainstream Australia. More re-writing history before the ink is even dry.

Noel Pearson, Aboriginal lawyer and activist, whose intelligent, post-modern pitch for Aborginal revival has been embraced by the Conservatives for reasons of political expediency, agrees with me: it’s about history. “History soon forgets budget surpluses and property booms, tax cuts and sky-rocketing share markets. History will not forget reconciliation,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. But he’s calling for full support for Howard’s proposed referendum, saying it’s an important step forward for the reconciliation process. Other Aboriginal leaders have echoed this call. But the one who’s words most resonate and inspire is Pat Dodson - Aboriginal priest and activist, Australia’s answer to Desmond Tutu. With extraordinary grace and powers of forgiveness I’m ashamed to admit I don’t possess, Dodson told the ABC he was surprised by Howard’s change of heart but had no reason to doubt his sincerity “I think it's a positive contribution to the process of national reconciliation…I think that it's a big shift for him, but this is about the nation's reconciliation, it's not about John Howard's reconciliation ... this is something quite different.” I just hope Pat Dodson’s heart won’t be broken again by this government.

For its part, the Labor Party may be suspicious and cynical of Howard’s motivation but it will support the proposed referendum without too much criticism - partly because Kevin Rudd’s team knows it’s unlikely to translate to many votes on polling day. This is because the Aboriginal vote largely exists in safe National Party seats and Howard’s well and truly done his dash with the socially progressive political vacillators in marginal urban seats.

Effecting change to the constitution through a referendum is notoriously difficult and the Prime Minister argues he’s the only one who can bring mainstream (i.e. ignorant white)Australia onboard. Some commentators have bought this argument, saying 'mainstream' opposition to Aboriginal reconciliation is based on economic jealousy –of ‘special treatment’ welfare offered to Indigenous people - and Howard’s conservative approach can get them past this indifference. I think that’s a bogus argument. The same Australians don’t refuse to attend ANZAC marches because they aren’t beneficiaries of the War Veterans’ Pension do they? This argument is just an attempt to veneer over deeply ingrained racism. And, if these 'mainstream' Australian voters do come on board it will because they know the Prime Minister feels the same way they do.

As much as the thought of Howard being eulogised as a champion of Aboriginal reconciliation makes me feel physically ill, I sincerely hope his referendum proposal does get up – for all Australians. But it will be a hollow victory without these letters S-O-R-R-Y.

And, I’ve said it before, but once more for the record: I am deeply sorry for the suffering inflicted on Aboriginal Australia by my colonial ancestors. I don’t feel personally responsible for what they did, but I am appalled and ashamed of their actions and I do accept personal responsibility to help repair the damage they inflicted in whatever small way I can. I also accept that I am a white beneficiary of historic and continuing racism against Indigenous Australians. Mine is a heartfelt apology.


Nathan Brown said...

I think Howard's proposal should be rejected. It's not genuine.

His "only I can do it" line gives away the cynical, political nature of it. If he loses the election why can't he still endorse the same proposal - which Labor have committed to - to win over his redneck mates?

If he is so committed, why couldn't he spend his first years of retirement drumming up support amongst his eponymous battlers?

Of course he could - but, alas, he would rather have us believe that we need to vote for him to get it, which goes to show how shallow this proposal is.


J-scribe said...

Really valid argument, Nathan. But I can't see him strutting the stage with Paul Keating in the interests of historic reconciliation - can you? He's not Malcom Fraser.

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