On Thursday the 11th of October 'Honest' John Howard, the Australian conservative Prime Minister who is staring down the barrel of electoral obliteration, woke up, copped an overwhelming snoutful of coffee and roses and executed a 180º triple backflip with pike, trout and flounder (degree of difficulty – unknown and unknowable) in declaring his love of the aboriginal people he has just finished finishing off. Once again the constitution was in his sights as he pledged, as he has a wont of doing, to add a preamble to that sacred document this time stating that blackfellas are grouse, that they are our ‘mates’ and that we probably shouldn’t have spent nations the first 150 years hunting them like dogs.
Out of the blue, symbolic reconciliation has become paramount to Dear Leader. It wasn’t so important to him when he officially declared war on black Australia back in 1996 when, as his first act as PM, he attempted to knobble ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) by appointing an administrator, and it was certainly not on his radar when he implanted his vile ’10 point plan’ to gut the High Court’s landmark Wik decision in 1997.
It didn’t put him off the Weaties he eventually wolfed down after sleeping in during 2000’s Bridge Walks for Reconciliation, and neither did he didn’t loose many ZZZs when he hurled the whole concept of reconciliation overboard in 2004 and sent the 'Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Reconciliation’ portfolio the way of button shoes, followed swiftly in 2005 by ATSIC.
There are myriad other examples of his hatred of the aboriginal lobby; Howard has consistently and vehemently denied what he so eloquently termed the ‘Black armband’ view of Australian history and so it is inevitable that those who know that his sobriquet was earned in irony will be fair rolling in the aisles, but the questions they raise are valid. ‘Why now?’ they ask, and ‘What now?’
So, ‘Why now?’ indeed. Elroy is happy enough that Johnny is superficially tottering in the right direction, and Elroy has come up with a quick lucky seven reasons as to why the Honourable may have done so.
1. ‘Look! Over there!’
The first thing that comes to mind is that such a massive dereliction of principle provides a great distraction from the opinion polls that have him languishing somewhere down around the levels of a post-war Hitler or, even worse, a current war George Bush; this magnificent volte-face was perfectly timed to suck up all the available media oxygen and make it all about HIM come his big announcement last Sunday.
2. ‘Shut up! Listen to me! I’m the Prime Minister!...’
Secondly, it put him thoroughly in charge of the agenda. Honest John has been looking more and more like the opposition lately, reacting to whatever bit of socialist madness the Labor Party have proposed or defending themselves against said commie’s scurrilous attacks, but not actually proposing much apart from a promise to dismember federation. However, with this jaw-dropping paean to all things indigenous, Little Johnny is looking decidedly statesmanlike. At last.
3. ‘…but I do have a sensitive side.’
The third reason is that, as his iron vice of a grip starts to weaken and the Liberal Party get a bit bolshy, Honest John recognised the need to lob some meat to the Party’s wet wing and its more swingin’ voters, the infamous doctors’ wives and their ilk who periodically fret about the bootless and unhorsed after lunch with the gals.
This bunch, the teeny ‘l’ faction, have been bulldozed into silence by the marauding economic irrationalists that have held the party hostage since Howard found a copy of Milton Freidman’s Capitalism And Freedom down the back of the couch, but now that the Labor Party have swung so far right that they make Menzies look more like Mao, Howie has had to make a magnificently empty gesture in order to make them think that he ‘cares’ and stop them taking that oh-so-short but significant trip to the dark side and voting for that ‘Nice’ Mr Rudd.
4. ‘See? I do care!’
This pronouncement helps deflect adverse criticism of his indigenous ‘Intervention’ program that has eradicated what small gains aboriginal people have made over the years and subjected them to an unholy panoply of unwarranted sanctions and hoops that the rest of society are not required to jump through. The intervention is apparently all for their own good, if only they would realise it, and it is obvious that Howard only has their best interests at heart because he is going to add them to the constitution, dammit!
5. ‘Nothing in my hands…nothing up my sleeve…presto chango…!’
The beauty of this audacious flip-flop is that it isn’t really one at all; it’s an illusion, a trick, a sleight of hand – the biggest sticking point for the Wee One has been the dreaded ‘sorry’ word and he has no intention of uttering it, but he’s trying to make it look as if he will.
On the Thursday he said ‘I recognise the parlous position of indigenous Australians does have its roots in history and that past injustices have a real legacy in the present’ but he also said ‘I still believe that a collective national apology for past injustice fails to provide the necessary basis to move forward’, which just goes to show how grudging and ultimately vapid his declaration is.
In making this symbolic nod to symbolism he can look like he is doing something while not actually doing much at all which is, ironically, what he has been grizzling about all these years. ‘I said a couple of years ago that part of my problem with the old reconciliation agenda was that it let too many people - particularly in white Australia - off the hook’ he intoned. ‘It let them imagine they could achieve something lasting and profound through symbolic gesture alone, without grappling in a serious, sustained way with the real practical dimensions of indigenous misery.’
Which appears to be exactly what he is doing. If you are in any doubt about the down side of the intervention then you obviously haven’t read It’s A Black Thing, available here, which documents just how devastating it is, but Howard is hoping that the electorate is just going to take his word for it that the intervention is a you-beaut, final solution method of grappling in a serious, sustained way with the real practical dimensions of indigenous misery and that, with his new little cherry on top, the problem will be forever solved.
John Howard is correct when he says that white Australia will be let of the hook, that they can imagine they can achieve something lasting and profound through symbolic gesture alone, without grappling in a serious, sustained way with the real practical dimensions of indigenous misery, because he’s the one doing the gesturing. Aboriginal people have never been in any doubt that reconciliation will require both symbolic and practical approaches, but Honest John is not interested in real reconciliation and never has been – his offer of a referendum to add a preamble recognizing the prior ownership of the land is as useless as his current, er, robust approach to aboriginal affairs.
The one symbolic gesture that aboriginal people actually want, an official ‘sorry’, will ‘only reinforce a culture of victimhood and take us backwards’ according to Howard, which is ironic because that is precisely what the intervention is currently doing. However, what his symbolic gesture is meant to represent is not entirely clear.
The Liberals and their fellow conservative nutbags are constantly reminding us about the importance of the Judeo-Christian moral code, the rule of law and how free lunches will never be a reality for those outside Parliament House, but what they fail to understand is the importance of themselves obeying said moral code, that an important foundation of the aforementioned rule of law is that the fear of retribution does not justify the denial of criminality and that colonialism, whitey’s overlong and really free lunch, did have a price and is still not entirely paid for.
‘Thou shalt not kill’, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’, ‘Love your enemies’, ‘Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me’ – all of these are in Volumes one and two of the Bible’s Greatest Hits, yet when it comes to indigenous affairs they are conspicuous only by their absence. The original inhabitants of Australia have been classed as fauna, shot at, imprisoned, disenfranchised and evicted, robbed, brainwashed and denied their basic human rights for over two hundred years, so it seems like the Judeo-Christian moral code can only applied so far and only when the suits those that trumpet its superiority.
With regards to the rule of law, the powers that be are adamant that it be revered at all times and that its word is final. The High Court is the ultimate arbiter of what is constitutionally correct unless, of course, you are John Howard, in which case you can take any old High Court decision that happens to displease you and legislate it away, particularly if it pertains to aborigines.
That’s what he did with the Wik decision, continuing a long tradition of ignoring the rule of law when it is convenient. From the first fleet onward, various treaties have been broken and legal judgments ignored as the English, their descendants, and whoever else happened to wander over more or less helped themselves.
Murderers and others that flaunt the law are called to account (CEOs and senior politicians excepted); they are not let go because they don’t feel like pleading guilty or don’t think they should, so why should the government be any different? The Liberals claim saying sorry is ‘divisive’, ‘offensive’ and ‘hectoring’ because the current crop of whiteys were not the ones firing the guns, poisoning the flour and stealing the children while at the same time, but just as the representatives of the Swiss Banks that kept the savings of the German Jewry after World War Two were not the hands that signed the passbooks, the banks were still judged to have benefited and ordered to pay restitution. Where is the difference?
Australia has been chowing down on a free lunch that has lasted over 200 years. We are told that the current crop of whiteys enjoying the spoils of oppression may fear that saying sorry will open the floodgates for compensation claims, but the end game of Empire is still being played out where ever the sun never set, from New Zealand to Zimbabwe to Australia to Old Blighty herself, and as long as long as the feeding frenzy continues then the descendents of the oppressed have a legitimate claim against them.
If ‘sorry’ is as uselessly symbolic as the Honest John would have us believe, then why not say it? On the other hand, if ‘sorry’ opens the Commonwealth up to compensation, surely that should be admitted and dealt with in a way which respects the aforementioned Judeo-Christian moral code and rule of law? How can the government duck the long arm of the law and still be regarded as legitimate?
Everybody knows that the indigenous people were treated inhumanly, so to bring the healing of this weeping wound down to a base and vulgar question of mammon is wholly immoral at best and at worst greedy and slothful, not to mention a certain amount of pride, wrath and, to push the boat out somewhat, jealousy, gluttony and lust, but distinctly lacking in the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, charity, prudence, moderation, religion and fortitude. Well done, guys! Not bad going for a Christian nation!
Howard is now taking charge, saying OK, this far but no further, but again he doesn’t get it. He wants to own the issue by defining what he is willing to do, an arrogance which is not lost on aboriginal Australia, but he has so failed to explain why his symbolism is appropriate but another is not, but his offer is merely style over substance, form over content, all froth and no bubble – all tip, to quote Keating, and no iceberg.
To quote Malcolm Fraser, a man who must accept some responsibility for creating the horror show we know as Honest John Howard, the changes to the constitution would be ‘totally meaningless’ until we are told exactly what the changes are to be and, more importantly ‘It means nothing without a 20-year commitment to Aboriginal health, education, housing and also a commitment that will enable Aboriginals to cherish and preserve their own culture’ and that, funnily enough, is strangely missing from Howard’s treaty.
6. ‘Oooh! There’s a bear in there…’
Enough of fifth. Sixth, it is a classic wedge issue. Howard is trying to force Rudd into saying that he WILL say sorry so that Howard can scare the punters with lurid tales of the compensation claims and other racist fear mongering as outlined above (5).
7. ‘Hang on! I’m not quite finished yet! I’ve just got to…’
The last reason is that Howard has an eye to history and his place in it – when the truth of his 11 years of all-out war against Aborigines in general and the Intervention in particular are revealed in their full barbarity Howard will not be regarded too fondly, hence his current sop. He is going against his own advise and trying desperately to stuff a hog with whatever bon-bons and cream he can find prior to its sale, but it’s too late; so many chances to have done the right thing, the right practical thing and the right symbolic thing, have now whistled past his ear and into the garbage compactor of history where he has no hope of dictating what they will be recycled into.
He says this the ‘unfinished business of the nation’, but more importantly for Howard it is the unfinished business of his reign. He knows the jig is up and that history is going to judge him badly on the indigenous issue, particularly after the ‘intervention’ farrago, and so at five to twelve he suddenly slaps his forehead and says ‘Doh! The Abos! Gotta remember – do something about the flaming Abos!’ The word ‘cynical’ does not seem out of place, or even adequate.
But as much as he may admit that this journey to his micro-epiphany has taken in its fair share of ‘sidetracks and dry gullies’, the leader of the party which stresses personal responsibility above all else would like us to know that it is not his fault. No, society is to blame, society and Johnny’s poor old mum and dad. ‘The challenge I have faced around indigenous identity politics’ he lamented to an audience of like-minded stooges, ‘is in part an artefact of who I am and the time in which I grew up.’
The fact that many millions of others that grew up at the same time vehemently disagree with him doesn’t seem to register, so the problem for Johnny is obviously genetic as well as environmental, a subtle blend of nature and nurture against which he is so defenceless.
Far be it from the Little Man to challenge the status quo and orthodox thinking – if it was said to be true then it was true, and much as he might now claim to be challenging the dominant paradigm, all that has happened is that he has found a successor to the conservative values of Faith Bandler and Neville Bonner to legitimise his ureconstructed, old school assimilationism in the shape of Noel Pearson.
Pearson is the kind of Blackfella that Howard loves – a clever gentleman that rose from the stolen generation to become a spokesman for ‘his people’ who rails against welfare dependency and props up other conservative canards. It doesn’t matter that 90% of the other aboriginal leaders are opposed to his views, or that ‘his people’ are not the greater mass of aborigines as imagined by white society but a small group on the York Peninsula in far north Queensland who are quite culturally separate from the people of the Central Desert; what matters that Pearson is an aborigine whose views allow Howard to take the question of indigenous identity politics back to the comfy 1950s where the only blackfella he was likely to see was brandishing a spear on his authentic pokerwork Alice Springs souvenir pipe and slipper rack.
So what happens next? The signs were encouraging, but the day after his bunker-buster Howard held a somewhat qualifying press conference where he denied that it was an election sell out but added ‘I don't believe Labor could unite conservative and progressive Australia on this issue’.
It this kind of veiled threat that makes Howard look so slippery and lacking conviction, as mean and tricky as even his own party have painted him. Does this mean that he would actively fight against the position if he doesn’t get the guernsey? Does it mean that conservatives are such convictionless drips that they would only support reconciliation when their Dear Leader tells them to?
So, Honest John Howard in person and the intervention in general promised aboriginal people both symbolic and practical help but if, God forbid, he somehow manages to crawl back into Kirribilli House, what they will get is the final nail in the creaking coffin of reconciliation with the most meaningless paean the Government could muster in the shape of a couple of lines in an unread preamble to an unread Constitution, a worthless and grudging nod toward their ‘prior stewardship’ or some similar prolix prose, and a short, sharp asset-stripping exercise to finally wipe out what is left of their culture and drive them into the towns and cities in line with Howard’s assimilation agenda.
But if Honest John is sent to CentreLink, will he follow his new-found path and still push for some sort of reconciliation by putting the wedge back in the political tool drawer and bringing conservative Australia with him in bipartisan recognition of That Nice Mr Rudd’s ‘mandate’, finally admit the country is as divided as it was since Captain Cook unpacked his first picnic and attempt to rehabilitate his legacy by eventually, belatedly, at least allowing someone to utter the hardest word?
Or will he take his bat and ball home to XXXX after having used them to smash any attempts by TNMR to say it while perpetuating the conceit that Australia is ‘One tribe’? Time will tell, although there is growing evidence that, after 80,000 odd years, time for indigenous Australia is finally running out.
Australia has been at least two tribes – the colonisers and the aborigines – since 1776, and the only real attempt by the former to make us ‘one tribe’ has been by exterminating the latter. Elroy’s old daddy, Elroy Snr, Elroy the Wiser, Elroy the All-seeing and all-knowing, Elroy the Kind, Wonderful and Generous, always says ‘Trust only movement’, and Howard’s intervention policy is the practical proof, the concrete evidence that Howard knows this ‘One tribe’ malarkey with its ominous overtones of One Nation is so far from the truth to be somewhat laughable but not so far that it cannot be achieved.
The awful truth of John Howard’s relationship with indigenous Australia is that reconciliation is not the unfinished business of the nation – for the conservative elite, the true unfinished business of the nation is the ultimate destruction of black Australia as it disappears into the towering ghettos of inner city disadvantage and cheap houses of the outer suburban sprawl. Howard’s ‘One tribe’ is a project, a work in progress that will see the indigenous people subsumed, assimilated and no longer able to stake their claim; it will mean that blacks are the new whites and the genocide is finally complete.
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