To suggest that Howard never paid much attention to symbols is a nonsense. John Howard has spent the best years of his political life defending the symbols that represent the alleged cultural dominance of white Anglo-Australia - the flag, the monarchy, our so-called 'Judeo-Christian values', etc. Howard has had little time for the cultural symbols that set non-Anglo-Australians apart from the rest of the community. That includes Aboriginal Australians.
Howard's new reconciliation is built upon the notion that "individual rights and national sovereignty prevail over group rights". What the ...? What about an individual's right to belong to a group and take on the identity and cultural symbols of that group? And in what sense is "national sovereignty" any different to "group rights"? Or is what we are really seeing just an attempt by white fellas to impose their own group rights over the oldest Australians in the name of national sovereignty?
Howard's idea of reconciliation isn't really reconciliation. It isn't about two equal groups formerly in a state of non-alignment coming together on equal terms. It isn't about recognising past injustices and making some kind of amends.
Howard isn't interested in recognising "the shame and guilt of non-indigenous Australians". He blames the current state of Aboriginal disadvantage not on past European excesses (such as the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents - the "Stolen Generation") but rather on "a rights agenda that led ultimately and inexorably towards welfare dependency and on a philosophy of separateness rather than shared destiny".
Presumably that means that before this agenda came into place, indigenous Australians were living in a state of bliss. That they were regarded as equals in their own country, with all the economic and other opportunities available to non-indigenous Australians. Presumably, then, stolen wages were just a myth. Perhaps Mistake Creek was just an historical mistake.
Howard continues to insist that "a collective national apology for past injustice fails to provide the necessary basis to move forward". Perhaps this may be true of an apology on its own. But surely any notion of reconciliation without recognition of past injustices and some kind of remorse would do no harm. As my mum often tells me: "You don't become a smaller person by saying sorry. If anything, it makes you a greater person".
The tang of Waitangi is absent from Howard's formula. Rather, what we are seeing is an attempt to enshrine in the constitution a half-baked reconciliation which has little to do with indigenous sentiment and more to do with Howard's attempts to impose his own kine of radical monocultural revolution.
One of Howard's former staffers, Gerard Henderson, wrote in The Age on May 25, 2004 of
... the one significant blot on [Howard’s] record
in public life … a certain lack of empathy in dealing with individuals with whom
he does not identify at a personal level: for example, Asian Australians in the
late 1980s and asylum seekers in the early 21st century.
After Howard's performance at the Sydney Institute last night, it will be interesting to see if Henderson adds indigenous Australians to this list.
© Irfan Yusuf 2007