John Howard has confounded expectations by resurrecting the notion of Indigenous reconciliation, when it had never looked so dead in the water. Let us assume for a moment that he also pulls off an election victory. What to make of his commitment to a new constitutional preamble and a new settlement?
Indigenous people will voice their own opinions. But non-Indigenous people will have a vote in both the election and any future referendum. Can we find good in this announcement? I believe the answer is yes. The Prime Minister’s announcement is largely symbolism, but in a place where symbolic recognition counts: the nation’s Constitution. Our foundational document needs a preamble that properly acknowledges the first peoples of this nation. It needs to do more than that, but acknowledgment is a start and something that is way overdue.
The idea will also attract bipartisan support. For years, Indigenous affairs have been marked by polarisation. This has damaged our national capacity for a reasoned and constructive debate about a better future. With modest electoral numbers, Indigenous people’s concerns too easily become a political football kicked around in a pretty cynical way. A preamble campaign is a modest idea, but something the major political parties can work on together in a constructive way. Mr Howard’s commitment to an inclusive process of working with Indigenous people is also a welcome change.
And finally in his public statement Mr Howard has set aside negativity and sought to build on the pride Indigenous people feel as the first peoples of this continent. He has also staked political capital on persuading the rest of Australia that it should take pride in sharing this land with one of the longest surviving cultures on the face of the earth.
Eleven years in, there will inevitably be a variety of reactions to this announcement. A lot of damage has been done to the cause of better relations between the first peoples of this continent and those who have come later.
Mr Howard begins talk of a fifth term reconciliation agenda with a dreadfully low level of trust among the people who count most on this issue: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. There is a track record of aggressive disrespect, for their sense of identity, their moral and legal rights as first peoples and their repeatedly stated priorities. It will not help, perhaps, that Mr Howard’s announcement comes on the eve of an election, when he is fighting a perception that he is a spent national leader.
Another strength of his speech, in this respect, is his acknowledgement of past poor performance on these issues. It is not news to many that his mindset was outdated, his approach was too narrow and his disdain for the potency of symbolism and recognition was misplaced. But those admissions are not a bad place to start, if the Prime Minister genuinely wants to make a fresh start and build some bridges.
Howard has deservedly harvested positive coverage for the constructive nature of the announcement, the rare tone of mea culpa and the sheer element of surprise. But that should not obscure the modesty of his pledge. John Howard’s commitment to a new preamble, with some acknowledgment of Indigenous people, is 9-years-old. He referred to it just after the 1998 election and put it to referendum unsuccessfully the following year.
There are also some key questions that need to be clarified. Is this preamble, like Mr Howard’s 1999 proposal, to have no legal effect on how the Constitution is interpreted? What does Mr Howard mean when he says that the “special place” of Indigenous people will be acknowledged? What might the “Statement of Reconciliation”, to be included in the Preamble, contain? Is the reference to a “new settlement” intended, as it sounds, to hint at a bigger agenda than merely a new preamble? How will he ensure an inclusive process this time, after the botched attempt of 1999?
Another question prompted by the announcement is how to square it with the massive intervention in Northern Territory remote communities? Mr Howard has tended to draw a stark distinction between practical reconciliation on the one hand and the symbolic and rights agenda on the other. This was always a false dichotomy and he has been inching away from that position since mid-2005, though without delivering anything specific before now. Hopefully now the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for pursuing both agendas at the same time can have some spin-off effect in the NT.
Perhaps this speech can help alter the tone and atmospherics of the NT intervention and begin to restore some balance to the way in which the Commonwealth approaches its task. Surely it is possible to conduct an aggressive attack on deep-seated social problems, ill-health and poverty without losing sight of the basic rights and humanity of the people involved and the value of existing Aboriginal expertise within communities. Long term success in the NT is more likely to come if the government lets go of a bit of moral righteousness in favour of some more humility, more respect and a greater sense of partnership with Aboriginal people and their organisations.
A final question surrounds the Prime Minister’s reference to a “new settlement”. If a “non-binding” preamble with broad Indigenous acceptance achieves a resounding Yes vote at a referendum, then it is a good step forward. But it falls well short of a new settlement. It would be a sad irony if Mr Howard ended up with a triumph of symbolism over substance in the area of reconciliation and the law.
We need national leadership with the courage, patience, wisdom and humility to sit down with Indigenous peoples and work through the whole agenda of Unfinished Business, not just the important but easier symbolic stuff. A preamble may be a good near-term strategic goal for constitutional change. But for this change in direction to really take hold, it requires a sustained commitment to genuine partnership and the rational and constructive negotiation of those broader issues.
Meanwhile Kevin Rudd has some ground to make up in the public debate. An auction at election time over constructive proposals in Indigenous affairs - now that would be something.