Howard’s speech (PDF 252KB) to the Sydney Institute on October 11 has been hailed as marking a major shift in his thinking by many commentators. So, The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan claimed that “the Prime Minister has overturned more than a decade of opposition to reconciliation involving symbolism, reviving the idea of a constitutional recognition of the achievements and the place of Indigenous people in Australia”. However, as other journalists and commentators in The Australian, such as Paul Kelly and Noel Pearson, have since acknowledged, there are links with previous statements by the Prime Minister.
Indeed, this is not a speech in which Howard is being penitently humble, but a speech which reflects his fundamental hubris. Howard argues that the time is right for a referendum that formally recognises Indigenous Australians because both key Aboriginal leaders and the Australian people have moved closer to his own position.
Howard claims there is now broad acceptance of his own rejection of black armband, separatist, group rights-based approaches and of saying “sorry” to the stolen generations, in favour of a Howard-like agenda that emphasises individual responsibility and integration into mainstream Australia. (In the process Howard reaffirms his own, highly contestable, interpretation of the Keating government’s position on Indigenous issues).
Far from containing an admission that his earlier approach was wrong, Howard’s speech reaffirms his longstanding positions. In a subsequent press conference Howard implied that he has won the Culture Wars:
… People say to me, why didn't you intervene like this five years ago, 10 years ago? The public would never have accepted it because we were then still as a nation toying with the old notions of treaties and the concept almost of separate development; that somehow or other you had a split citizenship within one nation. Now I have never believed in that. I used a phrase last night I first used 19 years ago in a document called Future Directions. I used the phrase; One Australia and I have always believed in One Australia.
Similarly, Howard states that the new Preamble statement on reconciliation would “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”.
However, how will this be different from Howard’s 1999 Draft Preamble which acknowledged that: “Since time immemorial our land has been inhabited by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who are honoured for their ancient and continuing cultures”?
Significantly, given land rights issues, Howard didn’t mention the final 1999 Preamble’s recognition of the Indigenous people’s “deep kinship with their lands”. Furthermore, Labor preferred recognising that Indigenous Australians were “the original occupants and custodians of our land”.
Nor is Howard’s support for symbolism in the reconciliation process new. Howard acknowledged “the need to blend the symbolic with the practical and to mix rights and responsibilities” in his address at the National Reconciliation Planning Workshop in 2005.
Furthermore, there is an obvious reason why Howard wants such reconciliation statements to stay merely symbolic (and therefore confined to the Preamble). Howard wants to ensure that no recognition of “the special place of Indigenous people in … the history of this country” entrenches “special rights” or “special entitlements” or involves “a revival of the old paradigms of treaties and formal apologies”.
In other words, Howard’s position also still reflects his longstanding critique of so-called “special interests” that he used so effectively to defeat the Keating government and which I have previously analysed at length in the first edition of my book, Governing Change: From Keating to Howard. Howard may claim that only a Liberal PM can unite both conservatives and the left to support a new Preamble, but it is very much on his own terms.
So, it is hard to see precisely where Howard has shifted fundamentally in the Sydney Institute speech. He implies regret that discussion between the government and Indigenous leaders had virtually broken down at some stages, but he made a similar acknowledgement in his 2005 speech (although not so explicitly sharing the blame for the breakdown). He does say he will negotiate with Aboriginal leaders regarding the new Preamble, which he largely neglected to do in 1999. Howard admits that “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 doesn’t specify how that admission is related to any change in his position.
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