John Howard, in what should be his last days as Prime Minister of Australia, has come up with something which almost defies imagination. Wedge reconciliation!

He has managed to pervert the very spirit of reconciliation – of coming together – between Australia’s peoples by tying it to the exclusive either-or logic so beloved by those who seek to manipulate us.

Only a vote for the Howard government, he encourages us to believe, will gain a limited form of Constitution recognition for Australia’s First Peoples in a national referendum held under his auspices “if re-elected”.

According to the report by Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald (Oct 13-14) P.M. Howard says “I don’t believe Labor could unite conservative and progressive Australia on this issue.”

John Howard is probably correct – and that provides exactly the key we need to unmask him for what he is – out of touch with the newly emerging spirits of our times – which was also coming into being at the ANTaR national congress in Canberra on Saturday (13 Oct). The constrast between the two is most striking.

A genuine commitment to reconciliation would begin with that same fact – that Labor alone could not unite conservative and progressive Australia – and aim to achieve a truly bi-partisan approach to Constitutional reform to recognise First Peoples whatever the outcome in the coming Federal election. Whatever the outcome!

A genuine commitment to reconciliation would say, “It does not matter if my party is re-elected or not. I undertake to do my utmost to ensure that the side of politics I represent will throw their full support into dealing with this unfinished business.”

That is the mark of true leadership. But John Howard has never been a leader of Australia’s peoples. He has always remained a leader of the Liberal-National Party coalition, promoting narrow and self-privileging ideologies.


In taking this exclusive either-or approach to reconciliation PM Howard cements himself into a profound identification with the “Old” as in “Obsolete” – and not the “New” as in “Fresh”.

John Howard’s ‘new’ reconciliation has the smell of ‘stale’ all over it. As stale as the 1950’s when he probably gained his original knowledge of Aboriginal Australia from the cartoons in the Australian Post.

PM Howard says, in promoting his own narrow conception of a ‘new reconciliation’ how he mainly seeks to uphold the image of the Australia which he grew up with in the 1950s.

We, who enjoyed the privileges of those times, also now know how highly flawed they were in regard to the treatment being suffered by Australia’s First Peoples – and we know that there is a major healing task to be undertaken.

The suffering of the Stolen Generations during those times is but one example of what as wrong with those times. First Peoples were not counted as citizens (in their home country) and were being confined to remote ‘settlements’ and subject to all manner of injustices as their lives were placed under the control of non-indigenous administrators with little empathy for First Peoples as First Peoples.


At the recent ANTaR national congress, held in Canberra the day before PM Howard called the election for the 24 November, we heard some fresh thinking from Tim Goodwin, Deputy Chair of the National Indigenous Youth Movement of Australia.

The theme of the ANTaR public event was “Taking back the agenda.”

Tim correctly identified John Howard as a barrier to reconciliation, not an enabler.

Tim said that dealing with this unfinished business is a matter for people, not for government, as the government will not lead, but has to follow our lead as people; that we should refuse the government’s unreasonable demands when they impose their agenda on us and, as people, move on without them if necessary. “We must set the agenda rather than react to government.”

Tim paid particular attention, in his speech, to the distinction made by PM Howard to a difference between ‘symbolic’ and ‘practical’ reconciliation. Tim pointed out that PM Howard had actually created this false dichotomy and that it is of vital importance that we – seeking to heal life – do NOT make use of it. Every time we do, we enable PM Howard and his anti-rights agenda.

So what do we do instead? Tim’s answer is to replace acceptance of the false dichotomy of ‘symbolic’ and ‘practical’ with a focus on inclusiveness and divisiveness.


And where better to start that with the divisiveness of PM Howard’s notion of a ‘new reconciliation’ – a true bastardisation of the very notion of reconciliation by insisting that it only comes when we also vote for those political parties which represent the worst of life’s exploitative forces.

We will never forget the true figure of PM Howard, when he stood at the Longreach Stockman’s Hall of Fame – complete in his graziers costume sending the ‘right’ signal – and reassuring farmers that there would be bucketloads of extinguishment of native title.

He seemed to be wearing the same ‘comfortable’ clobber when he arrived in Canberra last Saturday night, on his way to see the Governor-General to call the Federal election.

He flew – probably as a sole passenger – from Sydney to Canberra in an enormous jet. Tell us about your carbon footprint please Mr PM and your understanding of global warming.

We also recall how PM Howard used the same either-or manipulative strategy to derail the will of Australia’s peoples in relation to our choice for constitutional arrangements in the earlier referendum on choosing a head of state.

Any wording for a referendum to recognise Australia’s First Peoples in the Australian constitution which is acceptable to John Howard will be fatally tainted with this divisiveness, if not consciously then most certainly at the unconscious level.

We need new leadership at the head of all major political parties in Australia – one which truly understands the importance of inclusiveness in all matters and especially in dealings with First Peoples.

While John Howard remains leader of the Liberals, in government or in opposition, we remain locked into a past – and unduly constrained an old constricting skin which we really need to shed as we mature into the next generation of Australian peoples.


Tim Goodwin, by contrast with John Howard, called for a new alliance between all Australian’s and organisations.

As Deputy Chair of the National Indigenous Youth Movement of Australia, Tim made special mention of the important of the place of young indigenous people in any emerging movement. He said that, while young people are told ‘they are the future’ there is a sense of being ‘no time to wait’ as decisions about their futures are being made now, in the present.

He called for young people to be involved in decision-making now, pointing out that, while some mentoring may be required, practice makes perfect.

Tim also outlined some other major points, including the need for real constitutional change and a national indigenous representative voice (saying that the organisation would need to be fully independent from government). No doubt ANTaR will be providing full transcripts of the papers given at a later date for fuller details of the five functions of the organisation which Tim outlined. I make no attempt to cover all that was said at that event.


But there were missing voices at the ANTaR congress on “Taking back the agenda” which was held at the new National Museum at Canberra.

There were no senior indigenous lawmen present to respond to the call of the representative of younger indigenous people or to complement the passionate and moving voices of their sisters in Women for Wik (who got a standing ovation).

Later in the afternoon of the “Taking back the agenda” session I started to see past the walls of the museum building and form an image of Parliament House which is not far away across the artificial lake from the National Museum.

In the back of my mind the idea was forming of the importance to make use of this gathering to send a timely message to Parliament House, maybe taking up the idea from the last speaker, Professor Judy Atkinson, for the budget surplus to be directed into a healing fund to deal with the deep traumas suffered by First Peoples under Australian administration.

Yeah, and what about ensuring the Future Fund provides for a real future for Australia’s First Peoples to the same extent it will provide superannuation for retire civil servants?

I also started to receive an image of senior indigenous lawmen, sitting around a ground painting in Central Australia, singing their sacred songs. A reminder from somewhere about who and what was being excluded in this whole process and debate.

I reflected on the trip I made from Tennant Creek in 1983 with Warumungu and Alyawarra people (men, women and children) to the High Court in Canberra in the struggle for the recognition of their land rights.

We had senior people – men and women – and senior lawmen in particular. They bowed low to the High Court Judges when the Judges bowed to us at the start of the case.

I felt I could just hear the chanting of the lawmen’s songs, and the clapping of their boomerangs reminding me of the main game, despite the distance which separated Canberra and this Congress from where they were, on country attending to vitally important life business.

But poor time management and planning meant that there was no real opportunity for any discussion by those attending, and no message was sent from the gathering to the nearby Parliament – or to John Howard for that matter.

I left the event disappointed that, while we had heard many well informed speakers, we had not had a chance to talk together and to do some of the conversational work necessary for a new peoples movement to emerge.

But perhaps this was in order, since it may have been premature to do anything until we hear from our Elder Brothers in Australian life.

Just as any new peoples alliance must ensure places for younger people and women, there can be no real healing until we:

• respect the place in our lives of senior indigenous lawmen,
• and insist that they speak on these important matters before we project our voices into what John Howard and others prefer us to imagine as a vacated space at the very core of Australian life.

A true spirit of inclusiveness insists on this as part of the healing magic required for deep – and lasting – reconciliation.

Perhaps the next national conference on such matters should be held at a venue which enables and empowers senior indigenous lawmen, and where indigenous people are clearly seen as our hosts and play a major role (as cultural partners) in setting the ground rules for how we proceed?


When some non-indigenous person like John Howard, seeking to promote his own prospects, proposes to provide limited constitutional recognition of First Peoples – cast solely in terms of individual (not collective) rights and exclusive European notions of national sovereignty – we need to be able to turn to our cultural partners – those senior lawpeople who have the original systems of law for this country inscribed on their Being – and ask “Oh yes? And what do you think about that proposal?”

After all, it is their future as well as ours which is being considered here.

The senior lawmen I knew would also be able to explain to the Prime Minister – who has suddenly hit upon the trendy idea that we are ‘one tribe’ – that the appearance of a ‘tribe’ is more apparent than real.

Australian life is best understood as being made up to two complementary hemispheres (known, on the social level, to modern anthropologists as “moieties”). Any attempt to cluster things together into “one” – be it One Nation or One Tribe – runs counter to the true spirit of life in this country.

One country, maybe, but definitely Two Peoples and Two Laws. Put that in your Constitution, Mr Prime Minister.

Now, that’s what I call “reclaiming the agenda”!

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn