The Howard legacy in reconciliation

With the imminent end of the Howard government we may gain a new opportunity to make good something of the spirit what was ignored by his government for 11 years.

That lies ahead. Looking back, we can ask “What is the Howard legacy in relation to reconciliation?”

We were so close, by May 2000, to being able to move on and enter into a new stage of relationships fitting the new century. All it required was a little leadership from the Prime Minister of the day.

Instead, faced by a real peoples movement marching over the Sydney Harbour Bridge – a genuine outpouring of people of good heart – he retreated in a huff and as a solitary figure to Canberra where it promptly frosted over! Talk about the cold shoulder.


Recently, in seeking to sell his ‘new reconciliation’ John Howard said “As always the Australian people themselves are the best guide.” (Speech to Sydney Institute reported in SMH Oct 12 2007)

“Sorry! What was that again?”

We were ignored when we marched across Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000, and we were dismissed by him as ‘the mob’ when we turned out in similar very large numbers to oppose his supreme act of folly in going to war in Iraq.

“The mob” – our mob – got the answer right in relation to the lack of weapons of mass destruction while the ‘best intelligent agencies’ in the world got it wrong (so we are more intelligent than them). He has never apologised for that slight either.


Howard’s contempt for Australia’s peoples is deep and profoundly disturbing in one who seeks to embody our peoples.

In the Sydney Institute speech John Howard says that he has never felt comfortable with what he depicts as a “dominant paradigm for indigenous policy, one based on the shame and guilt of non-indigenous Australians…”. Well, there is a lot more to correcting the dreadful way this country was colonised by the British than that, John.

At least the British in New Zealand/Aotearoa had the sense of decency to cloak their otherwise naked ambitions for the lands of others with the patina of respectability which comes with a treaty!

Not so in Australia, where British naked greed is taken as the norm by powerful Anglo-Australian colonial heirs who parade their indecent parts of Being with total lack of shame.

Restoring well-being to First Peoples is also crucially important for restoring well-being for non-indigenous peoples as well.

The need for Reconciliation – and a treaty (or treaties) – is not merely about what kind of people First Peoples are (our cultural partners) – it is also fundamentally about what kind of people non-indigenous Australians are – and, realising the mistakes of the past, what we need to become.

PM Howard, in his speech, continued to say that he never felt comfortable in an indigenous policy based “… on a repudiation of the Australia I grew up in…”

Well, tell it to your institutionalised contemporaries from the stolen generations, John, and their families (survivors of dreadful deeds) in the confinement ‘settlements’ in remote parts of Australia in the 1950s, or working for rations on cattle stations (imposed on their living countries).

“The 1950s” means many different things – there is no privileged (and Anglo-male) position, ask the younger suburban housewives of the time, and the migrant Australian suffering classification (and associated treatment) as ‘wogs’ (a short linguistic step from ‘golliwogs’?). Many of us have moved on well beyond those 1950s, acknowledging the good – and the bad.


The removal of some indigenous children from their families, on the basis that they were partly “White”, is not merely a question of mistaken ‘good intentions’ – it is rooted in racism of the worst kind. It was an act aimed at ‘saving’ those children! What kind of racism is that?

The kind which is to be found in the 1901 Australian Constitution to this day.

And is also clearly evident in the actions of the Howard government with its draconian “NT National Emergency”. That legislation and the process which formed it rubbishes First Peoples (as being able to unable care for their own children and deal with related problems). And rather than consulting with them – an over-inflated non-indigenous Ego (seething hubris) treats First Peoples as mere passive objects rather than living people with their own agency and cultures.

Like something from a previous colonial era, that legislation actually dehumanises this country’s original peoples! Unbelievable – as though the global gains in Western understanding of the last 100 years did not exist.

For a really good rebuttal of the Mad Mal Bruff military intervention, see: Charles Perkins Memorial Oration 2007: Marion Scrymgour MLA (NT) – whose national emergency? Caboolture and Kirribili? or Milikapiti and Mutitjulu?


We need to ensure that John Howard’s replacement as party leader, and Leader of the Opposition in the coming Parliamentary term, can appreciate that the only constructive way forward for Australia is to embrace a truly bi-partisan approach to restoring indigenous well-being.

This can never happen under yesterday’s man, John Winston Howard, and his personal failings have for too long stunted the development of this country in its path to maturity.

In the last analysis, however, critical comment has to be directed to those who happily vote for such leadership. John Howard is a projection of their own choices – choices made about what kind of creation they want to be part of – low interest rates, money in the bank, futures funded – and morally bankrupt as human beings.

If, as the last 11 years have shown, heaven cannot help us, then perhaps a sense of some greater Australian life spirits can – those spirits which originate here – not in Europe or the Middle East.

Australian life spirits which are grounded primarily in real respect for people, place and the whole of life.

Bruce Reyburn
26 Oct 2007