On October 12, PM John Howard announced his plan to hold a referendum to alter the preamble to the Australian constitution to include an acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of Australia. This is a departure from Howard's historic position against "symbolic" gestures of reconciliation — a position that in the past has earned him the ire of Indigenous groups, who in 2000 literally turned their backs on Howard when he refused to apologise for previous governments' complicity in the horrendous policies that led to the Stolen Generations.
Some Indigenous groups have dubbed his move a cynical ploy. "This statement is the death rattle of a dying government. He is clutching at straws to stay in power. The prime minister has been making statements like this since 1998, but what has he done in this time?", said Eileen Cummings, former policy adviser to the chief minister of the Northern Territory, at a Canberra demonstration on October 12.
"In 1999 he said that he wanted to honor Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders for their 'deep kinship with their lands, and for their ancient and continuing cultures'", Cummings said. "However, his actions have attacked Aboriginal culture, Aboriginal relationships to land, and the integrity of Aboriginal families. And unlike hundreds of thousands of Australians he refused to say 'sorry' or to march for reconciliation."
"The statement by the prime minister is intellectually incoherent and inconsistent with his past practices", said Olga Havnen, CEO of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory. "This prime minister does not have the credibility — or the trust of the Australian people — to lead a genuine process of reconciliation."
"This is too little, too late. This statement is completely at odds with the prime minister's interactions with Aboriginal people over the past 11 years. It is appalling for him to now acknowledge the past mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples when his government has passed NT emergency legislation that over-rides the rights and entitlements of Aboriginal people as citizens of this nation", said Havnen.
Howard has long resisted measures to make "symbolic" gestures toward reconciliation, claiming when he was elected that this — a result of the "rights agenda" — was counterposed to what he termed "practical" reconciliation: the improvement of Aboriginal life in terms of access to health, education and employment. In the name of "practical" reconciliation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission — an organisation with members elected to liaise with the federal government for the provision of social services — had its funding cut dramatically when the Howard government came to power in 1996. It struggled to meet its responsibilities and came under increasing attack from the government, until 2005 when it was abolished entirely and replaced by the Indigenous Advisory Council, a council of hand-picked Indigenous representatives, chosen for their ideological agreement with the government.
Since that time, according to a report released this year by the director of the Centre of Aboriginal Policy Research at the University of New South Wales, John Altman, Indigenous people have gone backward in almost every social indicator, including government health spending, unemployment and life expectancy. Indigenous people in the NT, who have the highest levels of success in accessing native title, also have the worst levels of housing in the country. The average number of Aboriginal people in a house in the NT is 17, which child protection groups argue is a key factor in creating conditions conducive to child abuse. Altman argues that there is a $460 million gap in Indigenous health funding that, if filled, could dramatically alter all the above social indicators. But there are no plans by the government to increase funding to Indigenous health programs and, in reality, the NT intervention has actually made things worse, by de-funding Indigenous-run health services and placing them under the control of Canberra bureaucrats.
So much for "practical" reconciliation.
What Howard dubbed "symbolic" reconciliation was never meant to substitute for practical action. It was seen, always, as a starting point, a recognition of past crimes and that the current impoverished and alienated conditions of Indigenous Australians were not a fault of their own, but the result of their dispossession by white settlers. When hundreds of thousands of people marched behind the word "sorry" in the reconciliation rallies in 2000, they did it to begin the process of change in Indigenous policy, to recognise that — because of the damage done by white colonialism — it would take a restoration of the rights and resources taken away by white settlement to raise conditions up to those of the rest of the country. But this would mean admitting that the wealth of Australia was built on stolen black land and by stolen black labour. This Howard could never do.
Instead Aboriginals are treated as isolated peoples in need of "mainstreaming" and "normalising". Indigenous lands are things to be turned into economic resources. Indigenous communities are to be broken up into individual properties and, if they lack employment or services, people are expected to simply leave. Howard's NT intervention completes the dispossession of Aboriginal Australia.
The announcement comes at a time when Howard's emergency intervention into the NT is getting contradictory responses from Aboriginal groups. Many have dubbed the intervention an "invasion" claiming that it is simply a way to undermine land rights and destroy Indigenous institutions. Others, like Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu, have used the legislation as a way to bargain for better infrastructure and support, effectively trading land rights for government funding. In doing so, they have both pledged their support for the NT intervention.
With an election coming up, Howard appears to be using this announcement to whitewash his term in power, both for the electorate and for history. It remains to be seen how many Aboriginal people will support him in this.