Talk is cheap, silence is worth less

Issue 

Talk is cheap, silence is worth less

Prime Minister John Howard, in an interview with the Australian first reported on February 28, abandoned the December 31 deadline for the adoption of a document on Aboriginal reconciliation. The deadline was set when the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established in 1991.

According to the Australian, Howard said "the reconciliation process will take a long time" and that documents didn't really matter so much. The government was beginning to emphasise improving services to Aboriginal communities, he said, where "progress is being made".

Leaving aside the ridiculous suggestion that Howard's government has made progress on Aboriginal living standards (they've actually gone backwards sine 1996), Howard's open rejection of any commitment to a document of reconciliation sends a clear message: full steam reverse on Aboriginal rights.

It's true that there were always more than a few problems with the formal reconciliation process. It focussed primarily on symbolism, on a document, on words, and paid far too little attention to on-the-ground realities.

And it's also true that there were always more than a few problems with Howard's stated commitment to that formal process. While the Prime Minister promised on election night 1998 to make reconciliation a major project of his second term, he refused even symbolic gestures like an apology to the "stolen generations" and instead stuck throughout to the line, "I didn't do it, it's not my fault".

Nevertheless, the goal of reconciliation was one which enjoyed overwhelming public support during the 1990s; many Australians viewed it as at least a first step towards real, lasting justice for indigenous people. Politicians of all stripes (Howard included) felt that they simply had to be seen to support reconciliation, and they almost all doffed their hats to it.

Now the Prime Minister believes that even his lip-service to reconciliation is no longer politically necessary. His polling (focus groups, no less!) indicates that reconciliation is no longer as popular as it was.

If that is the case, the Prime Minister is in no small part to blame for it. Since he took government, Howard and his natural allies (Pauline Hanson and talk-back radio hosts) have waged a propaganda offensive against "special rights for minorities", against the "black armband view of history" and against "political correctness". He now thinks that he's won his dirty war.

Whether he's proved right or wrong depends on what all those who support the goal of justice for Aboriginal people do now.

Even sections of the liberal establishment media now see a role for public action. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Margo Kingston wrote on February 29, "Progress now depends ... on the people", while the same edition introduced a feature article with the remark, "Reconciliation may be about to move out of the conference room and onto the streets".

The rejection of the formal deadline for the document of reconciliation should be condemned. Massive rallies planned by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation for May 27 in support of the document will now have to become protest demonstrations.

But we also need to show the lie in Howard's claim that he is the one interested in practical results for Aboriginal communities.

Our goals must be broader than simply getting Howard's (insincere) signature on a formal document of reconciliation. Achieving real reconciliation, and not simply its imitation, requires justice for Aborigines. Specifically, it requires a pushing back of the anti-Aboriginal agendas of federal and state governments on native title, Aboriginal health and education and mandatory sentencing, among others.

A mass movement demanding not only formal, but practical, measures to confront Aboriginal injustices would really pin the Prime Minister to a wall.