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After joining a quarter of a million people on the Reconciliation Walk last weekend, Hillary has two suggestions for the PM – sack Tex and have a very careful think about your own future.

Hillary doesn’t believe John Howard is a racist. He’s worse than that. Aboriginals do not belong in the 1950’s suburban landscape he lives in, so the PM simply does not think of them. At least Aboriginal Affairs Minster John is an old style Tory paternalist with a concern for the basic health and welfare of Indigenous Australians, even if he cannot understand the current political dialogue over their aspirations. Howard is incapable of understanding anything to do with them.

John Howard is a poll driven politician – but Mark Textor’s polling clearly has failed to captured the mood demonstrated by Sunday’s crowd, exacerbating his stubbornness and lack of comprehension.

Critics of the walk – parliamentarians included – who weren’t there have talked about crowds being bussed in. Hillary didn’t see any buses in North Sydney when he/she arrived. Hillary traveled to the walk with a friend who works in North Sydney and catches the train there every day – who commented how the queues at Central Station were much longer than weekday rush hours and the carriages much more crammed. The people on the train were average Australians. And their mood of celebration – not of anger, nor of protest – wasn’t hard to miss.

The business community was there, too – providing financial assistance to support Corroboree 2000 and joining figures such as Business Council of Australia head David Buckingham and Tourist Commission boss John Morse on the walk.

Western Mining CEO Hugh Morgan – scarcely some pinko- told Channel 9’s Business Sunday program that morning that he disappointed at the lack of progress on the issue, saying “this country needs everything going for it. We don’t need these sorts of internal dissentions.”

Indeed, conservative figures such as mining chief Robert Champion de Crespigny – a board member of the Centre for Independent Studies, the country’s most influential right wing think tank – are long term supporters of the reconciliation process.

De Crespigny wrote a fascinating piece on the theme for Wednesday’s Financial Review entitled “The practical business of reconciliation”. It’s worth quoting at some length.

“We hear the word “reconciliation” frequently these days, but its meaning is rarely defined. I have never heard a debate about what it means.

“Clearly, it means different things to different people, and the process has led to a whole range of expectations. In my view, it is the bringing together of black and white Australians so that they respect each other, their cultures and their rights.

“It also entails, in the next decade or so, ensuring that indigenous health, education, and housing are improved so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people enjoy a similar quality of life to other Australians. Reconciliation is about ensuring that people have the same opportunities.

“Reconciliation is obviously an issue of significance to Australian business. You cannot exclude a section of society from either the endeavours that produce wealth or from its benefits without creating an underclass and serious social consequences.”

“Business should examine what it can do to open up new opportunities for indigenous Australians in areas such as employment, training and education. Such action, all part of normal business, can make major contributions towards Australia’s objective of social justice.

“Increasingly, how business deals with its stakeholder communities has become just as important as how it manages the safety of its workers and the environment and its business of making profits. If you do not perform well in all of these areas, you may quickly be out of business…

“We must now maintain focus and momentum. Black and white need to know one another better, and short- term petty political arguments should not shift us away from our critical aim of an informed, respectful and more equitable relationship…

“This debate is all about whether we want to correct something that is absolutely wrong in our country. We all think differently about what reconciliation is, but the facts are clear: Aboriginal people are disadvantaged. We must do better to correct their disadvantage. Call it reconciliation, call it social justice or whatever you like, but it must bring change. With real change shall come understanding and respect. When this occurs, Australia will be far readier to address complex issues such as a treaty, self-determination, customary law, etc.”

De Crespigny’s feature – and the leadership it shows – provides a stark contrast with a PM who is constantly shrinking in stature. That same day, the Fin also ran a strategic leak offering an apologia for the PM’s stance, written up by Pamela Williams.

When Williams appeared at the Liberal Party campaign headquarters in 1996 to do the work that would later end up in her book ‘The Victory”, staff were told she was “a friend of Ron Walker’s”. It looks as if she has other powerful friends, too.

In an article sourced to one of “a bevy of business leaders” who attended a function on Monday night at The Lodge, Williams told how the PM responded when “asked for his views on the reconciliation question and the issue of an apology”. Howard, apparently, “strongly defended both the Government’s position and his personal. He told his guests that prime ministers did not march in rallies”.

Hillary agrees. Prime Minister don’t march in rallies. Instead, they act as leaders at events of clear national significance – and Sunday was one.

John Howard has been prepared to travel to Gallipoli to do just that – but on Sunday, he was too scared to go next door. He was too scared to let his deputy take part. One can only question his leadership credentials.

On the Saturday, when ATSIC chair Geoff Clark begged him to join the walk, John Howard sat there with an inane grin. His response to a plea from the bottom of the heart was to do a convincing impersonation of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Leaders lead – and last weekend John Howard showed he can’t.

To stay in power, Prime Ministers need to be in touch with opinion. They need to be able to walk the walk and the talk the talk. On Sunday, John Howard was out of step

He won’t lose the next election because he wasn’t there.

He will lose because he is simply not a leader – as last weekend made amply clear.

Peter Fray

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