While the last decade hasn’t been a particularly happy one for Indigenous Australians, it hasn’t really been any worse than the Labor decade before it. All Howard’s era really lacks in comparison is a broken promise of a treaty and a Redfern Speech rich in rhetoric but light on action.

Five bad things:

1. Bucketloads of extinguishment. When the High Court handed down its Wik decision in 1996, John Howard responded with a ten-point plan and a promise of “bucketloads of extinguishment.” With a dog whistle in one hand and a map in the other, he appeared on the 7:30 Report claiming up to 80% of the Australian land mass could be claimed back by Aboriginal people. By way of example, Victoria at the time boasted a total native title land mass of 0.014% of the state. Today, that figure has sky-rocketed to half of one per cent.

2. Not sorry, John. It might have been the “mean and tricky” John Howard who refused to join millions of Australians who marched alongside Aboriginal people in the 2000 Bridge Walks. John Howard doesn’t think he should apologise for things his forebears did. So what about the stuff that happened while he was alive? When Howard joined the Libs in 1958, the practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families was reaching fever pitch. By the time Howard entered parliament in 1974, his Coalition colleague Joh Bjelke-Petersen was still pinching the wages and savings of Indigenous people who were under the control of the Aboriginal welfare act. And in 1986, after Howard had been in parliament for more than a decade, Bjelke-Petersen was still refusing to pay award wages to Aboriginal workers on government-run missions.

3. Off with their heads. John Howard told us he was abolishing ATSIC because it was a “failed experiment in self-determination.” But given ATSIC hadn’t been responsible for health since 1995 and had never been responsible for education, how do we explain a life expectancy gap of more than 20 years, third world diseases and the appalling literacy and numeracy rates among Indigenous students? And how do we explain numerous government audits and reports which showed ATSIC was far better at delivering services to Aboriginal people than mainstream bureaucracies, and a Howard government review of ATSIC (that cost $2 million) which recommended reform, not abolition?

4. You’ve been NICked. With the abolition of ATSIC came the creation of the National Indigenous Council, the hand-picked Howard government advisory board that wasted no time in serving up the Prime Minister the sort of advice he’d waited so long to hear. Within a year, the NIC had recommended Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory should have their land compulsorily acquired if they refuse to grant a lease… to anyone, white or black. And the NIC is now arguing for the closure of remote Aboriginal communities which don’t have access to jobs or health services. Did we mention the NIC was hand-picked?

5. Employment in the public service. When Howard came to office in 1996, two Indigenous people joined the Australian Public Service for every Indigenous worker who left. After a decade in office, Howard has pulled off one of the greatest reversals in public service employment history. Now, two Indigenous staff leave for every Indigenous staff member who joins the APS.

Five good things:

1. Removing John Herron as Minister for Indigenous Affairs and appointing Philip Ruddock.

2. Removing Philip Ruddock as Minister for Indigenous Affairs and appointing Amanda Vanstone.

3. Removing Amanda Vanstone as Minister for Indigenous Affairs and appointing Mal Brough.

4. Appointing incoming ALP president Warren Mundine to the NIC. It was hugely embarrassing for the ALP… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

5. Accepting Warren Mundine’s resignation from the NIC. The damage Mundine wrought on the ALP was certainly entertaining, but even the most ardent rubber necks can only watch a train wreck for so long before they eventually have to look away.

Peter Fray

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