Always start the way you intend to continue; so our Dear Leader began his official election campaign with a great big fib.
“Like me or loathe me,” he told a numbed press conference, “people know what I stand for.” But we don’t; not any more. Eleven years ago we thought he was just a boring, balding, myopic conservative who wanted us to be relaxed and comfortable. Then we realised he actually had some pretty right wing plans for change and was not going to be overly scrupulous about putting them in place. More recently we have realised that he is a fully fledged megalomaniac, determined to impose his view on every aspect of Australian society, from cradle to grave.
But now John Howard seeks to pose as a humble servant of the Australian people, very ’umble, if it please you, and as the Great Reconciler with the indigenous community he has done so much to dishearten. As an exercise in political agility it has some merit; as a demonstration of unbending consistency it is just confusing.
Howard himself says that last week’s announcement of reconciliation should not be seen as a sudden conversion, and he is right; there is nothing actually new in it. In 1998 he promised to make reconciliation the centrepiece of his second term in office, a promise that turned out to be one of his most non-core. In 1999 he mentioned the Aborigines in the proposed new constitutional preamble he put to referendum, but proceeded to ensure that it was not adopted by campaigning against the substantial Republic referendum.
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Now he is offering to do the same again and this time not sabotage the proposal; but that’s all he is offering. His program involves putting together a form of words in 100 days and holding the referendum in 18 months, and that’s it: take it or leave it. John Howard, boasts John Howard, is the only mortal capable of uniting conservatives and progressives on the issue – no mention of the Aborigines themselves, who are presumably meant to be fawningly grateful for this belated crumb of concern.
He is prepared to offer this act of symbolic reconciliation, and if the nation is ungracious enough to reject it, then the nation can shove it: my way or the highway. And if the only symbolic act that really matters is an apology, well tough. That is not on Howard’s agenda and never will be.
Howard seeks to explain this intransigence by saying that he is a product of his times, but in fact what it proves is that he is a leftover from a far earlier era. The popular drive for a better deal for Aborigines came in fact from Howard’s contemporaries; I know, because I am one of them. We were at Sydney University together. It is hardly our fault if Howard never emerged from the grey confines of the Law School while the rest of us were rearranging the universe.
Not that he appears to have learned much there: the point of his symbolic gesture, he claims pompously, is to “recognise Aborigines in the Constitution.” Aborigines have always been recognised in the Constitution, and the final confirmation of their status as full citizens of Australia came with the 1967 referendum which saw them counted in the Census. Incidentally, it would be interesting to know how Howard voted on that historic occasion. If he was indeed a product of his times, he would have been part of the 90% majority. Why, then, does one suspect he was one of the Neanderthal ten percent in opposition?
And why does one feel that the present olive branch is intended more as a club to belt his opponents into submission than a peace offering, and that the fact it is being thrust on the Aborigines without consultation or the opportunity to negotiate is yet further proof that he doesn’t give a stuff about genuine reconciliation?
The same streak of authoritarianism is evident in Howard’s approach to the history debate, which he seems determined to leave as his monument to, well, history.
His insistence that history be taught in every school in such a way that it enhances the flagpoles and posters of Simpson’s donkey which Brendan Nelson saw as an indispensable foundation for a modern education has been a long-term obsession, and last week we saw the results. And, amazingly, they weren’t too bad.
The guidelines for the teaching of history presented by Howard’s hand-picked panel from the Ministry of Truth appeared, in summary at least, to be comprehensive and non-partisan and to accept the need to study events from a variety of different viewpoints. History was to be taught as a narrative, but not as a simplistic moral fable. It looked like an excellent basis for discussion with the interested parties – the states, the teachers themselves and concerned parents and pupils.
But that’s not going to happen. Howard dictates that it will be used without modification, and that Australian history will be a compulsory subject in years nine and ten, and just in case there is any doubt about what is intended, schools that do not comply will be deprived of Commonwealth funding. This is what is meant by a Liberal (big L) education in Howard’s Australia.
And with the polls running the way they are, Howard needs every friend he can get: which is probably why he is sticking by cardboard king Dick Pratt, in spite of Pratt’s admitting to the worst case of price fixing on the corporate record.
Howard finds him a good friend, a nice bloke, and a very generous one, perhaps because among the objects of his generosity is the Liberal Party; Pratt is one of the biggest donors, and also tosses lesser amounts to Labor, presumably as insurance. In the circumstances both should be investigated with a view to charging them with receiving stolen goods. At least we are unlikely to hear much about Kevin Rudd’s lunches with Brian Burke for the rest of the campaign.