With his reconciliation announcement, John Howard did graciousness with all the conviction of an alcoholic reaching for the orange juice. He knew it was for his own good and, yes, he mouthed something about the “unique heritage of culture and languages” of Aboriginal people … but it wasn’t long before he poured a stiff shot of the old rhetoric to wash the taste from his mouth.

He would never say sorry, he said. His reconciliation differed from “the apologetic, shame-laden, guilt-ridden type”. And he wasn’t going to repudiate “the Australia I grew up in”.

Glug, glug, glug.

Like everyone’s old uncle at a Christmas party, he quickly became all red-faced and shouty.

The PM not only refused to say whether he thought Al Gore deserved his Nobel Prize, he pretty much implied that Fat Al was a fraud.

“It is very important when you are dealing with something like the environment not to get carried away with any one individual,” Howard said. “Everyone makes mistakes, and there is a danger that we create an aura around individuals that is not deserved.”

You’d think that, with climate change impeccably mainstream, a few gracious words about the prize would have allowed Howard to bolster his environmental credentials. In the words of the PM’s own ad campaign, “Say something anodyne about Gore? I can do that!”

Apparently not.

There’s a real difficulty here. Howard’s built his prime ministership around the culture wars. His activist base comes from the hard right, the kind of people who applaud climate change as a way of slapping Mother Nature around a bit, just to teach her who’s boss. For them, Al Gore’s the Antichrist – and so Howard daren’t get too close, even when it makes electoral sense.

In that sense, Kevin Andrews can be excused for worrying about gang culture.

The problem’s not the Sudanese. It’s that, for too long, Howard’s been pandering to a disreputable posse of intellectual thugs, congregated in unsavoury ghettoes like Quadrant and the Op Ed pages of The Australian. Every poll shows that they’re out of touch with mainstream Australian values – and yet they defiantly refuse to assimilate.

Howard can’t win unless he breaks with these people. Yet they’re his oldest and most loyal allies.

Take the report in yesterday’s News Ltd papers about a supposed government plan to ban the veil from Australian airports. Not the wimple worn by Christian nuns, mind you – no, the ban would apply to the hijab, a garment that doesn’t actually obscure the identity of the wearer.

Given that the number of security incidents linked to the headdresses of Islamic women amounts, in round figures, to, well, zero, the proposal seems designed purely to appease the wingnuts. It’s not meant to do anything, other than punish Muslims for worshipping devil gods and speaking moon-man language.

Of course, the sentiment seems a teensy bit inconsistent with the ‘we-are-the-world’ values of Howard’s reconciliation scheme – which perhaps explains why the same government sources who leaked the hijab ban to News promptly denied it in Fairfax.

We can expect these kind of flip-flops to continue as Howard oscillates between the culture war gangbangers and a mainstream that suddenly seems considerably to their left.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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