Back in 2005, former Prime Minister John Howard told a Reconciliation Australia convention in Canberra that finally he understood the importance of symbolism to Indigenous people, and to the reconciliation movement generally.

Some of the more, shall we say, “conservative commentators” inside and outside Indigenous affairs labelled Howard’s “great speech” a “seismic shift”.

Kevin Rudd’s national apology to members of the Stolen Generations puts the lie to those ridiculous claims. Rudd’s words, Rudd’s actions made Howard’s effort look more like a f-rt under a blanket than a seismic shift. The nation — indeed the world — saw yesterday what a seismic shift really was.

There has been, admittedly, little talk of Howard over the last few days and weeks. There’s some irony, I think, in Howard falsely maintaining that the Stolen Generations outrage was committed a long, long time ago, only to see Australians forget him just a few months after he was booted out of Bennelong.

But there was at least one substantial piece in a mainstream paper this morning, filed by Matthew Franklin, chief political reporter for The Australian.

While all mentions of Howard have been brief, and tended to focus on his refusal to say sorry, Franklin’s piece looked instead at Howard’s refusal to march for reconciliation.

“John Howard vetoed a push from colleagues to lead his entire cabinet in the massive reconciliation march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000,” Franklin wrote.

“As Mr Howard’s former Coalition colleagues backed Kevin Rudd’s parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations yesterday, several sources confirmed that Mr Howard’s opposition to the march was unsuccessfully challenged by his colleagues.

“In the weeks leading up to the historic event, cabinet ministers called on him to lead them across the bridge.

“They argued that Mr Howard’s involvement would represent an important symbol and generate goodwill in the indigenous community.

“They said Mr Howard should lead the entire cabinet to avoid a situation in which the absence of one minister or another might be interpreted as an indication of division. But Mr Howard rejected participation in the march, the sources confirmed.”

I always had visions of Howard as a small man. But what was so striking about Franklin’s piece is that it showed us all how small Howard really was. Not only could he not apologise to members of the Stolen Generations, he couldn’t even bring himself to lead a march aimed at uniting black and white Australia.

Howard’s political corpse, while still warm and surprisingly pungent, today seems very much dead and buried. He is a man of history, and a sad one at that.

People keep saying that today we should focus on the positives. I don’t think that’s quite right. We certainly should acknowledge Rudd’s magnificent gesture, and embrace the spirit and sincerity in which he delivered it. I think it’s fair to say that many Australians have waited a decade or so to be inspired by a PM, and yesterday their time came.

But I also think Franklin’s piece on Howard was a salient reminder of the era from which we’ve just emerged. We should be optimistic, but we should not forget how the “sorry debate” came to be so big an issue for this nation.

We should not forget how easy it is for Indigenous issues to become the ball in a game of dirty party politics. And we should not forget that most of the senior members of Howard’s cabinet those who so gutlessly acquiesced to the bitter agenda of a small man are still in parliament today.

Just as bad things happen when “good politicians stay silent”, if you forget the past, you’re condemned to repeat it. So lest we forget that if the Rudd government doesn’t get the mix right, then this “new beginning” will be another “false dawn”.

A bi-partisan “war cabinet” is a great idea, but Aboriginal Australia must create and own the solutions that emanate from it. Aboriginal people must also be involved in the delivery of their own services. They cannot be passive recipients.

Ultimately, Aboriginal people must shape their future. White Australia can and should help, but it can’t direct proceedings.

If 200 years of government failure — and 12 years of John Howard — has taught us anything, surely it’s that.

Peter Fray

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