So Peter Howson is dead.

We learn this from a rather confused piece in yesterday’s Australian by Caroline Overington, who described him as Australia’s first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Of course he wasn’t, that honour belongs to William Charles Wentworth, a lifelong fighter for the cause who was appointed by John Gorton in 1968. At the time, Howson was part of a clique undermining Gorton on behalf of William McMahon.

When McMahon finally got the job in 1971, Howson lined up for his reward. Having held down a junior ministry during the Menzies, Holt and even Gorton years, he thought he was in line for promotion. But it was not to be. As he left the new prime minister’s office, a colleague asked him what he had got. Howson snarled back: “The little bastard gave me trees, boongs and poofters.”

He was referring to the admittedly incongruous grab-bag of Environment, Aborigines and The Arts, three areas in which the McMahon government had not the slightest interest. In that sense, Howson was the ideal choice. His ignorance of the environment led me to christen him Peter Howson-Garden. His disdain for matters aesthetic resulted in Phillip Adams describing him as a pain in the arts. And on Aborigines, he was a dedicated Hasluckian: they could assimilate or perish and he didn’t really care which.

Howson lost his seat in 1972 and left Canberra unmourned and unmissed. But some 30 years later, the culture-history wars saw him resurrected by Quadrant . Along with another political nonentity of similar paternalistic views, Labor’s Gary Johns, he became one of editor P P McGuinness’s resident authorities on the subject. He outlived his editor but survived to hear Kevin Rudd’s long overdue apology to the stolen generations, which he had derided as a silly fairy tale.

He had, Overington informs us, a life-long commitment to the deaf. That figures.

Peter Fray

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