Sunday, October 14

Blatant bias or reasoned assessment . . . why do I oppose John Howard?

Way back when I first put up some posts as Grumpy Old Journo, I tried to define some directions the blog would take. Right at the top of the list, I acknowledged that I would have to defend myself against accusations of bias, using these words:

Sooner or later, I'll have to put up or shut up in my irreverent slagging of John Howard. Some time, I'll offer my assessment of where the Prime Minister falls short if he does indeed try to govern for all Australians. I hope I won't be branded a Howard-hater.

Today, after a period of self-doubt and procrastination, I 've sat at the keyboard trying to fulfil that promise. It's pretty well a coincidence that it's also the day the Prime Minister went to ask the Governor-General to dissolve the present Parliament and call the Federal election on November 24.

It's time to put up or shut up. Especially after a friend emailed after my last set of posts:

Even though I think you give the Liberal party a hard time and find the blog all over the place, I do like your style. You are a good journalist. Biased but a really good writer.

Oh dear! And I thought I had moderated my comments. Somehow, I don't think the following will win over my friend.

So you want more evidence?

Two major announcements by John Howard in the past week help explain my assessment of the Prime Minister. First, his attempt to convince us he has changed his mind on Aboriginal reconciliation, and second, his trashing of consensus recommendations from people who know Australian history and how it's best taught to high school students.

First, a close reading – going past the headlines and the TV grabs – of his speech to Gerard Henderson's Sydney Institute last Thursday suggests his views are little changed. He does not resile from his view that “a collective national apology for past injustice fails to provide the necessary basis to move forward”.

Nor does he acknowledge the stolen generation.

Earlier in the speech he said: “This new reconciliation I'm talking about starts from the premise that individual rights and national sovereignty prevail over group rights.”

Howard did anticipate our doubts:

Some will say: Surely we've been here before. What's different now? Good question.

I'm convinced we are dealing with a new alignment of ideas and individuals, a coming together of forces I have not witnessed in 32 years of public life . . .

At its core is the need for Aboriginal Australia to join the mainstream economy as the foundation of economic and social progress.

Howard also makes clear his belief that the old reconciliation agenda proposed “symbolic gesture alone, without grappling in a serious, sustained way with the real practical dimensions of indigenous misery.”

One could accept Howard's belief that symbolic gestures don't amount to much, although that could leave one puzzled about his dogged fight to retain a foreign flag in the top corner of our Australian flag.

And, to my mind, his proposal for a new preamble to the Constitution is not complemented by other practical changes – it doesn't go much further than symbolism. Last time he strove to get mateship into the preamble, this time it's acknowledging Aborigines' special – though not separate – place within a reconciled, indivisible nation.

For the record, I'm a member of the Central Coast Reconciliation Group – although I'm still capable of the odd heresy.

I totally support an apology as a major step forward, but I'm not convinced about a treaty because it would acknowedge a separate Aboriginal nation – an artificial concept which probably came from Kevin Gilbert in Because a White Man'll Never Do It (Angus & Robertson). Gilbert wrote:

The Aboriginal nation, as a nation of the spirit, a nation without a flag [In fact, Aborigines had adopted Harold Thomas's powerful design as their flag when Gilbert's book was published in 1973 – it had flown over the tent embassy the year before], a nation without land or hope, a nation of underprivilege, has existed, probably, from about a generation after Captain Cook landed.

Reading Howard's speech, one can accept the sincerity and decency of his views – that Aborigines must share fully in the bounty and the life of this great nation.

But he's misguided. His is a new paternalism, not a new reconciliation.

He's also left it a bit late. However, if he's re-elected and he wants to leave a legacy of a reconciled nation, he must shed his paternalism and join in a dialogue with the broader Aboriginal community – not just a few leaders selected by him to speak on behalf of Aboriginal people.

Howard conceded some would portray his remarks as a Damascus-road conversion. In reality, he said, they are little more than an affirmation of well-worn liberal conservative ideas.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher agreed it was not a Damascus-road conversion – he said it was a deathbed conversion. The Herald ran Hartcher's comment under the heading, “Last-minute change of heart in the face of annihilation.”

Howard's media staff hadn't posted the speech to his website when I looked late today (Sunday), so I've relied on the edited version published in Friday's SMH.

Press reports have also picked up on Howard's comments as suggesting he'd been blinkered by his suburban, middle-class background. They included:

I'm the first to admit that this whole area is one I have struggled with during the entire time that I have been Prime Minister.

I acknowledge that my own journey in arriving at this point has not been without sidetracks and dry gullies.

There have been low points when dialogue between me as Prime Minister and many indigenous leaders dwindled almost to the point of non-existence. I fully accept my share of the blame for that.

Yet this is no mea culpa. At no point does Howard repudiate his old ideas about practical reconciliation.

Howard will decide what's in our history curriculum and the circumstances in which it is taught

There's something about history. It's so dear to the hearts of Great Leaders, they refuse to delegate it to historians or educators who might not tell it the way the GL wants.

So it is with John Howard. He's back at it, refusing to accept the guidelines prepared by a working party set up to implement the ideas coming out of last year's history summit.

The leading historian Stuart Macintyre, in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald (October 13-14), wrote that the guidelines were sensible and practical, based on consultations with teachers, curriculum officers and historians, and Education Minister Julie Bishop was happy with them.

John Howard wasn't. He took the guidelines out of Ms Bishop's hands and appointed an “external reference group” – historians he felt were more likely to reflect his views, such as Geoffrey Blainey and Gerard Henderson. They delivered what the PM wanted, and now Howard has turned to the states and threatened to cut school funding if they don't teach the subject his way.

Macintyre makes some strong criticisms of the revised curriculum guidelines, and frankly, I'd back his expertise against Howard's. But once again, the PM knows best and that's what your children and grandchildren will be forced to study – if Howard wins on November 24.

I think conservatives still distrust Macintyre, despite his now being a professor of history at Melbourne University – the uni which fired up the study of Australian history under Professor Max Crawford. He's moved well away from his early well-to-the-left position, but he's probably still too moderate for GL's who admire Keith Windschuttle and Hal Colebatch.

And a fascinating point from Macintyre's opinion piece. As visiting professor of Australian studies, he reminded his Harvard students of Oscar Wilde's remark that Britain and America were two different countries divided by a common language. Oscar who?

It's interesting to see such cultural illiteracy in the next generation of America's business and political leaders. The spirit of George Dubya Bush is in safe hands!

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