What would have happened had Prime John Howard, in a sudden rush of blood, finally succumbed at the Opera House last month and said the “S” word? As the political debate on Aboriginal affairs rolls on, it is an interesting hypothetical given the importance the media and most political commentators now place on this symbolic gesture.
It is also now being said that a Prime Ministerial apology is inevitable — either by Kim Beazley or Peter Costello — so Australia is only a few years away from being healed anyway.
Despite all this, polls indicate a clear majority of Australians support Howard’s stance in not making an apology as leader of the nation.
The Opposition Labor Party knows there are few votes in Aboriginal issues, but its members have been salivating at the sight of the Prime Minister being roasted on a spit by commentator after commentator.
Howard has been labelled everything from callous and racist, to a “dog” by self-styled Aboriginal leader, Charles Perkins. What would have happened had Howard taken the cue from ATSIC commissioner Geoff Clarke and thrown out his prepared speech and said sorry.
There would have much shedding of tears, considerable hugging on the stage with follow-up editorials lauding Howard’s magnanimity and his courage in being able to rise above his own prejudices.
The Member for Bennelong would have been able to bask in the warm inner glow on Bennelong Point with much of the rest of middle-class white Australia having finally done something “good” for his Aboriginal brothers and sisters.
Others, of course, would not have been so generous declaring the PM’s apology either too late, not effusive enough or insincere.
But what would an apology actually have achieved? The final mending of 200 years of wounds between black and white? A nation united? Unlikely.
What would have happened was exactly what has happened since Corroboree 2000 — a hotchpotch of confused demands ranging from treaties to compacts, reparation moneys, and quotas for Aboriginal members of Parliament — only with the weight of a Prime Ministerial imprimatur.
Instead of being a defining event of “closure”, the event has been declared the “beginning of reconciliation” and, incredibly after a decade of talk-fests, “the first step” towards the healing process.
The fact is, a Prime Ministerial apology for past wrongs would have been — and still is — a very easy thing to do, and it would have been the path of least resistance for John Howard.
The hard task in Aboriginal affairs is actually doing something about real problems like health, life expectancy, illiteracy and ignorance, child abuse, alcoholism, petrol sniffing and drug addiction, and generational welfare dependance — to name a few.
Another aim of real reconciliation perhaps might be to find ways of resolving the hatreds, prejudice and distrust in towns and communities in Australia, far away from the comfortable suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney where whites and blacks co-exist.
Just how easy it is to apologise was exemplified by Prime Ministerial aspirant Kim Beazley who was put on the spot about the inevitable next step in the reconciliation process — a treaty.
The Opposition Leader’s initial responses on the treaty issue have been evasive and confusing, first advocating a treaty, then backing down, then opening up the option of 20 or more different treaties for different parts of Australia.
In short, he has no idea. One not so difficult task in Aboriginal reconciliation might be to actually get Aboriginal men and women into Federal Parliament.
The solution is certainly not to go the way of Australian Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway and establish a quota system of Aboriginal MPs.
Despite all the Labor Party’s noble words and the fact most Aborigines have traditionally voted Labor, the party’s conscience has never been troubled enough to find a single indigenous Australian to run in a seat that could be won.
There are plenty of life-time sinecures in the ALP for burnt-out unionists, staffers who’ve never worked a day outside a political office, and women, but no room at the inn for one Aborigine.
The only blessing from that is that any potential ALP candidates would most likely come from the same coterie of “Aboriginal spokespeople” who dominate ABC current affairs, talking in clichés and non-solutions.
Labor insiders say former ALP secretary Gary Gray had a safe seat lined up for ex-Cape York Land Council chief now corporate lawyer, Noel Pearson, a person with a high media profile and the political acumen to acknowledge that some responsibility for change lies with Aboriginal people themselves.
However, Gray’s plans were blocked by party chiefs and the wisdom of Paul Keating who reportedly counselled Pearson, now 35, that it was “too early” to take up a career politics.
In all the words that have been written about reconcilation in recent times, something which is constantly overlooked is that the whole “reconciliation process” was instigated as an alternative to a treaty or compact which was floated and then walked away from by former PM Bob Hawke in the early 1980s.
Now we have the prospect of ongoing reconciliation and a treaty.
Adelaide-based political commentator Christopher Pearson (no relation) has been one of a tiny minority of thinkers who have questioned the dogma of reconciliation.
“The notion of reconciliation is so devoid of specific content as to mean almost anything you choose,” he wrote in an expose of the reconciliation shibboleth recently.
“There doesn’t seem to be any public language available in which people can speak plainly and well about an issue as serious as race.” Christopher Pearson’s unconventional views are not welcome among a large proportion of the Australian intelligensia who to a man or woman all support reconciliation as holy writ, but none of whom are able to say exactly what it is they are supporting.
Howard may not be the most articulate leader in Australian history, but his message is pretty simple — actions speak louder than words.