The battlefields of Gallipoli might be a welcome escape from the trench warfare Prime Minister John Howard has been fighting at home recently in Parliament.
The Howard administration has experienced its worst period in office this year, and appears to have become a totally reactive government, walking from one crisis into another. From Bronwyn Bishop’s mishandling of the nursing home issue to the “stolen generation” debacle, the Prime Minister appears to be fast losing the deft political touch he once had. Over, the past few weeks the government has shown it has learnt nothing about crisis management, about controlling the national agenda, or about leadership.
And the Coalition backbench is beginning to get very restless and impatient with the spate of ministerial slip-ups and incompetencies.
The government’s report to the Senate on the stolen generation – which however you try to get around it attempted to claim it never happened – showed an insensitivity and carelessness which deserved condemnation. Even if the taking of Aboriginal children was done for their own good, and even if many benefited from having been taken, this does not mean some were not deeply traumatised and scarred. And to try to diminish the problem by claiming it was only 10 per cent is hardly the issue, particularly when thousands of families were for good or ill torn apart.
It is also facile to argue that the articulate, healthy Aboriginal leaders of today are only there because they or their parents were taken from their dreadful home circumstances. These people still live in the terrible void of never having known their real mother and father and sisters and brothers.
The sad irony, of both the condemnation of the Howard Government and its own mishandling of Aboriginal issues since it won power, is that the Liberal Party should not have to be ashamed of its past record on Aboriginal matters. From the 1967 referendum to the appointment of the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in William Charles Wentworth, to the extraordinarily generous land gifts made by Malcolm Fraser in the Northern Territory when he was Prime Minister, Liberals have made most of the big symbolic initiatives in this area.
Despite this the Howard Government has been totally incapable of clearly mapping out its own agenda to remedy the problems of indigenous people in Australia and articulating that vision to the nation.
Instead, it has been caught up in a constant state of guerrilla warfare with Aboriginal groups over narrow irrelevant issues, and inaction over fears of alienating the supporters of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.
Instead of adopting the high road it has got itself bogged down on the low road of perceived mean spiritedness over its stubborn refusal to apologise for the wrongs of the past, and nit picking over the so-called stolen generation.
Despite all the good things that can be said about Senator Herron, he appears to lack the political instincts necessary for the toughest and most political portfolio in the government. The decency and compassion which Senator Herron possesses in abundance are not necessarily the credentials required for the job.
If the Howard Government wanted to effect any long-lasting change while it was in power, it also needed a Minister in this area with the imagination, drive and aggression to engineer a major shake-up in the way things have been done for a long time.
From the outset, Senator Herron has had to battle the entrenched interests of the Aboriginal industry, which had built deep links with the Labor Party over 13 years of government, and which thwarted and blocked his path all the way. He never had any real influence over ATSIC, which was uniquely and ingeniously designed by the previous government not to be under the control of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. For many months after he was first appointed, Senator Herron’s “department” consisted of not much more than an adviser or two, a few support staff and a press secretary. In other words he was merely a figurehead.
And for well over 12 months, perhaps two years, the board of ATSIC and Senator Herron did not even talk to one another. Most of the initiatives Senator Herron has tried to make in the areas of health and education have been done in co-operation with other Ministers and around ATSIC rather than in co-operation with it. In fact, most of the criticism levelled at Senator Herron is misplaced because he has been handicapped (and kneecapped) from the start.
Unfortunately, Aboriginal affairs is not an area the Prime Minister has taken much interest in during his political career, and he has also failed to see that more dynamic action was needed from the start.
But as this year progresses, the world’s media will undoubtedly begin to focus on the levels of poverty, disease, premature death and illiteracy of the lucky’s country’s most dreadfully unlucky people. And they will legitimately ask the same questions most Australians have been asking of governments for far too long – why is that all these billions of dollars have been poured into Aborigines and their communities over so many years, and they still live in such tragic circumstances?