12 October 2007

Benefits and doubts

Christian Kerr reckons that John Howard deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his turnaround on Aboriginal issues. I couldn't agree less.

Toward the end of his victory speech to the assembled Liberals on the night of the 1998 election, Howard told people what he planned to do in the term ahead. We're gonna do this (yay!), we're gonna do that (yay!), oh, and we're going to do something to bridge the gap between Aborigines and other Australians.

What the ... ? Never had a victory speech ended on such a flat note. Journalists and Liberals looked at each other, wondering if they'd misheard him. John Howard? Aborigines? Has Howard even met an Aborigine? It was a surreal moment, but it soon passed. The big issue in the following parliamentary term was getting the GST up, then there was the Olympics (a bit of didge work there I think), some refugees ended up on and in the Arafura Sea, some planes crashed into some American buildings, and there was another election - and no more was spoken about this Aboriginal unpleasantness.

Howard has said himself that he's been part of the problem in dealing with Aborigines - if there's one matter where the nation is united behind the Prime Minister, that has to be it. Yes, there's an election coming up, and to point the finger at Howard and call him cynical is a largely pot-kettle exercise that helps nobody.

Howard does not deserve the benefit of the doubt because he can't and won't make this 'change of heart' manifest itself in the lives of Aborigines. I still haven't heard a cogent answer as to why Aborigines in remote communities have to be stripped of their land rights in order to get healthcare. I have no idea why CDEP was scrapped without any alternative arrangements.

He's lost the ability to make large-scale, long-term policy. Need I remind you?

  • Water.

  • Broadband.

  • Media ownership.

  • Tax reform (and not just less of it).

  • Infrastructure.

  • Education generally, history and the trades in particular.

  • Healthcare.

  • Immigration generally, from Sudan in particular.

  • AWB.

All that's just in the past term.

The mixture of mendacity and gutlessness can be found in all governments, and not just elected ones. Sometimes this noxious mixture can yield effective, even good outcomes - but in Howard's case his government has reached a point where it just doesn't do effective outcomes any more. That's why Howard doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt. You might believe his pledge to do no more harm but you can't believe him when he promises to do better, to lay solid foundations that people can build their lives on.

Christian rails against bleeding hearts who've never actually rolled their sleeves up to give practical help to Aboriginal people, but this is just the empty clatter of blackened pots and kettles.

Wednesday was, believe it or not, World Sight Day. One of the preventable causes of blindness they describe is trachoma, which arises from unhygenic living environments. It only appears in the very poorest communities and is almost extinct throughout the world. Australia is a major donor to the WHO - and one of the few countries where the disease exists. The last white Australian to contract the disease was in the 1930s, and the last program to tackle the disease in remote communities was in the 1970s. The estimate given yesterday by Gabi Hollows on the ABC to revive that program and see off that disease once and for all from this continent is $20m over five years.

That amount is about what the Federal Government will spend on ads this evening. Such a program would require extensive consultation, and careful policy planning by the very people who've been shunned, sidelined and burned by this government. A small-scale program like that would be too hard for the Howard government. They wouldn't keep to budget, nor to outcome targets, but they would big-note themselves something awful.

And what of the commentariat? After their lachrymal praise of the invasion of Aboriginal Australia earlier this year, they'd have to fall into line behind Howard on this (especially Albrechtsen, who has a lotta lotta making up to do). We'll have to coin the phrase "bleeding heart righties", and then the planet just spins off its axis.

We'd all agree that one speech won't cut it, and that even a host of small programs like trachoma is tinkering around the edges. What we need is lots of people working together. We've tried doing programs on the cheap, and pulling them as soon as people to come to rely on them. It's tme for proper, joined-up government: no dark satanic mills of bureaucracy, but something more than two land rovers and a press release. Where would we get that from?

It's press-gallery groupthink at its worst to assume that if there was any new thinking on Aboriginal issues from within the ALP, Kevin Rudd would have announced it by now. Labor provides a natural bolthole for people with passion and skills in policy development, but who lack clout with Howard's government. There is a significant left looking to assert itself in a party that has cleaved relentlessly to the centre. These are the people who gave us Medicare (stop laughing!), and it is fair to assume that they might have a few ideas that aren't stale caricatures from the 1970s.

What's also interesting about Howard is that he could go too far in trying to win back all those "doctors' wives". Look at how Malcolm Fraser's reputation has been trashed within the Liberal Party: by Christmas, I can see David Flint or Alan Jones come out and say that Howard coulda won if only he hadn't gone all mushy over Aborigines. Too much of this and Howard could start losing the ability to shape his own legacy.

In other words: it is fair to give Labor, and not the Coalition, the benefit of the doubt on Aboriginal issues. Christian ends his article by saying Howard deserves applause: only after he's done something, not before; and if he never gets the chance then too bad, he's done all right for himself.


  1. Andrew,
    I think Howard undid any good that speech may have done him in the press conference the following day. That conference practically ended up with him restating his previous position.

  2. Sounds about right Doctor. He's not prepared to give himself the benefit of the doubt, so why should anyone else?