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Prime Minister denies his views on Aboriginal reconciliation and an apology were influenced by new research showing most people oppose a formal apology.



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JOHN HIGHFIELD:  Prime Minister John Howard has denied that his views on Aboriginal reconciliation and an apology were influenced by new research which shows most Australians are opposed to a formal apology. Research conducted on behalf of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation reveals a distinct ambivalency about the process of reconciliation in this country. Commentators have summarised the survey by describing Australia as a nation of John Howards, while others argue the Prime Minister now has to take the lead, as Alison Caldwell reports.

 

ALISON CALDWELL:  Speaking on Melbourne radio, Prime Minister John Howard was quick to reject suggestions his opinions are based on surveys like this one.

 

JOHN HOWARD:   The suggestion is constantly made that, you know, I have fine-tuned my own position in response to polling or market research. That is bunkum.

 

REPORTER: Well, did you see this research before your decision?

 

JOHN HOWARD:  Well, I saw some of this research probably 10 days ago, but the views I’ve had on this issue in relation to a formal apology I have had for four years.

 

REPORTER: But did this research influence your decision to delay the date?

 

JOHN HOWARD:  No, in no way. In no way at all.

 

ALISON CALDWELL: The survey’s findings reinforce the views of the Prime Minister who earlier this week abandoned his own timetable for reconciliation and who has consistently opposed an apology.

 

JOHN HOWARD:  What people are saying is I read this research - and it does reflect my own feelings, and that is that, yes, they recognise that Aboriginal people were badly treated in the past; they do recognise they’ve got a lot of disadvantages. They do want those disadvantages removed. But they want that removed, and they want these problems addressed, in an aggregate community way - they want them treated as part of the overall community. They don’t feel like a formal national apology for something that they didn’t participate in and happened, in their view, a long time ago - they really don’t - and that’s very understandable.

 

ALISON CALDWELL: The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation commissioned the research which involved a survey of 14 focus groups around Australia in areas of high and low contact with Aborigines. The groups were asked to look at sections of the council’s draft reconciliation document which includes an apology. And many saw the document as high-risk, assuming it would probably be used as the basis for claims for land and monetary compensation. At the same time, the study reveals a widespread feeling that Aborigines had been badly treated in the past, and says it’s as though people do not have the imagination to look at the world through the eyes of a victim. Opposition spokesman for Aboriginal affairs, Daryl Melham, says the Prime Minister has no one else to blame but himself for the views expressed in the survey.

 

DARYL MELHAM: This report totally reflects the wedge politics that he’s been playing for the last four years. It’s no accident that the lines that he’s been using for the last couple of years come through this polling. He is poll-driven. That has been his nature in terms of reconciliation, sadly, from day one.

 

ALISON CALDWELL: Democrat Senator, Aden Ridgeway is a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. He says people are crying out for a leader to show the way to reconciliation.

 

ADEN RIDGEWAY:  It’s difficult to manoeuvre reconciliation through what I see as a minefield of resentment. The only way that you can overcome that now … this really puts pressure on the Prime Minister because Australians are also saying in that research paper that we want to achieve reconciliation, we don’t know what the basic conditions are, and fairly much putting it back on government and the Prime Minister, say ‘take the leadership’.

 

JOHN HOWARD:  I haven’t walked away from trying to get reconciliation. I am expected to repudiate my own personal beliefs. I’m told that the only way I can show leadership on this issue is to do something I don’t believe in.

 

REPORTER: But who’s telling you that?

 

JOHN HOWARD:  Oh, the broadsheets and the ABC and those people. Well, I’ve got to say, with respect to - and many people in the Labor Party, many people - and I just say, look, I share their concern about the disadvantage of a section of the Australian community. We’re trying hard to do something about it. I want to see further progress and we are making some progress, but we still have a long way to go. But we should focus on the present and the future.

 

ALISON CALDWELL: Meanwhile, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Reconciliation, Philip Ruddock, won’t comment on the survey. He says he hasn’t read it.

 

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Reconciliation is really about hearts and minds. It’s about influencing the way in which people relate to each other. And it’s an ongoing process. It’s a process that is only going to be effective as people have more frequent contact, hear with an open mind a lot of issues that are being discussed comprehensively. I think it’s as we move forward together that you really achieve a successful reconciliation.

 

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Philip Ruddock is the federal minister assisting the Prime Minister in the search for meaningful reconciliation. Alison Caldwell reporting.