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John Howard and the politics of reconciliation.

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John Howard and the Politics of Reconciliation 1 Dr Dominic O’Sullivan University of Waikato


During the 1990s reconciliation gave theoretical a rticulation to a politics of

indigeneity, which John Howard has since managed from the centre to the margins of

political debate. This paper examines the politics of the inconsistency between Howard’s

claimed endorsement of reconciliation and his refus al to say ‘sorry’ on the grounds that

such admits personal moral culpability for the acti ons of others. This is not however the

consequence of saying ‘sorry’ and need not be incompatible with ‘practical

reconciliation’. Nor is ‘practical ‘reconciliation’ an objectively better policy direction for

indigenous peoples. But it is an effective strategy for focusing public thinking on ‘needs’

rather than ‘rights’ discourses as the basis of ind igenous public policy, which allows the

policy balance to tend more towards assimilationist than self-determining paradigms of

political thought.

Howard’s political liberalism struggles with the c ollective claims of indigenous

peoples who state through reconciliation the desire to have affronts to rights recognised

and as far as possible corrected. ‘Practical reconc iliation’ in contrast focuses on need

which this paper argues is most properly an accompa niment to the recognition of rights,

not a substitute. It is agued that Howard cannot at once claim to support reconciliation

and refuse to make a government apology. An aggrieved party can not forgive unless the

institution responsible for the wrongdoing acknowle dges, and, as far as possible rectifies

or compensates those who are aggrieved. Practical r econciliation alone has in contrast an

appearance of mere charity because refusing to say ‘sorry’ indicates a denial of wrong

doing which suggests that the indigenous predicament is one of bad luck rather than the

legacy of chosen policy options.

1 This paper develops themes discussed in my book Faith, Politics and Reconciliaion: Catholicism and the Politics of Indigeneity (Huia and the Australian Theological Forum, 2005) and was written with the assistance of a Postdoctoral Fellowship from Nga Pae o te Maramatanga: The National Institute of Research Excellence for Maori Development and Advancement, University of Auckland.



During the 1990s reconciliation, a theological con cept suggesting apology for the

mistreatment of indigenous Australians achieved pol itical influence to the point that it

was seen as an ‘immovable part of the Australian po litical landscape’ (Brennan, 1998). In

1991 the government established a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Its initial goal

of achieving reconciliation by the bicentenary was naively ambitious, but it did give

reconciliation a sense of urgency which continued t hrough the 1990s. By 2006

reconciliation’s prominence has waned partly due to John Howard’s political


With the Council’s support reconciliation became a ‘movement’ attracting

widespread advocacy from almost every political quarter including a reluctant Prime

Minister. Howard’s was however a weak conception of reconciliation which

distinguished saying ‘sorry’ from a ‘practical reco nciliation’, which illegitimises sorrow

as the basis of renewal because sorrow allegedly de tracts from issues of tangible material


The Prime Minister’s objection to saying ‘sorry’ a dded to the political tension

between a troubled national conscience on the one h and, and the opportunity that the

reconciliation debate created for the re-emergence of a deep-seated prejudice within the

white Australian community. Reconciliation became important because the

ability to disturb the conscience of the nation and unsettle its government is one of the few weapons available to Aboriginal people and one they are unlikely to surrender lightly (Mulgan, 1988: 190).

For Howard, citizenship in a pluralist democracy w as sufficient to guarantee the

legitimate rights of indigenous Australians. As the Coalition’s Future Directions theme


song in 1988 explained, ‘Son, you’re Australian, th at’s enough for anyone to be’. The

validity of any subnational identity was dismissed because: ‘Family and nation are

enough for anyone’ (Brett, 2005: 25). Indeed: ‘Conf lating equality and sameness has

been an enduring Howard theme’ and is the basis of his aboriginal affairs policy

(Maddox, 2005: 110). Within this context, disadvant age has become a characteristic

which Howard often attributes to indigenous Austral ians. Disadvantage strengthens need

rather than rights of indigeneity as the centre of indigenous affairs policy. From need the

Prime Minister has constructed a ‘practical reconci liation’ which although worthwhile in

itself reduces Aboriginal policy to the provision o f universal human rights rather than to

questioning the circumstances of power which limit indigenous capacity to function as

self-determining peoples. Further, Howard’s elector al success is attributable to among

other things his ‘assimilationist nationalism’, (Br ett, 2005: 25) which would be

challenged by saying ‘sorry’.

Reconciliation, as Sanders points out, is however ‘ a journey without end’, (2002:

16) and its success or failure is not based purely on the willingness or otherwise of a

government to say ‘sorry’.

Historical Background

Reconciliation was a major development arising fro m political change beginning

with the Holt Government’s (1966-1967) constitutional referendum in 1967. The

referendum amended the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to enter Aboriginal

affairs and at least nominally removed the ‘citizen s without rights’ status of indigenous

Australians (Chesterman and Galligan, 1997: 3). The Whitlam (1972- 1975) and Fraser

(1975-1983) Governments followed with tentative steps towards recognition of


indigenous aspiration, and in 1975, on the motion o f the Parliament’s first indigenous

member, Neville Bonner, the Senate unanimously passed the motion:

That the Senate accepts the fact that the indigenou s people of Australia, now known as aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, were in possession of this entire nation prior to the 1788 First Fleet landing at Botany Bay , (and) urges the Australian government to admit prior ownership by the said ind igenous people and introduce legislation to compensate the people now known as aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders for dispossession of their land (Bonner, 1975: 370).

The parameters of political debate were shifting a nd in 1979 the National

Aboriginal Conference proposed that Australia enter a Treaty with its indigenous citizens

to enhance their status to recognise their first oc cupancy. This would, protagonists

claimed, lay a foundation for new and better relati onships. It would recompense

indigenous peoples for their losses, and more contr oversially guarantee indigenous

representation in Commonwealth and State parliaments as well as in local government. In

1988 the Prime Minister Bob Hawke said that a Treaty would be agreed between the

Commonwealth and indigenous Australians (Hawke, 1995: 1). Due to practical as well as

political considerations a Treaty was not in the en d negotiated. Aboriginal support was

not universal, and as Leader of the Opposition Howa rd said that it was absurd to propose

that a nation should make a treaty with some of its own citizens. It also denies the fact that Aboriginal people have full citizenship r ights now (Howard, 1997: 218).

In 1991 the creation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and the

recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody captured

the public imagination in ways which ensured that i ndigenous policy for a short time

received widespread public attention. Public intere st in reconciliation was also raised by

the Wik decision of the High Court in 1996 and the Bringing Them Home report of the

National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children


from Their Families published in 1997. Reconciliati on was however set back by

Howard’s response to Wik , the Ten Point Plan for Native Title in 1998, and his response

to the stolen generations inquiry. In 2004 the Gove rnment’s undermining of the

credibility of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Isl ander Council (ATSIC) and

disestablishment of the Council further inhibited r econciliation by removing an

instrument of collective indigenous leadership. The Government argument that ATSIC

was unaccountable was unconvincing and perhaps even demonstrably untrue (Ivanitz,


In August 1999 Howard, while still refusing to say ‘sorry’ moved a Motion of

Reconciliation in the House of Representatives. His endorsement of the motion

demonstrated a shift in thinking towards the middle ground, but when set against his

general attitude to reconciliation, it can certainl y not be seen as an enthusiastic

endorsement of its fuller principles. The cautious hope reflected in this statement was not

matched in policy practice. Instead there have been new affronts to the dignity and

aspirations of indigenous Australians and Parliamen t’s expression of ‘deep and sincere

regret’ occurred only after two years of intense po litical pressure.

The motion read:

That this Parliament:

a) reaffirms its wholehearted commitment to the cause of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians as an important national priority for Australians;

b) recognising the achievements of the Australian nati on commits to work together to strengthen the bonds that unite us, to respect and appreciate our differences and to build a fair and prosperous futu re in which we can all share;


c) reaffirms the central importance of practical measu res leading to practical results that address the profound economic and soci al disadvantage which continues to be experienced by many indigenous Australians;

d) recognises the importance of understanding the shar ed history of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and the need to ackn owledge openly the wrongs and injustices of Australia’s past;

e) acknowledges that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished ch apter in our international history;

f) expresses its deep and sincere regret that indigeno us Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a c onsequence of those practices; and

g) believes that we, having achieved so much as a nati on, can now move forward together for the benefit of all Australians (Quoted in Howard, 2000a: 94-95).

Given his willingness to accept the motion as a st atement of regret and to express

a ‘deep personal sorrow for those of my fellow Aust ralians who suffered injustices under

the practices of past generations towards indigenou s people’ (Howard, 2000a: 90) the

Prime Minister’s steadfast refusal to take one furt her step and make an apology in the

name of the Government further suggests that ‘pract ical reconciliation’ is a deflection

from recognising and addressing the root cause of r elative indigenous poverty and

political powerlessness.

In 2000 the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’ s final report recommended


to put in place a process which will unite all Aust ralians by way of an agreement, or treaty, through which issues of reconciliation c an be resolved (Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, 2000).

In response Howard accepted that reconciliation had become an ‘unstoppable force’ and

implied that it could contribute to justice (Howard , 2000b). This did not however dampen


the Prime Minister’s resolve to stop that force by refusing to say ‘sorry’ and by diverting

attention to a needs based practical reconciliation .

Saying ‘Sorry’

Reconciliation arises from a Christian theological tradition. Much of its public

advocacy in Australia has been from the Catholic, A nglican and Uniting Churches, which

see it as relevant in political context because ‘th e fusing of the Christological and

anthropological dimensions is to be found in the pe rson of Jesus himself’ (Prowse, 1995:

38). They see it as relevant to the relationship be tween indigenous and non-indigenous

Australians because

Christian reconciliation is the drawing of persons to discover their humanity through forgiveness, repentance and reparation. It takes place internally in the victim, and leads to forgiveness of the wrong doer. Vulnerability is the condition for expressing the reconciling love of God. One is able to acknowledge and honour one’s brokenness. One’s personal story becomes inte grated in the Christ narrative of passion, death and resurrection. It seeks repentanc e and forgiveness. It involves victims, wrong doers, bystanders, the dead and futu re generations (Hally, 1998: 2).

In Australia reconciliation follows numerous inter national examples which are

concerned with overcoming sin and correcting its co nsequences because from a Christian

point of view:

There is no longer any distinction between Gentiles and Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarians, savages, slaves, and fre e men, but Christ is all, Christ is in all (Colossians, 3: 11).

For the Churches, saying ‘sorry’ is a precondition of forgiveness and a

commitment not to repeat wrongdoing. It is also a p recondition for the re-construction of

the public order to recognise that the freedom envi saged by liberal democracy requires

respect for identities based on lineage and cultura l preferences which differ substantively

from those of the majority.


Howard’s unease with reconciliation was most graphically illustrated in his

response to the 1997 Bringing Them Home report of the National Inquiry into the

Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. The

report’s release gave momentum to the reconciliatio n movement and put the issue of both

governments and individuals saying ‘sorry’ on to th e public agenda. Objection to private

individuals saying ‘sorry’ was raised by Howard and others on the grounds that it implies

an acceptance of moral culpability by people who ha d no part in the development or

implementation of the removal policy. This was an o bjection of convenience drawing no

substance from the intellectual tradition from whic h reconciliation comes. On the first

National Sorry Day in 1998 the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council explained that

Sorry Day

does not mean everyone should feel guilty today. It is a day to acknowledge the truth about the injustice of past governments... it is a day to hear and understand the pain of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander famil ies. Acknowledging the truth will set us all free. It is a day for us all to say that we are sorry that these things happened (Australian Catholic Social Justice Counci l, 1998).

In moral theology culpability for wrongdoing canno t be transferred from one to

another. The transferring of culpability was not th erefore intended or implied by saying

‘sorry’. It was merely a precondition for reconcili ng those who had been divided by

policies and practices of the very recent past. How ard’s objection to a national apology

was on grounds which misrepresented the opposing argument.

I don’t think a formal statement of that kind is ap propriate because I don’t believe that current generations of Australians should be s een as responsible for deeds over which they had no control and in which they had no involvement (Howard, 2000a).


Howard was most likely motivated by a fear that ack nowledgement would render the

Commonwealth liable for compensation. In a letter t o Frank Brennan, the Minister for

Aboriginal Affairs John Heron explained that:

The Government does not support an official nationa l apology. Such an apology could imply the present generations are in some way responsible and accountable for the actions of earlier generations, actions tha t were sanctioned by the laws of the time, and that were believed to be in the best inte rests of children concerned (Heron, 1996).

The actions to which Heron referred are not morally excused by being ‘sanctioned by the

laws of the time’. The suggestion that they were be lieved to be in the ‘best interests of the

children concerned’ may have been true in some cases but is not a valid generalisation to

make about separation policies per se. Neither does good intention make something

objectively right and excuse the authority in whose name an act is carried out from

making recompense. Heron downplayed the significance of what had happened to the

stolen children, which itself inhibited reconciliat ion. The Government’s submission to the

Senate inquiry on the Bringing them Home report further trivialised the seriousness of the

issue. It denied that there had been any violations of human rights in the removal policy

and argued that removal was not to the extent that the victims could be described as

‘generations’ (Manne, 2001: 84).

The Commonwealth Parliament has still not said ‘sorry’ for the removal of

indigenous children. Yet in the Victorian Legislati ve Assembly in 1997 the Premier Jeff

Kennett apologised

to the Aboriginal people on behalf of all Victorian s for the past policies under which Aboriginal children were removed from their families and expresses deep regret at the hurt and distress this has caused and reaffirms its support for reconciliation between all Australians (Kennett, 19 97).


On the motion of the Premier Tony Rundell, the Tasmanian Legislative Assembly


its deep and sincere regrets at the hurt and distre ss caused by past policies under which Aboriginal children were removed from their families and homes, apologises to the Aboriginal people for those past actions and reaffirms its support for reconciliation between all Australians (Rundell, 19 97).

Kim Beazley’s motion of apology in the Federal House of Representatives in

1997, which the government defeated, showed the narrowness of Howard’s position and

proposed that the Prime Minister’s attitude to reco nciliation as a general principle was

selective. Beazley showed that practical and symbol ic reconciliation are not incompatible

and that saying ‘sorry’ need not detract from polic y attention to matters of tangible

material substance. Beazley’s apology for separatio n policies was followed by explicit

practical substance in the motion’s call

on the Federal Government and State governments to establish, in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities a ppropriate processes to provide compensation and restitution, including assistance for the reunification of families and counselling services (Beazely, 1997).

Yet Howard insisted that saying ‘sorry’ detracts fr om addressing the pressing material

needs of indigenous Australian communities ‐ an inc ompatibility between the symbolic

and the tangible - the rationale for Howard’s ‘prac tical reconciliation’ and for his not

seeing a contradiction between refusing to say ‘sor ry’ and supporting reconciliation.

In contrasting attitudes to indigenous compensatio n with other contemporary

concerns involving compensation Beazley highlighted a selective inconsistency.

The question of compensation is a question which governments consider repeatedly. They consider it in relation to people who have com mitted acts, either whilst in government or in private organisations, without any maliciousness at all. The people who invented particular breast implant proce dures, for example, did not invent those with an intention to do malicious harm to women in our community. Yet compensation is expected of them. What about the people who originally


planned, for example, situations which saw folk who were not actually orphans, nevertheless declared such, taken out from Britain and settled in Australia, and themselves experiencing some of the things - not al l of the things, but some of the

things - that the Aboriginal community experienced. .. Why should not the Aboriginal people of this nation be accorded equali ty? Why not? Why not let the Aboriginal people of this nation have the same expe rience and the same access? When, for malicious reasons or non-malicious reasons, deep personal damage is done to you, you have recourse. Why not? Why should that not happen? Why are they not people who are at least equal to us in the opportunities that are available to them (Beazely, 1997)?

Reconciliation is not concerned solely with saying ‘sorry’. Instead it sees sorrow,

because it implies acceptance of the impact of wron g doing, as the inescapable

foundation of the breaking down of ‘any socially co nditioned pattern of asymmetrical

life-chances which places artificial limits on the creation of a common structure of

political action’ (Held, 1995: 169). Saying ‘sorry’ is also important psychologically

because it is an acceptance that what has happened was wrong which implies that the

present state of disadvantage is not necessarily th e fault of indigenous peoples.

Conversely refusing to say ‘sorry’ could imply that the indigenous are to blame for their

social dislocation and relative material poverty.

Practical Reconciliation

For Howard practical reconciliation is

more than recognition of the damaging impact on people’s lives of the mistaken practices of the past. It also calls for a clear f ocus on the future. It calls for practical policy making that effectively addresses current indigenous disadvantage particularly in areas such as employment, health, e ducation and housing (Howard, 2000a: 89).

Practical reconciliation certainly has substance i f it enhances economic well-being

and it is correct that ‘true reconciliation cannot be legislated or mandated’ (Howard,

2000a: 1989) but it can be enhanced by political le adership which Howard has chosen not

to provide. Indeed ‘the challenge’ of leadership as Howard described it was a leadership


constructed in minimalist terms. Howard was therefo re instrumental in ensuring that

reconciliation did not remain with the force and in fluence it had on the political agenda

during the decade of the Council for Aboriginal Rec onciliation. As he himself defined it,

Howard has failed to meet:

The challenge [which] is to communicate clearly the objectives of the reconciliation process, why reconciliation is in th e national interest and the respective role of government, indigenous Australia ns and the wider community in the process (Howard, 2000a: 1989).

For Howard the role of government and government policies in reconciliation was

secondary to the ‘personal commitment’ of individuals (Howard, 2000a: 89). But the

capacity of governments to undermine reconciliation through legislation consciously

intended to reduce indigenous rights is immense. It is on this basis, not on his

encouraging words, that the Prime Minister’s role i n the reconciliation debate must be


Reducing reconciliation to ‘practical’ makes it ch arity because reconciliation is no

longer based on any acknowledgement that the indigenous material predicament may

have been contributed to by deliberate policy optio ns of previous governments. When

indigenous peoples are seen simply as poor people w hom the government has an

obligation to help materially then the justice of t heir wish to reclaim culture and identity

is dismissed. A narrow focus on material need removes attention from deeper causal

issues arising from a colonial history and post-col onial present. It also challenges

indigenenous assumptions about the basis of their b elonging because as Maaka and Fleras

have argued in a New Zealand context indigenous peoples do not see themselves in

relation to the state as ‘a problem to be solved no r a competitor to be jousted’ (Maaka and

Fleras, 2000: 1997). Yet it was precisely in this w ay that indigenous Australians were


seen by those who sought extinguishment or limitati ons on native title rights or who

denied the significance of the ‘stolen generations’ . If indigenous Australians are to be

viewed as people with rights of indigeneity, which is implicit in reconciliation, rather

than poor people who need help then there needs to be a conception of justice that is clear

about what is properly owed to whom and on what basis.

When Howard described Wik as a ‘disappointing judgement’ because the High

Court held that the Native Title Act 1993 did not intend the extinguishment of native title,

(Neville and Brennan, 1997) the Prime Minister agai n demonstrated his disregard for

rights as the basis of reconciliation. The High Cou rt left the Government either to accept

the decision or change the law. It could not, as Pa uline Hanson advocated, extinguish

native title because native title is a property rig ht and section 51 (xxxi) of the Australian

Constitution provides for the compulsory acquisitio n of property only on ‘just terms’.

Hanson was appealing to a populist ‘one law’ for al l philosophy, which was in fact a code

language for the privileging of an ideology concern ed with a superior form of culture and

socio-political norms which all should accept. Alth ough more tempered Howard’s

version of Hanson’s populism demonstrated his unease with indigenous claims of

difference. Such claims are at odds with an ideolog y which gives ‘priority to our

identities as citizens rather than to such other id entities as we may have’ (Skutnabb-

Kangas, 1996).

The judgment had no impact on freehold land owners and established that in the

event of conflict between a native title right and a pastoral leaseholder right, it would be

the native title right that would yield. Yet this d id not dissuade the Prime Minister from

the view that the judgment was too favourable to in digenous interests. His response was a


Ten Point Plan for Native Title . Several features of the plan were serious setback s to

reconciliation: a burdensome test on native title c laimants to establish ongoing connection

with the land, a sunset clause, the possibility tha t pastoral leases could be upgraded to

exclusive possession, and limits or even the remova l of the indigenous right to negotiate

(Brennan, 1997). The Ten Point Plan for Native Titl e demonstrated that if the state has ‘a

regulatory and coercive capacity’, there is necessa rily created ‘a force that [can] deprive

citizens of political and social freedom’ (Held, 19 95: 9). Reconciliation drew attention to

the coercive capacity of the state and highlighted the need for political mechanisms to

protect minority interests against unbridled majori tarian rule. The Ten Point Plan was

inconsistent with Howard’s observation that:

We cannot change what has happened in our history but we can ameliorate the legacy of those events and practices that proved de eply damaging. We can share a common resolve that the mistakes of the past will n ot be repeated (Howard, 2000a: 88-89).

Howard’s reaction to native title was not concilia tory and, as with his grounds for

rejecting a Treaty, fostered a perception that indi genous claims were beyond the rights of

citizenship. This stems from an unwillingness to ac cept the alignment of material

progress with cultural imperatives. Peter Howson, A boriginal Affairs Minister in the

McMahon Government also argued from this perspective when he suggested that there

should not be an apology because ‘education and employment are more important than

hearing the word “sorry” (Howson, 2000). The tangible and symbolic were seen as

exclusive competitors.

Howard has also created a ‘them’ and ‘us’ picture of indigenous affairs which

portrays a government prepared to compromise with ‘them’. In 2006 he told the National

Press Club that ‘as a Government we are willing to meet the Indigenous people more than


half way on this road’ (Howard, 2006). The need for compromise implies

unreasonableness on ‘their’ part. Yet to a differen t audience, the National Reconciliation

Planning Workshop, the previous year Howard was far more positive about reconciliation

and he recognised the importance of the symbolic al ongside the practical. He also

observed that

part of the problem with some earlier approaches to reconciliation was that it let too many people, particularly in white Australia, o ff the hook. It let them imagine that they could simply meet their responsibilities by symbolic expressions and gesture rather than accepting the need for an ongoi ng persistent rendition of practical, on-the-ground measures to challenge the real areas of indigenous deprivation (Howard, 2005).

Nevertheless, Howard’s speech to the Workshop in 2005 again focused

exclusively on need. Many of the objectives of Howard’s ‘practical reconciliation’ are

nothing more than the provision of universal human rights to education, housing, health

care and minimal living standards to indigenous com munities. Howard’s focus on

universal human rights is an example of his often s tated preference to concentrate on that

which unites rather than that which divides. The im plication is that those things which

could divide will be left unaddressed.

The main ‘impracticality’ of practical reconciliati on is that it ignores the things that continue to divide Indigenous Australians from the rest of the community. That is, even if we discount issues of social justice, so ca lled ‘symbolism’ is important because it probably will have real effects on peopl e’s psychological wellbeing and behaviour (Altman and Hunter, 2003: 15).

It is simplistic and unnecessary to draw an absolu te demarcation line between

‘practical’ and ‘symbolic’ reconciliation. The term ‘practical’ implies that addressing

indigenous disadvantage is both straightforward and divorced from historical and social

contributors to disadvantage which are addressed fr om a rights perspective and also from

the focus of reconciliation in its fullest and wide r sense.


Yet it is true that demonstrating sorrow by marchi ng across the Sydney Harbour

Bridge or signing a National Sorry Day book does not constitute reconciliation on its own

and if it is conceived as such than some people are certainly ‘let off the hook’. This

remark was endorsed by Noel Pearson (2005b) whose own address to the National

Reconciliation Planning Workshop ambitiously suggested that Australia is nearing the

end of the ‘decolonisation era’ and needs to shift ‘from denial to recognition and

reconciliation’. In this context, Pearson argued th at indigenous peoples need to assume a

‘right to take responsibility’ (2005a). From the ri ght to take responsibility Pearson takes a

broader view of rights than those envisaged by Howard’s ‘practical reconciliation’.

I think we’ve got to refute the idea that we have a n inalienable right to dependency.... We have a right to take a fair place in this our own country... we have to start from the premise that our real entitl ement if you’re going to talk about economics, our real entitlement is to take a fair p lace in our own country (Pearson, 2005a).

But that does not diminish saying ‘sorry’ as an imp ortant symbolic gesture which ideally

lays the foundation for more tangible expression of sorrow by correcting consequences of


Howard, Reconciliation and Liberalism

Practical reconciliation deflects attention from t he difficult question of

legitimising a nation state that is founded on the dispossession of others. It weakens

reconciliation’s capacity to develop

a theory of constitutional legitimacy that equally legitimates Aboriginal rights and the general citizenship rights of all Australians i n the institutional framework that creates and supports these rights. Such a theory im plies an acceptance that existing Australian state and society were unjustly founded by colonial settlers and migrants but, nonetheless, have a right to be recognised, an d to recognise themselves, as legitimately located on this continent and entitled to restrict the original rights of Aboriginal people in the name of protecting the rig hts of non-Aboriginal people (Mulgan, 1988: 186).


The right to restrict should not however apply as H oward has taken it, to the restriction of

rights that do not interfere with those of others. Nor should it be taken to mean that where

there is conflict, the interests or wishes, rather than rights of the non-indigenous prevail

as a matter of course.

Howard highlights liberalism’s ideological struggl e with reconciliation’s

recognition of difference. Liberalism raises a theo retical conflict between narrow and

limiting interpretations of liberal democracy which favour cultural homogeneity over an

indigenous view of history which ‘privilege[s] the past’ in order to focus on the future

(Simpson, 2000: 117). The past inevitably shapes th e present which is why putting right

the wrongs of the past is important as a foundation of a rights based future which

reconciliation seeks in a more inclusive polity. Ho ward however adopts a narrow

liberalism with less regard to cultural difference. Therefore the characteristics of John

Stuart Mill’s ‘tyranny of the majority’ become evid ent:

there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on thos e who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent t he formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all charac ters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own (Mill, 1985: 63).

But the modern democratic state also requires ‘a de gree of social cohesion’ and a

‘common identity’ (Taylor, 1999: 265) which seems to be Howard’s concern.

The integrity of the state certainly requires a de gree of commonality among

citizens, but when overstated removes liberal democ racy’s ability to recognise difference

and privileges assimilation, which can only be resi sted by conscious effort. At the same

time however the well functioning liberal state req uires a body politic whose members


are provided equally with opportunities for politic al and social participation because:

‘Power is always exercised, and political outcomes are always determined, in the context

of the relative capabilities of parties’ (Held, 199 5: 170). The reconciliation movement is

therefore one of resistance ‘guided by the anticipa tion of a political order which does not

arbitrarily shape and constrain choices’ (Held, 199 5: 70-71) for indigenous people. It

maintains that the stability of the democratic stat e is enhanced by minimising disparity,

not by marginalising any particular group from the body politic. Reconciliation is an

opportunity to explore a politics of inclusion as w ell as material advancement.

Howard’s nationalism with its focus on sameness di scouraged attention to the

nature of power and to its proper location regardin g indigenous self-determination. The

failure to recognise power at the heart of indigeno us dispossession meant that the

conditions of genuine reconciliation could not be m et. Several Aboriginal leaders have

insisted that reconciliation requires discussion of ‘indigenous rights, a treaty, self-

determination, customary law, land, power relations hips, sovereignty and constitutional

recognition’ (Gunstone, 2005: 3). These issues tran scend the symbolic and are

undoubtedly practical. But they are beyond Howard’s conception of legitimate power

relationships because they extend to fundamental qu estions of indigeneity.

Instead Howard focuses on individual need which re duces the role of collective

identity in individual well-being.

I certainly believe that all Australians should be able to aspire to owning their own home and having their own business; having title to something is the key to your sense of individuality, it’s the key to your capaci ty to achieve, and to care for your family and I don’t believe that indigenous Australi ans should be treated differently in that respect (Howard, 2005b).


In contrast, indigenous land rights and native titl e are key to an individuality which

derives meaning in association with others. This do es not dismiss the desirability of

indigenous Australians holding title to a home or b usiness, but these examples of

property title ought not be given greater status si mply because they are the same as what

other citizens might value. Howard’s equality is to offer sameness but to take away

difference because Brett argues ‘there are only ind ividual Australians, some of whom

happen to be Aboriginal...’ (Brett, 2005: 28).

Howard has recently spoken of ‘the special place’ of indigenous peoples in the

life of the Australian nation (2005b). Acknowledgement of a ‘special place’ was a rare

concession to group identity, which is allowed by a broader conception of liberalism than

Howard usually adopts. If liberalism is ‘preoccupie d with the capability of persons to

determine and justify their own actions, with their ability to choose among alternative

political programmes’ (Held, 1995: 169) it must als o recognise that individuals may

exercise choice in association with kin groups with whom they share a geopolitical

relationship with an identifiable physical space. L iberalism’s ability to accommodate

difference is based on its capacity to accept that individuals may choose to conduct their

affairs according to a plurality of means. Liberal political parties which also harbour a

deep social conservatism concerning difference ther efore face an ideological tension

between their emphasis on the rights of the individ ual and the possibility that individuals

may choose to function in a collective cultural env ironment.


While John Howard has consistently claimed to support reconciliation it has been

on a much weaker basis than the full reconciliation envisaged by the Christian theological


tradition informing the notion which became the foc al point of indigenous policy debate

during the 1990s. Indeed, in proposing a practical reconciliation Howard has actively

undermined true reconciliation based on acknowledgement of wrongdoing and resolve

not to repeat it. Howard also consistently misrepre sented the notion of sorrow as

implying moral culpability for the wrongdoing of ot hers. His electoral populism

constructs indigenous Australians as competitors in a ‘them’ and us’ political conflict.

Practical reconciliation is a strategy for promoti ng an indigenous policy based on

the needs of poor people rather than the rights of indigeneity. It is a charitable policy

which arises from a liberalism which views equality as sameness and which frowns upon




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