July 8, 2010

Consider Howard's past

Could a man with such a poor record in matters of Aboriginal rights have made a good president of the ICC?

Cricket is in John Howard's heart. What else is in there? Not much, maybe. Or so ran the unanimous agreement on a crisp and cloudless May morning in 1997. We were 14 months into Howard's prime ministership, and a day before Australia set out down the road towards yet another Ashes conquest with their traditional sound beating of the Duke of Norfolk's XI. Timber Creek is 600 kilometres from the nearest city and far, far from Arundel Castle. It was here, on top of a hill, on a patch of scratchy and yellowing grass, that Galarrwuy Yunupingu said, with only the barest hint of exaggeration: "This is a revisit to our waterhole to poison it once again."

He was talking about John Howard's Ten Point Plan. The Ten Point Plan was Howard's gut legislative response to the High Court's Wik decision. With its Mabo ruling of 1992, the High Court dismissed "terra nullius" - the notion that Australia was an empty country before Captain Cook's boat docked - and found that Aboriginal people had legal rights to their native lands. With Wik, the court decided that just because a farmer had a pastoral lease, that did not necessarily mean those Aboriginal native title rights were extinguished. Extinguishment: that was where Howard's Ten Point Plan came in.

Yunupingu is the roughly accepted king and spokesman of all northern Australian Aboriginal people with a gripe. Ever since his teens he'd been telling white chaps, mostly to their gentle bamboozlement, about the deep spiritual relationship between Aborigines and the land. He'd told it to courtrooms, boardrooms, press conferences and land tribunals, and now he knelt down and whispered it to the circling kite-hawks. "Without this right… we will be like a dead leaf in a river that floats up and down in the stream. We will be a bird that flies freely up in the sky with no foundation, with no law, with no song, with no story."

The tock-tock-tocking of clap sticks grew faster. Murmurs of agreement got louder. The air turned thick with - not bitterness, or anger - but fear, first, then stinking black smoke, as traditional landowners tossed the pages, 400 of them, of Howard's Ten Point Plan on the fire.

Howard was in Canberra. A fortnight later, on the eve of Australia's opening first-class hit-out at Bristol, he was still there. It was his prime ministerial duty that day to table in parliament a report called "Bringing Them Home". This report laid plain what many Australians sort of knew but didn't want to hear: that Aboriginal children were taken roughly and against their will from their families; that assimilation into white society was the primary aim behind this; that getting rid of Aboriginal cultures and values was, often, a complementary side-aim; that such doings breached international codes against genocide.

Total healing, the report concluded, was impossible. But, as a small beginning, it suggested two things: that the government provide financial compensation, and the government say sorry. Howard, to make sure the former should never happen, was unwilling to go along with the latter.

Eminent. Distinguished. Respected. Beyond reproach. These words and their close cousins have been used to describe Howard by people sure he should be the International Cricket Council's president-to-be.

Blatantly misleading. Blatantly unfair. Self-centred, defensive and prejudiced. Deliberately divisive. Lack of compassion. Calculated to create panic and fear. Reduces human experience and understanding to a kind of single-entry accounting system. This was how Mick Dodson, Australia's first Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner, painted Howard and his policies in a mid-term review of the Howard years.

Back then, the easiest thing for Howard's admirers to do was to portray him as the No-Sorry Man and mock all those who'd get hot and bothered over one symbolic little word. This was disingenuous. For just as upsetting as the one word Howard wouldn't say were the others he did say, over and over.

When Pauline Hanson, an independent politician, claimed Aboriginal people were growing fat, spoilt and idle at taxpayers' expense, Howard repeatedly defended her right to say so. Yet Howard, unlike Hanson, was no gullible Queensland redneck; and therein, as Noel Pearson pointed out, lay his real moral crime. "Howard knew the truth about Aboriginal disadvantage," wrote Pearson, "about the fact that Aboriginal people don't just get free homes and free cars and free loans. In Pauline Hanson's defence, a lot of the ignorant things she professes she actually believes."

Then there was ATSIC - the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission - which Howard first ridiculed, then cribbed funding from, then gutted, and eventually abolished. ATSIC, it is true, tended to be staffed by cheats, sycophants and buffoons, none of them more vile than its last chairman, Geoff Clark. Yet on dozens of remote Aboriginal communities, the local ATSIC office was a place you could go if your husband king-hit you, or if your child's ears were blocked, or if you couldn't draw out your dole money and didn't understand why - common problems, these. It was something, where before there was almost nothing, and in its place Howard put not much.

In the hour of junk cricket's ascendancy, it is tempting to suppose that Howard, who likes his cricket best when its plots and subplots reveal themselves slowly, could do the game some good. But would he? Would he really? In answering that question, it would be sloppy not to consider his history as prime minister of Australia

Howard's beef rested not with ATSIC's corrupt leadership. What he didn't like was the idea of an organisation built specifically to represent Aboriginal people's interests. This we know because it was at his inaugural press conference as prime minister that Howard first outlined his intention to take a broom to ATSIC. At that time ATSIC was run not by Geoff Clark, an accused pack rapist, but by the late Gatjil Djerrkura, who was wise and soft-spoken, a man who radiated peace, the way a small, somersaulting bird does.

One afternoon in a parliamentary hallway, at a constitutional convention looking at whether the Northern Territory should be made a fully-fledged Australian state - a convention notable for one delegate's observation that "unless the black (man) becomes white, he comes from nowhere and will get nowhere" - I got chatting with Djerrkura. I asked him if Howard, in their umpteen conversations behind closed doors, had ever shown any sign of emotion about stolen Aboriginal children. "Emotion. What emotion?" he replied. And then he chuckled harshly. Chuckling harshly was never Djerrkura's style.

When it came to announcing Aboriginal policy - dismantling ATSIC, not saying sorry, concocting Ten Point Plans - this was how Howard would go about it. He'd choose uncharacteristically provocative, aggressive words. He'd say them without blinking. On the ground, out bush, the words would stir fear and panic. Howard did not wish merely to clarify and restrict the land rights of Aboriginal people; he wanted, as his cowboy-hatted deputy Tim Fischer put it, to deliver "bucketloads of extinguishment". And he wouldn't do so in a policy document or a bill. No. Howard had a Ten Point Plan - as in, you reckon this one point screws you and your people, here, try ten of them!

He preferred not to consult widely, or not to consult at all. Better that the people affected - the "blacks" - find out their fate at the same time as everyone else. Here's Yunupingu's recent recollection of a trip he made to Canberra in the early days of Howard's reign: "I am sitting at breakfast and I hear a radio tell me that the prime minister has taken millions of dollars of funding for housing and community programmes. He is sending auditors and investigators to check us all out. Later I sit at a long table, talking about 'reconciliation' … Eventually I can't stand it any longer. I get up and leave the talkers to their talking and go back to Arnhem Land."

Down in the cities by the seaside, who'd know or care? Further out, where Aboriginal people lived, a toxic them-and-us atmosphere simmered. Mick Dodson summed up the effect of the Howard years thus: "I see a real anger directed at us - a resentment that we didn't die out when we were supposed to. Why haven't our people been allowed to have just one victory?"

Victory became a habit of Howard's, until the last Australian election, and then last week, when international cricket's most slug-like individuals savoured their moment in the muck. Critics of the process, legitimacy and reasoning - they knocked back Howard "because they could", as Gideon Haigh pinpointed - are right. The office of ICC president is one where your actual powers are limited and the recent history putrid. Still, in the hour of junk cricket's ascendancy, it is tempting to suppose that Howard, who likes his cricket best when its plots and subplots reveal themselves slowly, in soft sunshine, over five days, could do the game some good.

But would he? Would he really? In answering that question, it would be sloppy thinking not to consider his history as prime minister of Australia. It is a long, long history, and his attitude and approach towards Aboriginal people is but one chapter. It is not a wholly bad chapter: Howard's pragmatic emphasis on the practicalities of keeping Aboriginal people alive longer and in hospitals and jails shorter was welcome. And it is surely the most relevant chapter. For it tells us how he carries himself in circumstances where the words you choose are crucial, and where people, non-white people, believe that their rights have long been trampled on, and their voices not listened to, and that only now are they beginning to taste a little power.

Sound familiar, cricket fans? Put John Howard in such circumstances and there is good reason for us all to feel cautious in our hearts.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket

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