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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • chully on July 11, 2010, 5:17 GMT

    @Hammond: It's very doubtful if Howard would have been able to do anything in the US. The man could not get an extra 100,000 tonnes of beef added as export quota for Australian farmers in the so-called Free Trade Agreement which Australia negotiated with the US in 2004.

    Howard initiated the discussion for the FTA because he thought he had some pull in the US due to his backing Bush, but Australia came out worse for the deal in the end. See http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/11/25/1101219671693.html for details

  • Dummy4 on July 9, 2010, 20:24 GMT

    It's hard to say whether Howard's this particular past was the reason for his rejection. I also don't think his backers were thinking on these lines. Reality is he could do little considering ICC president is largely powerless and so is whole of ICC. There are countless occasions in recent years to prove that BCCI and media rights owners always get what they want irrespective of all. To me it's almost irrelevant who heads the ICC but one thing is sure after Bal's article and this one, that John Howard can kiss goodbye to his cricket aspirations. We have had cricketers like Colin Cowdrey and Clyde Walcott heading the ICC in the past and it will be great to see another of their ilk to head world body again.

  • Christina on July 9, 2010, 8:14 GMT

    Very insightful article there Christian, at least we are making an introspective attempt to deal with the situation, that's how we should've approached the issue in the first place. @Zeus00-couldn't agree more with your excellent comments, we need to be gentle (and of course honest) with one another, when is that realization going to dawn on humanity?! And we Aussies take honest criticism on the chin, if only people stopped dropping the R word on us all the time. @Laurie99-couldn't have summed up the situation better, Howard was undoubtedly successful because of his divisive approach, and ended up making a mockery of the Aussie 'fair-go' concept, which we were once so proud of. And yes @ The_Wog is definitely Howard's own little apprentice (probably has spiky hair and blue eyes, and is masquerading as a champion of the not necessarily white Aussies, nice try mate!)

  • Darrell on July 9, 2010, 6:54 GMT

    The issue of John Howard seems to be one of personality and perception - which is the domain of office holders and politicians anyway. An interesing parallel to John Howard is umpire Darrell Hair - the guy who called Muralitharan for throwing and accused Pakistan of ball tampering. Some perceive Hair as courageous and impartial while others view him as pedantic at best and hopelessly biased.

    CA and NZC could easily have exercised more care in selecting candidates. It's hard to think that the guys in the boardroom who made that decision did not consider the ramifications of their selection. If they did not, it is clear that John Howard is not the one to blame here. It's not so much John Howard's insensitivity, but CA's and NZC's insensitivity to the other member boards. How the ICC president is perceived is important and it just so happens that Howard seems to bring out raw emotion amongst more than a few.

  • Tom on July 9, 2010, 6:36 GMT

    What a relief to see that the legacy of this penny pinching little dweeb is finally being put in perspective. Cricket is so much better off without this man anywhere near its administration. Not only was he an abomination as far as human rights and the environment were concerned, his "success" in economic management was largely due to stooging Australia with his GST and riding a resources boom. Everyone who voted against his bid should be applauded for their insight and foresight.

  • Dre on July 9, 2010, 4:52 GMT

    @zxaar. I know it would be impossible for us the viewers to vote but don't u think we deserve the courtesy of knowing the ICC's goals and how they plan to deal with any controversial issues. We the fans can often only go by what the MEDIA is saying, if the media have LITTLE CLUE as to what the ICC is doing, the most they can do is write whatever comes to their mind or whatever is on the surface for example Howard vs Pawar. OK big deal but do we or the media know what the current president's plans for the future are, do we know what the plans Mark Taylor has and how his plans differ from that of Howard. Are we even sure that there was a manifesto available to those who were involved in the selection of any of the candidates? Suppose there wasn't any? How unprofessional that would look? Our job is not to run the game but there is something called TRANSPARENCY and clearly the ICC is not doing the best they can for the game and I for 1 would like to know how n if they plan to make changes.

  • Daniel on July 9, 2010, 4:20 GMT

    "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." Interesting. So he sucked at symbolism and compassion but managed to make a quantitative difference to the lives of a minority group in your opinion? Also, I remember watching a piece on the ABC at one point about ATSIC, the Aboriginal people for the most part wouldn't speak on camera about how corrupt it was for fear of retribution. Yes, the leadership changed right before the plug was pulled, but surely it would have taken more than a good leader to turn that organisation around?

  • Daniel on July 9, 2010, 4:15 GMT

    The Author of this article is certainly left-leaning. However I am not an apologist for Howard for I think he did both good and not-so-good things. But I think what this writer shows is his lack of understanding on the Aboriginal Issues. I am Aboriginal myself and I can attest to the fact that ATSIC was the most corrupt organisation who only had interest in one thing - themselves. What Howard did in dismantling and eventually terminating this organisation was the correct thing to do. The writer's assertion that Howard was divisive is absolutely correct! He was divisive to those in ATSIC that had a free ride under the Keating/Hawke Governments. The one thing this author failed to mention is the NT Intervention that was a masterstroke because the aboriginal children in that area were at high risk of being sexually assaulted. So a little perspective please. Howard I think would have done an ok job as ICC VIce President and then President. The deception continues with this writer!

  • Bob on July 9, 2010, 3:42 GMT

    Even Noel Pearson wanted Howard voted in.


    And Yunupingu and Pearson both backed Howard with the recent Intervention so selective quoting from those two is a sad reflection on you Chris and your 'analysis'.

  • Dummy4 on July 9, 2010, 3:38 GMT

    Thank you, Christian. Finally an article that echoes my thoughts as a moderate Australian who lived under Howard.

    A further point: the key to his unsuitability for the role, whatever your thoughts on his policies, is that he was strategically divisive. Do we really want the president of the ICC playing divide and rule? Surely a road to disaster and the slow death of cricket!

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