Howard Pledge on Race Relations

The Age 30th May 2005

John Howard has moved decisively to engage Aboriginal leaders in tackling disadvantage, but conceded that achieving reconciliation will take "generations".

The Prime Minister yesterday declared himself willing to meet indigenous leaders "more than halfway" to meet "new and real opportunities to make progress".

Opening a two-day Reconciliation Australia seminar at the Old Parliament House, Mr Howard announced a push to increase Aboriginal home ownership, but said it would not be at the expense of communal land rights.

"The Government does not seek to wind back or undermine native title or land rights," Mr Howard said. "Rather, we want to add opportunities for families and communities to build economic independence and wealth through use of their communal land assets."

Although Mr Howard said reconciliation required a blend of symbolic and practical measures, he made it clear that he remained opposed to a formal apology for past injustices.

"I think part of the problem with some earlier approaches to reconciliation was that it left too many people, particularly in white Australia, off the hook," Mr Howard said.

"It let them imagine that they could simply meet their responsibilities by symbolic expressions and gestures rather than accepting the need for an ongoing, persistent rendition of practical, on-the-ground measures to challenge the real areas of indigenous deprivation."

Mr Howard's speech came five years after a crowd of about 250,000 walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge to demonstrate support for reconciliation.

Describing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous health outcomes as "quite appalling", Mr Howard said he wanted an Australia where an Aboriginal child could grow up to reach his or her full potential. "I want that child to be loved and nurtured and morally guided, to be healthy, educated, optimistic, ambitious and to feel a full part of the Australian community."

After committing himself in his 1998 victory speech to the goal of achieving reconciliation by the centenary of Federation, Mr Howard said yesterday the journey was going to take "a very long time" and "be the work of generations".

Conceding that dialogue between the Government and many indigenous leaders had dwindled almost to the point of "non-existence" in recent years, Mr Howard said he sensed a new "spirit of hope and optimism" about what could be achieved.

The sentiment was echoed by indigenous leaders, including Patrick Dodson, who welcomed the "conciliatory note" in the speech. "I think we've got some cause to be a bit optimistic from what he's talking about," he said.

Reconciliation Australia co-chairwoman Jackie Huggins said most of the 160 participants at the workshop welcomed Mr Howard's willingness to engage and move forward. One, who asked not to be named, said it would take more than a rhetorical shift to build trust after years of disappointment.

Cape York leader Noel Pearson, who has led the assault on passive welfare, described Mr Howard's address as "a really strong base camp", adding: "I don't think that there was anything missing from his articulation of what the common ground might be."

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley used his address to propose a separate department of indigenous affairs, representative indigenous bodies and a national apology.

But Mr Beazley agreed to a bipartisan approach on Mr Howard's practical agenda, saying that if the Prime Minister wanted to move on indigenous health, education and other areas, "we say that's good".

Mr Pearson told the seminar that it was not a question of whether rights were more important than responsibility, or vice versa, but where the emphasis should now lie.

Declaring the focus should be on responsibility and building an intolerance of substance and alcohol abuse, he declared: "If we want our language and cultures to survive, our people have got to be sober."

Mr Pearson challenged his audience to mount an assault on racism and abandon responses that encouraged a sense of victimhood.

Calling racism a horrific assault on the soul, he cited an incident at the Cairns airport on the way to the seminar in which a group of white miners loudly gave "very inhuman descriptions" of Aboriginal people.

"It was a rude reminder that people are putting up with this in very mundane circumstances, whether it's checking in at an airport or visiting a shop," he said.

Mr Pearson said many conservatives were in denial on the extent of racism, but had a better understanding of victimhood than progressives.