But what a strange day it became. The syllabus itself turned out to be a model of cultural bipartisanship; for every cricket milestone mentioned, there was a nod to multiculturalism or a reference to Patrick White. Mr Howard modestly omitted the election of his own Government from the digest of “interesting things that happened between 1976 and 2000”, but included the inception of the multicultural broadcaster SBS.
If all that were not enough, the Prime Minister bobbed up last night with the casual revelation that he was planning a national referendum to include a new acknowledgement of Aboriginal Australia in the constitution.
On hearing this, Mr Howard’s culture warriors might well be forgiven for surreptitiously arranging an assessment by the platoon’s medical officer. In terms of reversals, it’s quite a doozy – imagine Shane Warne confessing a sudden fondness for sushi, or Elton John a distaste for sequins. What next? An honorary Howard chair in surfing at Griffith University? An Order of Australia for John Pilger? Vegetarians in the Lodge?
Today, the cultural battlefield will stand silent with genuine, bipartisan bafflement.
In a speech to the Sydney Institute (PDF), the Prime Minister said he had always “struggled” with symbolism while concentrating solely on what he called practical reconciliation. “My instinct has been to try and improve the conditions for indigenous people within the framework of a united nation and unified Australia citizenship.”
He admitted his 1998 election-night promise to achieve reconciliation by 2001 had failed.
Mr Howard, 68, said his age was part of the reason he had underestimated the value of symbolic gestures. “The challenge I have faced around indigenous identity politics is in part an artefact of who I am and the time in which I grew up. I recognise now that, though emotionally committed to the goal, I was mistaken in believing that it could be achieved in a form I truly believed in.”
Mr Howard’s speech, designed in part to lend him an aura of freshness, could be his last big announcement before the election, which senior ministers expect to be called in the next three days…
The degree of cynicism at the end of that report is inevitable, no doubt. I suspect electorally it will not do all that much for Howard, but I do think it would be churlish not to welcome this degree of progress. Perhaps Noel Pearson and Jackie Huggins, among others, have had a positive influence after all. Patrick Dodson gave the PM’s move a cautious welcome on Radio National this morning.
Meanwhile, let’s review one of the greatest political speeches ever made in this country:
It’s time. Whatever Howard’s motives, whatever you think of this, it is an opportunity.
Go to ABC Radio National’s The Australian landscape: a cultural history.
There were some interesting reflections on Howard’s shift in this area on PM last night: Howard plans constitutional recognition of Aborigines.
MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister, in an unusually self-reflective, self-questioning mood, I think, Gillian Bradford.
GILLIAN BRADFORD: Yes, he says he’s the first to admit that this area of reconciliation is one he has struggled with during the entire time he’s been prime minister. His instinct has been to try to improve the conditions for Indigenous people. He’s never felt comfortable with old fashioned ways of doing things, but he honestly believed that he was through his time pushing what was the best thing for Indigenous Australians.
MARK COLVIN: And he’s always been accused of being stuck in the 50s when it comes to Aboriginal politics. He really takes that on quite directly, doesn’t he?
GILLIAN BRADFORD: He does, but he also says here that some will no doubt want to portray his remarks tonight as some form of Damascus road conversion. But he says in reality they are little more than an affirmation of well-worn Liberal conservative ideas. And he says their roots lie in a Burkean respect for custom, cultural tradition, and the hidden chains of obligation that binds a community together.
MARK COLVIN: Burke, Disraeli, and Michael Oakeshott, a series of conservative politicians and philosophers, which will send journalists scurrying for the philosophy books, no doubt.
GILLIAN BRADFORD: Indeed, me among them, and what this will do also for journalists is, as I said before, break everybody out of the cycle of sitting and waiting for an election to call. This is not something anybody expected. I can’t emphasise that strongly enough. There was speculation earlier in the day that in fact the Prime Minister might be calling the election tonight. But he has set the agenda here. He is trying to prove that he does have ideas for the future, that he can fight Kevin Rudd on an agenda for the future, and probably hit him where he least expected.
MARK COLVIN: Interesting to see what the Opposition leader has to say in response this time.
This is what I heard on ABC National this morning:
In Albury-Wodonga, Aboriginal elder Sandy Atkinson spoke with ABC Local Radio. “I think that was the very good speech from our PM. This is a very difficult issue and nobody knows how to fix some of these things,” he said.
The man regarded as the “father of reconciliation”, Pat Dodson, told ABC Radio National he is pleased the issue is back on the agenda and says its bigger than any politician. “The nation needs to certainly heal these wounds and we certainly need substantive negotiations about how any reconciliatory resolution to the unfinished business and the apology is part of the unfinished business,” he said.
But New South Wales magistrate Pat O’Shane is urging people not to suspend their disbelief. “Maintain your cynicism, sit back and wait to hear further details if there are any to be forthcoming,” she said.
You may see more reaction in many places; for example Howard urged to say ‘sorry’. There you see this: Mr Howard has said Labor could not achieve as much support as the Coalition for the referendum he has proposed. And there, I’m afraid, we see it is still the same old snake, even if he has shed a skin. Such a shame that, as the element of calculation, given the timing, emerges rather too obviously from that clumsy bit of packaging; I am sure we will hear it again. It is, needless to say, utter bullshit.
Nonetheless, I would still argue we have been given an opportunity to get it right.