John Howard came to power in 1996, after 13 years of Labor dominance under Hawke and Keating. We have already noted that the themes chosen for NAIDOC WEEK in the early Howard years, 1996 and 1997, were both incisive comments about our public life.
The themes that followed in the Howard years continued this stance of naming key issues from an indigenous perspective.
1998: Bringing Them Home
2000: Building Pride in Our Communities
2001: Treaty—Let’s Get It Right
2002: Recognition, Rights and Reform
2003: Our Children Our Future
2004: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility
2005: Our Future Begins with Solidarity
2006: Respect the Past—Believe in the Future
In his overview of indigenous affairs during the period of the Howard Government, Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes a cluster of immediate changes made by the incoming Howard government—changing terminology, withdrawing support from established initiatives, applying economic markers to the outcomes desired, amending the Native Title Act, and reducing funding to ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission). See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057
Over the ensuing decade, Gardiner-Garden notes that “perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community”, and records a series of decisions and actions which provided ongoing concern within Aboriginal communities: the ultimate demise of ATSIC, the attempt to establish a Special Auditor “to make a determination on whether a prospective grantee was ‘not fit and proper’ to receive public money”, a contentious Ten Point Plan to deal with the Wik decision, alterations to the Native Title Act which were seen as racially discriminatory, a Racial Hatred Act (1996) which fell short of many provisions that had been requested, and finally the Northern Territory Emergency Response, more widely known as The Intervention.
This latter event was applied to 73 Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, and involved withholding 50% of welfare payments from Indigenous welfare recipients—-bans on alcohol and pornography—-increased police presence in Aboriginal communities—-compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children—-and the power for government to take possession of Aboriginal land and property.
The Intervention was a highly controversial policy, with many Aboriginal leaders speaking out against it.
There was some support within the Australian Indigenous community as well as beyond it. Australians Together report that “two of Australia’s most influential Indigenous academics and leaders, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, supported several of the more controversial aspects of the Intervention.”
The Intervention, however, is viewed by most Aboriginal people as yet another instance of white colonial supremacy over blacks. It is perhaps appropriate, then, for this blog to go live on 10 June, which was the day that the infamous Myall Creek Massacre took place, in 1838. This event has come to be a symbol of all that has been wrong about the way that the invading British colonisers treated the indigenous peoples who had been the continuous inhabitants of the land “since time immemorial”.
Creative Spirits describes the 1838 event as follows: “12 heavily armed colonists rounded up and brutally kill 28 Aboriginal people from a group of 40 or 50 people gathered at Henry Dangar’s Station, at Myall Creek near Inverell (NSW). The massacre was believed to be a payback for the killing of several hut keepers and two shepherds. But most of those killed were women and children and good relations existed between the Aboriginal people and European occupants of the station. Seven stockmen are eventually hanged for murder. This outrages the colonial press and parts of the public who cannot understand why anyone should hang for murdering Aboriginal people.”
A pivotal event took place in 1997, when Prime Minister Howard addressed the Australian Reconciliation Convention, a forum for Australians to discuss Indigenous issues. The conference drew widespread participation, but was overshadowed by the controversy that Howard generated in his opening address on 27 May 1997.
Howard said: In facing the realities of the past, […] we must not join those who would portray Australia’s history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism […] such an approach will be repudiated by the overwhelming majority of Australians who are proud of what this country has achieved although inevitably acknowledging the blemishes in its past history.
The reference to “blemishes” in Australia history was an incendiary remark. Indigenous delegates who were listening to the lecture stood up and turned their backs on the Prime Minister.
It was a shameful moment, a deliberate aggravation by the elected leader of the First Peoples present. The 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, Wik—Three Strikes for Justice—Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, offered a striking rejoinder to the mean-spirited assessment of the Prime Minister (see previous post).
In 1998, the theme for NAIDOC WEEK was equally striking. It was a direct reference to the landmark report on the stolen generations which had been issued in April 1997 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report was entitled Bringing Them Home, and that exact phrase was used for the NAIDOC WEEK theme in 1998: Bringing Them Home.
Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court justice and the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission at that time, had led the National Inquiry along with Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner. They heard testimony directly from 535 people and read a further 600 submissions that had been made. Wilson stated that they encountered “hundreds of stories of personal devastation, pain and loss. It was a life-changing experience.”
The report, entitled Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, estimated that “between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes”. The commissioners found that this was in breach of international law, and called for a national compensation fund to be established. They also recommended a national “sorry day”; the first one was held in 1998 and this has remained an annual fixture of growing significance to Aboriginal Australians.
Creative Spirits offers an excellent overview of the issues associated with the Aboriginal people who had formed what became known as “the stolen generations”; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/a-guide-to-australias-stolen-generations
They also have a comprehensive cataloguing of the impacts that being removed from your family home as a child can have on such children, running throughout their lives and on into subsequent generations; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/stolen-generations-effects-and-consequences
The response of the Howard Government to this report was jarring: Howard refused to make a public apology to “the stolen generations”. Apologies were made by the governments of South Australia (May 1997), Western Australia (May 1997), the Australian Capital Territory (June 1997), New South Wales (June 1997), Tasmania (August 1997), Victoria (September 1997), Queensland (May 1999), and the Northern Territory (October 2001), as well as a number of local governments and churches across the country.
The texts of the above apologies can be found at https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/bringing-them-home-apologies-state-and-territory-parliaments-2008
The Howard Government did not offer a formal apology; instead, they brought a motion to the Parliament in 1999 which expressed “deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations”, noting “the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices”.
The government described this intentional, systemic, multi-generational mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the “
“most blemished chapter” in Australian history. The understatement of this language (“regret” rather than “sorry” or “apology”; “blemish” rather than “systemic injustice”, for instance) reflected the conservative white preference for minimising—or perhaps removing from sight—the story of Aboriginal people in recent centuries.
Subsequent NAIDOC WEEK themes would speak back to this inadequate and insulting governmental response.
In 1999, the theme was Respect: Show Some, Earn Some. This was a plea to provide what many Aboriginal people had felt had been missing over the decades: respect.
In 2000, the theme was Building Pride in Our Communities. This connected back with earlier themes in which community had been a motif. It also offered an encouragement to Aboriginal people, to be proud of who they are and what they have to offer.
2000 was the year when hundreds of thousands of people “walked for reconciliation”, a strong statement of the popular support that existed for clear action in the way that Aboriginal and Islander people are treated. The most memorable walk was across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000, when a quarter of a million people (250,000 people) walked across the bridge.
For the centenary of Australia as a nation, the theme for 2001 was Treaty—Let’s Get It Right. This was another strong statement to government and public intransigence in the face of a growing recognition that the situation of Indigenous peoples was damaged by injustice upon injustice.
The history of seeking a treaty reveals stalled attempts, negative responses, and inaction by various governments. In 1979, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, had convened a number of prominent non-Aboriginal Australians, working towards the implementation of a Treaty with Aboriginal peoples.
In 1981, the Fraser Government responded by rejecting the notion that a Treaty was needed. Treaties, it was said, are concluded between separate sovereign nations; the Aboriginal people were not a nation with which a treaty could be concluded.
In 1983, the National Aboriginal Conference proposed that, rather than a single national treaty, each individual Aboriginal nation might negotiate its own treaty or agreement. By 1987, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had signalled a willingness to produce some form of agreement for the Bicentenary of 1988. The Barunga Statement was presented to him in June 1988, but no action ensued.
By 1991, a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had been formed. In 1996, iconic rock band Yothu Yindi released their single, Treaty, which peaked at number 11 on the Australian charts and number 6 internationally. But no action followed. By the end of the decade, Prime Minister Howard had definitively rejected any notion of a treaty, because “it implies that we are two nations; and we are not, we are one nation”. Thus, the 2001 theme of Treaty—Let’s Get It Right was a clear political statement.
For the history of discussions and proposals relating to a treaty, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/treaty-timeline-events-from-1835-to-today?page=2
On what is involved in such a treaty, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/what-is-a-treaty
In the following years, the NAIDOC WEEK themes referenced familiar motifs.
For 2002, the theme continued the explicit political plea of 2001, with the triple alliteration of Recognition, Rights and Reform. In 2003, the theme of Our Children Our Future looked back to earlier themes.
In 2004, the theme had four parts: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility. The poster had a striking indigenous image set within a pair of cupped brown hands.
The 2005 theme, Our Future Begins with Solidarity, reinforced once more the importance of working together, both within the Aboriginal community as a whole, and also with white allies in the wider Australian society.
Perhaps the theme for 2006, Respect the Past—Believe in the Future, was chosen with an eye to the prevailing “black armband” view of history that had been actively prosecuted in the so-called “history wars” during the Howard years.
The “black armband view of history” had been first suggested by historian Geoffrey Blainey in a public lecture he gave in 1993. A series of polemic interactions from historians and commentators ensued over the next decade, fuelled by comments made by John Howard in a 1996 lecture, soon after he had been elected Prime Minister.
Mr Howard asserted that “the ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.”
Howard continued, “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed. In saying that I do not exclude or ignore specific aspects of our past where we are rightly held to account. Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them. … But … our priority should … [be] to commit to a practical program of action that will remove the enduring legacies of disadvantage.”
The transcript of the lecture is at https://web.archive.org/web/20110727080235/http://www.menzieslecture.org/1996.html
This Prime-Ministerial advocacy added fuel to the fire raging in the debate. It was countered by the patient work of Henry Reynolds in advocating honesty in the public discourse about “The Frontier Wars”, a term which has come into popular usage to describe the series of aggressive engagements and terrible massacres that took place from early in the years of British colonisation, through into the 20th century.
Respect the Past—Believe in the Future was a fine and suitable theme to highlight in 2006. The theme for the following year built on this with its reference to Looking Forward, Looking Blak.