April 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Abbott steps up on reconciliation

By Robert Manne

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Lest we forget

On 13 February a short speech of perhaps genuine historical significance was delivered in federal parliament. Apart from Eureka Street’s Father Frank Brennan, no one seemed to notice. The occasion was the second reading of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill. The speaker was the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. The speech provided the moral framework for Abbott’s 15 March announcement that, when he won the next election, he would become the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs. This is what he said:


Australia is a blessed country. Our climate, our land, our people, our institutions rightly make us the envy of the earth; except for one thing – we have never fully made peace with the first Australians. This is the stain on our soul that Prime Minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago. We have to acknowledge that pre-1788 this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now and until we have acknowledged that, we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people. We have only to look across the Tasman to see how it all could have been done much better. Thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand two peoples became one nation. So, our challenge is to do now in these times what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago: to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our foundation document.


The anthropologist WEH Stanner was responsible for the most acute observation ever made about the peculiar mindset of non-indigenous Australians, wherein the brutal dispossession of indigenous peoples had been erased from historical memory and moral consciousness. Stanner described this as “a cult of forgetfulness on a national scale”. He christened it “the great Australian silence”.

The silence was shattered from the late 1960s with Stanner’s own influential 1968 Boyer Lectures, ‘After the Dreaming’, and Charles Rowley’s book The Destruction of Aboriginal Society. This awakening of national conscience led eventually to the 1992 High Court Mabo judgement that acknowledged the existence of native title and thus the fateful error after British occupation of obliterating indigenous Australian peoples’ common-law rights to their land.

Two statements made in 1992 voiced the awakened national conscience. Both unsettled conservative Australians. In their joint Mabo judgement, Justices William Deane and Mary Gaudron described the dispossession as “a national legacy of unutterable shame”. And in Sydney’s Redfern in December, Paul Keating spoke more directly about the meaning of the dispossession than any previous prime minister:


Isn’t it reasonable to say that if we can build a prosperous and remarkably harmonious multicultural society in Australia, surely we can find just solutions to the problems which beset the first Australians – the people to whom the most injustice has been done … we did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.


Confronted by such plain speaking, many Australians flinched.

On 30 October 1996, in the debate on a parliamentary resolution on tolerance provoked by Pauline Hanson’s racist maiden speech, the recently elected prime minister, John Howard, drew on the work of historian Geoffrey Blainey to provide conservative Australia with an answer to the words of Deane and Gaudron and of Keating.


I do not believe, and I have always strongly rejected, notions of intergenerational guilt. I regret as an Australian the appalling way in which members of the indigenous community have been treated in the past and I believe the truth about what has occurred in our history should be taught in an unvarnished fashion. But could I also say that I profoundly reject with the same vigour what others have described … as the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one.


John Howard did not deny that in the British settlement of Australia terrible deeds had occurred. Only the revisionist historian Keith Windschuttle would later argue something so absurd. Nonetheless, he rejected Deane, Gaudron and Keating’s moral clarity about the dispossession. His response was revealingly confused. Howard conflated unambiguous recognition of the injustice done to the Aboriginal people with the reduction of Australia’s history to a sorry tale of racism, sexism and exploitation. As even Keating’s Redfern speech made clear, this was a misrepresentation. Howard also consistently failed to distinguish between two quite separate ideas – collective guilt and historic shame. Howard was right to argue that the present generation of Australians could not be asked to shoulder the guilt for the evil acts of their forebears. But he was wrong to affirm, as he often did, that the present generation of Australians should feel pride in the heroic deeds of Gallipoli while denying that they should feel shame about the brutal deeds of the indigenous dispossession.

As a consequence of these confusions, in the August 1998 parliamentary resolution on reconciliation, passed while Howard was prime minister, the destruction of a people was described as a “blemish” on an otherwise noble history, while the call for an apology to the indigenous peoples of Australia was reduced to nothing more than an expression of “regret” for past events. Not surprisingly, this resolution, from which Howard refused to advance, did not satisfy the growing national appetite for an apology.

That only came after the defeat of Howard. In February 2008, Kevin Rudd delivered a fine apology speech to the “stolen generations”, which the then Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson, accepted. But the Howard legacy of ambiguity and confusion over the moral meaning of the dispossession had not yet ended. In his convoluted speech in reply to Rudd, Nelson combined recognition of the need for an apology with questionable justifications for indigenous child removal in the past and detailed descriptions of child abuse in the present. It seemed we were still waiting for the moment when the overwhelming majority of Australians no longer flinched from uncomfortable truths about the evils done to the Aboriginal peoples in the settlement of their country. Perhaps that moment is approaching.

In his gracious support for the Gillard government’s bill for indigenous constitutional recognition, Tony Abbott praised Paul Keating’s Redfern speech as “moving”. And he spoke in language as uncompromising as Gaudron and Deane’s about the need to recognise the depth of the injustices that had been done to indigenous peoples if the “stain on our soul” was to be removed and if our nation was not to remain forever “torn”.

These words were spoken by the deeply conservative leader of the Liberal Party, the true heir and successor to John Howard, but no less importantly by the friend of the Aboriginal leader who has never given up on the conservatives, Noel Pearson. If Tony Abbott meant what he said, and there are no grounds for doubt, then some weeks ago something of true significance in the moral history of Australia took place in federal parliament.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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