“I have thought long and deeply about the thrust of this lecture. Tonight my remarks are directed primarily to non-indigenous Australians.”
Looking at the old man last night on the ABC, as he gave the fifth annual Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, I was overwhelmed by how radically my feelings had changed towards Malcolm Fraser. Like many others of my generation, I hated Fraser with a passion when he overthrew the Whitlam government in 1975. I felt he had trampled on democracy to feed his “born to rule” mentality.
Decades later, Fraser has gradually become, like several other “elders” of white Australia, a figure respected by many Australians of Labor and Liberal hue. Looking back on his time in office, his achievements seem enormous on race issues, from passing Northern Territory lands rights legislation – still the most advantageous to Aborigines in the nation – to his steely commitment to abolishing apartheid in South Africa.
His performance last night will be seen from at least two angles. To those who don’t see liberalism and indigenous issues his way, he will seem a forlorn, defeated, crumpled and emotional figure. He will seem a frail old man of the past describing core beliefs no longer relevant to modern Liberals, or even to modern Australia.
To me, Fraser was consciously making his last major address to the nation he once ruled, and the Party he once led. He delivered the finest defence of the need for Australia to take its international human rights obligations seriously that I have heard from a politician. I do not agree with all his remedies and suggestions on Aboriginal policy, but the intellectual muscle of his philosophical position cannot be doubted.
As I sat open mouthed at each Fraser bombshell – including his conversion to a bill of rights – he delivered another and another, in waves. Malcolm Fraser, statesman, set out, clearly and without equivocation, the principles in which, as a Liberal, he believes and their application to the Aboriginal question. Whatever your views, his speech is a must read. It could even lift the quality of the race debate, from both sides. Watching Fraser last night was an exhilarating experience.l I felt proud to be Australian.
An isolated group of moderates within the Liberals subscribe to Fraser views, as do some in the centre and the Christian right, but as a Party, the Liberals under Howard have officially abandoned them, without articulating an alternative philosophy in their place. This has triggered a tortured, seemingly endless cultural war, the result of which will define our national identity.
Fraser has five core disputes with Howard.
1. OUR HISTORY.
Fraser first laid out the documentary evidence which he believes proves that there was a policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children.
“It is hard to realise that the history we were taught of a great empty land being settled by brave explorers was largely false. It might be harder still for some of us who have known people of influence and respect, who participated in policies which we regard today as outdated, barbarous, cruel and racist. We can’t say it happened beyond the memory of today’s Australians. These events were continued after we (had) accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Clearly the test of those “human rights” was not put against the policy of removal.”
Howard and the intellectual right which backs him denies the existence of a stolen generation as such. Through his barrister, Howard argued in the stolen generations’ test case that policies of removal were for the welfare of the child.
He also argues that current generations are untainted, refusing to answer the challenges from many questioners about how he can say this since the policy lasted into the 1960’s. He does not accept – in the case of Aboriginal policy – that the Australian government, as an institution, carries the weight of our history and must deal with it. However he does not subscribe to this view – that each successive government and generation can wash its hands of the performance of their predecessors – when it comes to celebrating glory, like Gallipoli, or demanding an apology from the present Japanese government for WW11 atrocities. He has never articulated why he makes this distinction.
More broadly, Howard describes as “the black armband view of history” the idea that there are themes in our short history for which we should be deeply ashamed and for which we need to atone to both heal the national psyche and become one nation.
2. THE WAY AHEAD
Fraser believes there must be a national apology to the stolen generations, a political settlement on the compensation question, self-determination, and a treaty. He cites evidence from Canada and New Zealand, which have taken this approach, that native disadvantage has since reduced dramatically, while the health and welfare of Australian Aborigines has remained chronically low.
Howard says no to all that, and says that “practical reconciliation” without the symbolic trimmings will do the job. His view is essentially assimilationist, his aim to move Aboriginal people fully into white society and white values. He does not accept that reconciliation is a two way street – that there are spiritual and other values Australian whites can learn from Australian blacks. s
Fraser says reconciliation can never be achieved by the people alone, without political leadership. “Issues of race are always the hardest to resolve, especially when the issue involves property.”
“In a matter so critical to the future of society and the future of Australia, it is not reasonable to say the community must lead.”
“It is the government that must be to the fore and persuade all Australians that we must act with greater expedition and with greater generosity. Government, if not this, another, will set the pace.”
Howard replied that Australians must accept that “progress is slow”.
4. AN AUSTRALIAN BILL OF RIGHTS
The traditional Liberal position is that a bill of rights is unnecessary because the British system of parliamentary democracy, under which power is divided between parliament and an independent judiciary which enforces the rule of law, provided all protection inaccessibly. Australia is now the only Western country not to have a bill of rights, with even the British becoming subject to binding European human rights obligations. Labor tried and failed to get a bill of rights several times in its term of office because the Liberals wouldn’t have it.
Fraser’s conversion is therefore extremely important, as are his reasons for it.
“Through much of my political life I accepted the view of noted lawyers that our system of law, derived from Britain and the development of the common law, best protected the human rights of individuals. I now believe that our own system has so patently failed to protect the “rights” of Aborigines that we should look once again at the establishment of a “bill of rights” for Australia.”
Fraser favour an act of parliament guaranteeing basic rights to all. It could be overturned by Parliament, but at least parliament would have a yardstick to measure itself by.
In reply, Howard restates his antipathy to a bill of rights. saying a bill of rights didn’t help the Soviets or Nazi Germany. He says Australia’s He claims that our strong parliamentary system, incorruptible courts and a strong free press are the best guarantees of human rights.
5. THE UNITED NATIONS.
Fraser notes that Labor and Liberal governments have, until now, been at the forefront of signing human rights treaties and subliming to United Nations scrutiny on our performance. “Did we mean it when we took these steps? Or were we trying to say ‘we ratified these instruments so that we can apply them to the rest of the world but they do not apply to Australia?”
He argues that Australia’s protection, ultimately, “is a civilised lordly and the UN was the only way to progress that aim. Fraser fears the super-power status of the United States, and argues that “it is overwhelmingly in our interests to assist the UN and its instrumentalities in establishing a rule of law which internationally can apply to the great and powerful, just as the rule of law can apply to the great and powerful in Australia.”
Howard’s dramatic break with that bi-partisan tradition has diminished us and damaged the UN, he says. “If the treatment of the original inhabitants of Australia by the white settlers represents the darkest hour in Australian history, the rejection of what many Australians would regard as justified criticism of Australian policies by international institutions, in a way that puts jingoistic nationalism over and above the concept and ideal of human rights, is a step into the past which we should not have taken.”
The government’s response to such criticisms is not to address them. Ministers freely admit privately that their inflammatory remarks against the UN when it critiques them is designed to appeal to uninformed, populist sentiment. My own theory here is that Howard sees UN human rights bodies as unnecessary curbs on his power, and would rather shoot the messenger than change policy.
Malcolm Fraser’s views are intellectually and philosophically coherent. John Howard’s are not, and are adjusted routinely to suit the cause for which he is arguing. Since he became Prime Minister, Howard has never made a speech dedicated to setting out his philosophy on Aboriginal affairs, the outcomes he seeks, and his strategy to get there.
In his end-of-year speech to the National Press Club setting out his priorities for 2000, neither reconciliation or indigenous Australians generally did not rate a mention.
Given Howard’s dramatic break with the joint Labor/Federal tradition on Aboriginal affairs, Howard owes all Australians this speech. It needs to state a philosophy, a set of core principles and a strategy for action.
In my view, Malcolm Fraser’s speech was historic. It could prove one of the last gasps of liberalism, or force John Howard to, at last, articulate his own core philosophy on the question. Aboriginal Australians deserve at least that from the current Prime Miniskirt.