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How John Howard Positioned Himself as Indigenous Australia's Champion




Rowse, Tim

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As prime minister from 1996 to 2007, John Howard found it necessary to try to project himself as sympathetic to Indigenous Australians, but this was not easy for the leader of a government committed to the conspicuous reversal of policy wins by Indigenous Australians under the Hawke and Keating governments (1983–96). Howard’s summary term, in Lazarus Rising, for the policy paradigm from which he wished his government to break was ‘separate development’. In this article, I argue against taking Howard at his word. Howard pragmatically reconciled his government to much that could be called ‘separate development’: amending (rather than repealing) the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993, retaining the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) (after cutting its budget), building up Keating’s Indigenous Land Fund, revising (rather than extinguishing) the distinct statutory regulation of Indigenous corporations and initiating the Indigenous Protected Areas program. At the same time as he made these concessions to ‘separate development’, Howard sought and cultivated allies among an increasingly differentiated cast of Indigenous leaders—not least, those who had become disenchanted with ATSIC and those whose power base was distinct from it. Central to Howard’s appeal to these men and women was his sincere ‘compassion’ for Indigenous suffering and his commitment to ameliorating their ‘disadvantage’—what he called ‘practical reconciliation’. By March 2004, with the Opposition abandoning ATSIC, and with a growing critical commentary on Indigenous affairs from Indigenous leaders themselves, it was possible for Howard to act more boldly against the norms of ‘separate development’. As well as abolishing ATSIC in 2004–05, he authorised the Northern Territory Emergency Response in June 2007, with sufficient Indigenous support that opinion (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) was now divided as to whether he had shown himself to be Indigenous Australia’s champion.





ANU Historical Journal II


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