Former PM Howard on a treaty: 'Appalled' or 'appalling'?

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(Cartoon courtesy of John Graham)

Former PM John Howard's recent comments warning against a treaty with Indigenous Australians, only reinforces his irrelevelance and reminds us of the figure who was unceremoniously dumped from Parliament, says Michael Clanchy

FORMER PRIME MINISTER, John Howard, has indicated that he would support Indigenous constitutional recognition, if it simply reflected the

“ ... historical truth that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were here before anyone else.”

Howard can congratulate himself that he has just acknowledged the undisputed evidence of every historian, anthropologist and genetic scientist on the planet. Welcome aboard.

More unfortunately, Mr Howard went on to say:

“I am appalled at talk about treaty …”

It is strange that he can claim to be “appalled”. We all remember his "shouty" declaration on national self-determination in 2001 in relation to Tampa.

The words still ring in our ears:

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Obviously, Howard’s principle and words didn’t – and still don’t – apply for Australia’s Indigenous peoples. We didn’t and, apparently, still don’t need to establish Indigenous consent or agreement to move forward together as one united nation — even though European settlers simply came and took ownership of the land.

In the context of his own words, the hypocrisy and double standard of Howard’s rejection of treaty is breathtaking. His intervention will not rehabilitate his already poor legacy on all matters Indigenous.

Howard further argues that as treaty would be “divisive”:

“The Australian public will not be attracted to the idea of a country trying to make a treaty with itself.”

Stop. Let’s unpack some of the disingenuous and tricky logic loaded into this throwaway line.

First, is Howard including the many Indigenous people seeking a treaty into his phrase “the Australian public”? Secondly, is not the aim of the treaty to reconcile already existing and traumatic divisions between different peoples, often in the one land? Thirdly, does not Howard’s assertion amount to all too convenient denial of reality to preserve the status quo?


We all know that a treaty will not herald entry into the promised land. Current difficulties in community relations will not disappear overnight. Equity gaps will not immediately be overcome. And yes, there will be some economic costs and pains attached to a treaty. How can rectification of dispossession ever be otherwise?

Formal resolution of consent and mutual agreement to move forward in harmony, as culturally diverse people of the one, united nation, would be of inestimable value. The respect underlying the process of treaty is the very ingredient upon which reconciliation is based. Treaty constitutes the very foundation stone of the Australia "project" — the start of the hard work of our future. It is long overdue.

Furthermore, we have within our midst, genuine people – both Indigenous leaders and leaders from newer arrivals – to orchestrate this nation-building.

As for former PM Howard, I suspect that in recent years his popularity as an elder statesman has risen. But if Mr Howard re-enters the political fray, especially on Indigenous matters and amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, he does run the risk of summoning up his 2007 persona — a figure, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Australian people from both Government and his seat in Parliament.

Cartoon courtesy of John Graham. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnGrahamart and John Graham Cartoons & Caricatures on his Facebook here.

"John Howard" apologises on ABC-TV's The Games

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