Indigenous meet the hollow man

ON MAY 8, 1895, The Cairns Argus newspaper carried a report that read: ``A spectacle was witnessed on the first day of the present month -- a kind of government function that certainly was not creditable to the authorities and should bring a blush of shame to the cheeks of every colonist.
``About 150 Aborigines assembled in the police paddock and the officers of peace opened a bale of blankets containing 50, tore them in halves, and distributed them among the dusty natives.
``There seems to have been some qualms of conscience passing through the official mind in Brisbane in connection with this half-blanket distribution farce, for at the very time grinning recipients were clutching their coverings, a telegram came through from the capital stating that every Aboriginal in the colony was to receive a whole blanket.
``Astounding magnanimity! We have taken from the Queensland natives no less than 428,663,360 acres of land. Out of this vast and luxuriant area, about 10 million acres have been sold for pound stg. 6.25 million. Another 300 million acres have been leased, from which the State derives an annual rental of pound stg. 332,800.
``In return for this, governments past and present have given these black-skinned, patient, uncomplaining children of the soil one whole blue blanket per year, costing perhaps five shillings each. And yet we profess to call ourselves Christians and even set about in a spasmodic way to try and save our black brothers' souls.
``Can anything be more pitiful, more degrading to our boasted civilisation, more fiendishly selfish, more devilishly unjust, more indicative of British national greed?''
Last Wednesday in Canberra Prime Minister John Howard presided over a ``summit'' of 16 invited Aboriginal leaders from throughout Australia. The subject under discussion was violence in Aboriginal communities -- a matter he described after the meeting as ``the most serious issue confronting indigenous Australians''.
The people he invited represented many who have been prepared to speak out on the previously taboo subjects of sexual and physical violence, caused most often by people affected by alcohol.
It included Boni Robertson, the Brisbane academic who headed a committee of 50 indigenous women in 1999 looking for solutions to alcohol-induced violence.
And Noel Pearson, who has devoted the past five years fighting the issue at his own personal and financial cost. Also present were inaugural ATSIC chair-woman Lowitja O'Donoghue, Mick Dodson, Jacki Huggins, Evelyn Scott -- people who have courageously addressed the issues, and often been lambasted by their own people for doing so.
Pearson presented a paper to the summit which outlined his views of what should be done on a national basis to attack the problems of alcohol-dependency and violence, but he was rejected. He left the meeting resolving to push ahead with his plans to attack the problems on Cape York -- and leave the national strategy to a later time.
For his part, the Prime Minister called a press conference at the conclusion of the three-hour talkfest and expressed his ``strongly held view'' that indeed, violence had to be addressed.
He said that the meeting had agreed to appoint a committee that would report back to him, and perhaps he would call yet another ``summit'' at a later time.
A glance at the record is revealing, showing that Howard's credentials regarding indigenous matters are appalling. At Corroboree 2000 held at the Sydney Opera House in the spirit of reconciliation, he refused to offer an apology on behalf of the Government to Aboriginal people. The crowd turned their backs while he spoke -- a powerful rejection that signalled their disappointment.
He refused to join the reconciliation march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with the result that skywriting aircraft overhead spelt out ``shame''.
When he won the 1998 election, his acceptance speech spelt out his ``commitment'' to achieving reconciliation between black and white Australians. His apparent change of heart was applauded.
But on these issues Howard is more shadow than substance. He has no passion whatever for this cause.
With great public fanfare he called together a group of intelligent, caring indig-enous people, each bearing the responsibility of representing their communities on a serious problem.
But Howard had nothing to offer. As an exercise in empty ingenuousness it took the cake. He would not even have one of his invited representatives stand beside him for the press conference.
The following morning in Canberra dawned bleak and cold, with some snow falling on surrounding mountains.
Perhaps the PM was comforted by the knowledge that he had provided some practical help to the 16 ``black-skinned, patient, uncomplaining children of the soil'' -- they could wrap themselves in the half-blanket he had given them the day before.
Devilishly unjust, indeed.