For the past four years, a debate has raged in Australia over whether the process of reconciliation between its indigenous and non-indigenous populations should include a formal apology for past injustices. John Howard, who became Prime Minister in 1996, has repeatedly rejected what he regards as an over-apologetic tendency, epitomised by certain policies of the previous Labor Government, and by references in the Australian High Court's Mabo judgment, which recognised native title to Aboriginal lands taken by settlers, to 'a national legacy of unutterable shame'. Speaking in Parliament that year, he warned of the need to guard against the 'rewriting of Australian political history':
I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one. I believe that, like any other nation, we have black marks upon our history but amongst the nations of the world we have a remarkably positive history. I think there is a yearning in the Australian community right across the political divide for its leader to enunciate more pride and sense of achievement in what has gone before us. I think we have been too apologetic about our history in the past. I believe it is tremendously important, particularly as we approach the centenary of the Federation of Australia, that the Australian achievement has been a heroic one, a courageous one and a humanitarian one.
LRB 19 October 2000 | PDF Download