For All of Us (But Not for Them) Mabo and the 1996 Federal Election Campaign

Sydney Institute

1996 February, 20

For All of Us (But Not for Them) Mabo and the 1996 Federal Election Campaign

If I do one thing here this evening, let me at least invest in you the depth of my conviction that on 2 March 1996, Australians will make the most important decision in this country’s modern political history as to our future as a nation and as to the kind of country we want in the new millennium. More than at any time in the past, the national atmosphere is pregnant with possibilities unrealised and potentials yet to be fulfilled. The air is heavy with promise.

As Australians, we can continue to develop, becoming an inclusive nation founded on unity in diversity – or we can go back to the Australia of old. We can head towards 2000 with optimism about our problems and challenges, and a commitment to work hard to make things better. Or we can be pessimistic and cynical about the gains we have made, and we can allow our resolve to be questioned. We can go backwards.

Concerning the fundamental question of our national culture and identity, and the relationship between the old and new of this continent, we as a country simply cannot afford to turn back. We now have the foundations upon which we can begin to build truly great things. The cornerstone that Mabo laid for us will withstand the most blistering cynicism that our national critics can muster.

Mabo is the correct foundation for our future, no matter the frustrations we will all experience and despite the impatience, anger, arguments, misgivings and faithlessness that might afflict us from time to time. It is the correct foundation, because without a foundation of truth no national structure can endure. If we forsake Mabo, we will be bereft of our one chance at national coherence: an opportunity to come to terms with the past, take its prescriptions in the present and map out a future.

Tonight I want to talk about Mabo and native title in the context of the 1996 election campaign. The spirit of Mabo has hovered silently but persistently over this campaign from the outset. It has, in different ways, informed the leadership philosophies of both contenders, Paul Keating and John Howard, and has played no small part in determining the respective political strategies of the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal–National Coalition.

Now, it is necessary to admit that I have come to a painful conclusion about the philosophy and strategy behind the Liberal Party’s campaign to assume government in this country. The decision to discuss my views has not been made lightly. There is also no doubt in my mind that there are countless candidates and members of the party who have neither given thought to nor participated in the development of what amounts to a grotesque but familiar political strategy, a strategy which exploits racism for political gain.

Let me begin my analysis by saying that it is a political fact, borne out by the polls, that Aboriginal affairs are not an electoral priority and that there is a substantial reservoir of resentment and prejudice in some sections of the Australian community regarding Aborigines. Mabo and native title encapsulate ‘the Aboriginal Problem’ in the Australian subconscious. In campaign terms, Mabo, native title and Aboriginal people are difficult issues to be positive about, given that there is a sizeable proportion of the population who still cling to obscurantist outlooks.

Because of the political problems that Mabo presented, there were a few people in the parliamentary Labor Party who were not convinced that it should have been honoured in the way it was. Bob McMullan frankly articulated the political problem that Mabo represented for a pragmatic party anxious to stay in office when he said recently on the Four Corners program:

Mabo wasn’t ever seen as a vote winner for the government. It was just seen as being right. I think all of us were nervous nellies. I don’t know about Paul, but I was very excited by what we were doing as an important bit of agenda setting for Australia into the twenty first century. But was I apprehensive about the public response to it, whether it would be seen to be workable and whether it would be accepted? Yes, I was very apprehensive.

There is still in Australia a sinister undercurrent of xenophobia and ignorance that informs a virulent racism. This subterranean ugliness rears its head from time to time, but with the country’s maturation, explicit racism is increasingly regarded as unacceptable and indecent. What Russ Hinze and Joh Bjelke-Petersen used to say with impunity every other week when I was a kid in Queensland is today rightly considered offensive and indecent.

But has racism yet properly become un-Australian? In its strategic prosecution of the 1996 campaign, the Liberal Party has brought this question to the fore. In the drive for political office, the Liberals have allowed themselves to besmirch their proud record on race and multiculturalism for the sake of expedience. The subtle irony of the slogan for the 1996 Liberal campaign struck me with a visceral force: ‘For All of Us’. After living for at least three febrile years with a desperate belief that we as a country were about to cross the Rubicon, if only, if only, if only … now I knew that the Liberal campaign was going to destroy the national promise because they so much want to destroy their political opponents.

This morning, Gerard Henderson referred, in addition to the ‘dewogging’ statements of National Party candidate Bob Burgess and the ‘slanty-eyed ideologues’ of Bob Katter, to two incredible incidents involving two National Party backbenchers. The member for Queanbeyan, Peter Cochran, and the member for Parkes, Michael Cobb, separately alluded to rumours that Aborigines from Redfern were going to be relocated to these electorates to make way for the Olympics.

The Liberal Party candidate for Oxley, Pauline Hanson, who was subsequently forced to quit, was quoted by The Courier Mail on Thursday, 15 February:

She said Aborigines could ‘walk into a job’ in the police force, received lenient court sentences, had better chances of getting housing and business loans, and were the main instigators of crime and violence.

‘I’m not racist but I’m asking for equality … what I believe is racism is starting in this country because the government is looking after the Aborigines too much. Uni places have been set aside for them and if you are an Aborigine you get into the police force automatically, while anyone else has to study and work for two years.

Mr Howard was reported to be disgusted by her comments. However, Pauline Hanson has expressed the very sentiment that the Liberals’ campaign slogan, ‘For All of Us’, is trying to exploit. By alleging government favouritism and special treatment, unscrupulous people are generating racist sentiment and criticism of government largesse to minorities. Why was ‘For All of Us’ chosen as the Liberals’ campaign slogan? It is because, on a subliminal level, they are seeking to exploit the very sentiment that Hanson has articulated.

Mabo and the Native Title Act set the context for the Liberals’ clever slogan and there is no other issue with which Keating is more identified than Aboriginal reconciliation. Few dispute his commitment to it; he has mentioned it at every turn, and sought to lead the nation at every opportunity. This has been despite complaints from within his own party about ‘too much Mabo’ and despite the sheer difficulty of standing up consistently in this policy area. So the subliminal message is: Keating has only been governing for the Abos, who get everything free …

The idea that there are minorities – and Aborigines are the unmentioned exemplars – who are living it up while we in Middle Australia remain unrepresented by the government presses some buttons. It presses buttons with decent Australians at a subliminal level, because they don’t necessarily follow through the nasty logic of the propaganda. These Australians would be appalled if the logic were put to them in an explicit way, as Pauline Hanson’s comments have done. The Liberals’ slogan works, however, through more subtle implication. Talk about American-style electioneering propaganda! The message is so subtly crafted that it sickened me from the moment I saw it, and yet it is very difficult to expose. People need it explained clearly before they can see how it works.

The clever and sinister thing about the slogan is that it can be used on different groups to focus resentment and prejudice against other groups. If your beef is with environmentalists: then John Howard will govern ‘For All of Us’. If you hate the unions: then John Howard will govern ‘For All of Us’. If you want Asians out: then John Howard will govern ‘For All of Us’. If you don’t like the great Jewish conspiracy: then John Howard will govern ‘For All of Us’. If you don’t like the feminazis: then John Howard will govern ‘For All of Us’. If you are sick of the wog multiculturalists: then John Howard will govern ‘For All of Us’. If you don’t like Abos who are getting free cars and houses and jobs: well, John Howard will govern ‘For All of Us’.

What the Liberals have failed to understand is that leadership for all of us requires government to rise to the challenge of bringing the people on the margins on board. People such as Aborigines. People out on the fringes. No-one else has come close to the inclusive leadership that Paul Keating has provided. By bringing Aboriginal people into the national mainstream and providing the foundation for reconciliation and inclusion, he has shown the requisite leadership and has indeed governed for all of us. When he spoke about ‘one nation’, he sought to bring the people on the margins into the national fold.

The Liberals’ divisive campaign slogan is a scary foreshadowing of an un-inclusive government for Middle Australia. However, along with Keating and contrary to the Liberal Party, I believe that Middle Australia really believes in a nation that includes the people on the margins. They will be revolted by political campaigning that seeks to focus resentment on people at the margins for political purposes. Despite the electoral difficulties, there has never been a greater need for a leader who is not afraid to show inclusive leadership.

I have consistently supported Keating’s leadership in Aboriginal affairs and his championing of Mabo and Aboriginal reconciliation. Let me explain why. Because he believes in one nation and in bringing people on the margins into the mainstream. Because his vision is not about guilt about the past but about optimism for the future. Because he believes in the decency of Australians and our unbending commitment to a fair go for all. Because it is not about being a bleeding heart; it’s about doing something practical and decent. Because it is not about being obsessive; it’s about doing what needs to be done. Because it is about Aboriginal people taking responsibility for their own lives and showing leadership in their own communities, so that the egregious problems can be worked out in partnership with government and not by government alone. Because Keating believes (as I and many Australians do) that with leadership we can lead the world in forging a reconciliation based on justice and inclusion, and on coming to terms with the truths of the past and a belief in the possibilities of the future. Because this is a good thing for Indigenous people as well as for the nation.

As a young Australian with a very keen sense of excitement about our country and what we can achieve, let me say that despite the tremendous challenges and the daunting problems we face, I have a brimming optimism about our prospects. Australia is a good country, but we have the capacity to be better. But if you think that opportunity and success and achievement are just going to fall into our laps while we sit on our hands, you’re wrong. If you think that we’re going to have a great and prosperous nation without some pain and uncertainty, then you’re wrong. The potential that is inherent in all of us, and which is our national inheritance, will only be fulfilled with faith in each other, goodwill, perseverance and an unequivocal leadership.

I don’t believe that the Australian Labor Party is necessarily the natural party of government in Australia, nor that the country should be saddled with its perpetual leadership. I believe that the Liberal Party under Malcolm Fraser in fact espoused inclusive government. It was the party that unequivocally rejected racism and championed the concept of a multicultural Australia. Fred Chaney, Ian Viner and Peter E. Baume were my political heroes. There are young people in the present Liberal Party, such as Christopher Pyne and Ian Campbell, who hold great promise for a party which is in a grievous ideological decline. Their time should come for government in the new millennium.

But for the ALP to lose office because of Keating’s stand on inclusive leadership and Mabo would be to our eternal discredit. Mabo should not necessarily be a reason for Howard not to win the election, but it should never be a reason for Keating to lose it. Ultimately, for the nation, what is more important than who wins the election is whether, in the process, in their drive for power, they have damaged the country by projecting resentment and prejudice against minority groups.