Monday, August 21, 2006

Saying Sorry, Howard Style

Two Vietnam War era Iroquois helicopters have been disturbing my peace this weekend, flying low over Australia’s national capital multiple times on multiple days as part of the interminable celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan.

Long Tan was so important a battle in Australia’s Vietnam engagement that the anniversary has been adopted as Vietnam Veterans' Remembrance Day in Australia. The question of recognition for Vietnam Veterans is as sensitive in Australia as it is in the US, and there has been lingering resentment about the downgrading of bravery awards to soldiers who fought at Long Tan.

This prompted Prime Minister Howard to offer a national apology on Thursday to the soldiers who were “poorly treated” on their return from Vietnam.

Some Australians are celebrating another anniversary this weekend. It’s also 40 years since the walk off by Aboriginal workers and their families from Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. This symbolic and courageous action taken by Gurindji, Mudbura and Warlpiri families against the oppressive practices of a company owned by Lord Vestey was a major rallying point and contributed to winning equal pay for Indigenous workers in the pastoral industry, national recognition of Aboriginal land rights, and eventual return of the Wave Hill land to Gurindji ownership.

John Howard was all over the Long Tan anniversary celebrations like a rash. A reception for veterans was held at Parliament House. A memorial service was held at the Vietnam Memorial on Anzac Avenue. And those damn Iroquois kept flying back and forth in formation about 100 metres over the suburbs.

John Howard was nowhere to be seen in relation to the Wave Hill commemoration.

As Opposition Leader in 1987, John Howard made an issue of growing Asian immigration to Australia. Since assuming office as Prime Minister in 1996, he has refused to say sorry for the decades-long policy of enforced separation of Aboriginal children from their families (known as the stolen generation) on grounds that it was not he or current generations of Australians who were responsible. And besides, the argument went, he could not say sorry because it might admit legal liability by the Government.

If Howard is not a racist himself, then he has certainly played very carefully to cultivate the support of the racist element in the Australian community. Now we see the flimsy excuse of ‘legal liability’ being discredited by Howard himself as he says ‘sorry’ to 50,000 Vietnam veterans. It’s completely clear that John Howard will only ever say sorry to you if you are white and fit his scheme of promoting militarism and the ‘good’ bits of Australian history.

Cross-posted at Booman Tribune and European Tribune.

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