Maybe an old dog can learn new tricks. Last night, after admitting he's struggled with Aboriginal reconciliation throughout his Prime Ministership, John Howard announced a plan to hold a referendum on including a statement of reconciliation in the preamble to the Constitution.
Considering his record on reconciliation issues over the last eleven years, for Howard to announce a move like this with the genuine intention of healing relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, seems about as likely as my announcing I'm going to be a grid girl at the Melbourne Grand Prix next March.
So has Howard undergone a volte-face in his attitude? Perhaps we can believe this...until we remember there's an election coming up. The chorus from the left is singing, "Of course it's the right thing to do, but why now?". Meanwhile the general response from Aboriginal leaders has ranged from mixed, to poor. Olga Havnen has said, "Given the period of his term of office, where there has been very little improvement for the well being of Aboriginal people, I think this is too little too late." And, as Warren Mundine has pointed out, "Here we are probably 48 hours from a federal election being called. This should have been done years ago."
We've become a deeply cynical nation. Of course, if you really want the voice of The People, you can't go past reading the comments from the Daily Telegraph website. Ranging from misinformed diatribes through to racism, heartlessness and the whole shebang, there's no better argument in favour of abolishing compulsory voting. The general feeling on this idea according to Terror readers is, We ain't liking it. Some though are more positive, such as one commenter who wrote:"I hate it when people say "he's just trying to get extra votes". Isn't that what politics is about?!?!?! Getting people to vote for you. The only extra votes Mr Howard is going to get from this are from people who believe its a good thing." (He probably believes in the tooth fairy as well).
But the fact is that the only people more likely to vote Liberal as a result of this were never going to vote Liberal in the first place. Yes, that statement doesn't make sense, but neither does John Howard on this. Not the idea itself - who could possibly oppose it? Labor has of course promised to also hold the referendum if elected, but these days Labor's me-too-ism is so entrenched that if Costello announced a plan to replace the 50c coin with a 47c coin, Kevin Rudd would claim that this was Labor policy all along.
By not making sense, why is Howard doing this now? It is, as I said above, not going to win him any votes (not least because Labor has immediately matched the policy). The old Howard would have known this. No one really believes he's undergone a Damascene conversion. So we're left with two pretty unsavoury alternatives:
1. Howard is completely losing it; or
2. There's Something Big about to emerge, and he wants to distract us with this (he could have just waited till Melbourne Cup day).
Either way, it's not a pretty picture.