John Howard: 'The most blemished chapter in the history of this country'

From a speech by the Prime Minister of Australia, to the National Reconciliation Planning Workshop, in Canberra

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I've frequently said in my time as Prime Minister that the treatment of indigenous Australians represents the most blemished chapter in the history of this country.

I've frequently said in my time as Prime Minister that the treatment of indigenous Australians represents the most blemished chapter in the history of this country.

If I can speak very bluntly, I think part of the problem with some earlier approaches to reconciliation was that it left too many people, particularly in white Australia, off the hook. It let them imagine that they could simply meet their responsibilities by symbolic expressions and gesture rather than accepting the need for an ongoing persistent rendition of practical, on-the-ground measures to challenge the real areas of indigenous deprivation.

We have reached a new level of agreement in the reconciliation process on the "fundamental need for change to be based on indigenous aspiration". And as somebody who believes devoutly and passionately in individual aspiration as a driving force for progress, and a driving force for progress in all sections in the Australian community, I want to see greater progress in relation to land.

And when I talk about land in this context, let me make it clear that the Government does not seek to wind back or undermine native title or land rights. Rather we want to add opportunities for families and communities to build economic independence and wealth through the use of their communal land assets. We want to find ways to help indigenous Australians secure, maximise and sustain economic benefits. We want to make native title and communal land work better.

I don't want to be too critical about past structures and past approaches. I accept they were embraced in a spirit of optimism and in a spirit of goodwill, but I think one of the lessons we can learn from the past two decades of indigenous policy is that the solutions that focus on local communities and grass-root responses are infinitely more likely to succeed than those that are imposed from a distant perspective and from above.

I say in the name of the Government that we will reach out. We will meet the indigenous people of this country more than halfway if necessary.

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