British MEP ignites Australian race row

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Australia's government yesterday slapped down a visiting British MEP who described new legislation on Aboriginal rights as racist. Robert Milliken in Sydney says the row has put the question of Canberra's commitment to human rights under the spotlight.

Hugh Kerr, a Labour member of a European parliamentary delegation, was visiting Canberra during a fiery debate on the government's amendments to the native title act. "The legislation that they're proposing, on the opinions I've seen from legal counsel, clearly is discriminatory," he told a rally outside parliament yesterday, "and it could be construed as being racist."

Mr Kerr added that the Aboriginal legislation, together with Australia's failure at the United Nations recently to support a motion criticising China on human rights, raised "a worry that Australia isn't taking human rights as seriously, perhaps, as it has in the past". He advised John Howard, Australia's right-wing Prime Minister: "The world is a global village and we're concerned about racism. We're concerned about discrimination wherever we find it. The European Parliament will pass judgement on that."

Mr Kerr's advice was roundly rejected by Tim Fischer, deputy prime minister in Mr Howard's coalition government, whose proposed amendments to the land-rights law have drawn protests from Aboriginal and church leaders, human rights groups and opposition MPs.

"Before they start lecturing us ... they might like to start thinking about the Sami people, the Laplanders in Scandinavia ... who have no native title rights in Finland, or Sweden or Norway for that matter," Mr Fischer said. "I will listen to the Europeans when the Sami have a right to claim three-quarters of Scandinavia and the Gypsies three-quarters of France, Czechoslovakia or Hungary."

The legislation has already passed through the House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament. Yesterday it was introduced to the Senate, the upper house, where the Labour opposition, Greens and Democrats - who together outnumber the coalition - have vowed to reject it.

Mr Howard has warned that he will call a general election if the Senate rejects the bill twice. Such an election would inevitably degenerate into one fought primarily on the issue of race and would be likely to damage Australia's international reputation.

The government introduced the bill in response to a high court judgment last December which found that Aboriginal native title and pastoral, or farming, leases could co-exist on the same land.

The government claims the high court rulings allow Aborigines to lay claim to more than 79 per cent of Australia's total land mass of almost 3 million square miles. Farmers on pastoral leases, some of which cover swathes of outback the size of European countries, have been campaigning for the government to safeguard their lands by formally extinguishing native title rights.

Mr Howard's legislation does not go so far as they would like, but it does makes it hard for Aborigines to gain access to traditional lands which are now used by farmers. Some legal experts argue that the bill is unconstitutional and flouts Australia's international human rights obligations, while several church leaders have described it as racist. Noel Pearson, an Aboriginal lawyer, recently called the government "racist scum".