Aborigines fight threat to rights

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The Independent Online
Less than seven weeks after its election, Australia's conservative coalition government has moved to strip Aborigines of autonomy over their affairs, provoking a confrontation with black leaders who accuse Canberra of turning race relations back half a century.

Aboriginal leaders around the country united yesterday in a chorus of condemnation as the Liberal-National government headed by John Howard declared its determination to push the changes through.

"Sentiment in the Aboriginal community is now reaching a state of siege," said Roberta Sykes, head of the Black Women's Action in Education Foundation and a winner of the Australian Human Rights Medal. "It seems the government has said 'To hell with them' and spun the clock back 30 years. By 2000, Australian race relations may have slipped back 100 years."

Mick Dodson, a leading Aboriginal bureaucrat, said: "Aborigines' relations with the Australian government are now at crisis point." His view was supported by Noel Pearson, head of the Cape York Land Council in north Queensland, who said: "This government's approach to indigenous affairs could see Aborigines return to the confrontationist approach of the 1970s." He added that this could lead to great unrest during the 2000 Olympics, which will take place in Sydney.

Their anger has sparked from Mr Howard's announcement that the government would remove autonomy for spending on Aboriginal affairs which now rests with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The commission, based in Canberra and largely run by blacks, is the supreme policy-making public body over Aboriginal affairs. In its six-year life, the commission has become one of Australia's most turbulent bureaucracies; it has a budget of 1bn Australian dollars (pounds 500m), and almost 600 elected councillors.

The commission's critics, including prominent Aborigines, accuse it of being an expensive failure. They cite the fact that Aborigines still have one of the world's most appalling health standards and a life expectancy 20 years below that of whites.

Colin Tatz, one of Australia's most prominent writers on race relations, said yesterday: "Unless the bully-boy stuff ceases and some wise action begins soon, by the time we get to the Olympics the stage will be set for confrontation that the world's cameras will be only too eager to film."