Aboriginal protests may turn violent, says leader

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The Independent Online

Nelson Mandela has been feted like a living legend during a flying visit to Australia this week - by everybody except the Australia government, which was accused yesterday of snubbing the former South African president.

Nelson Mandela has been feted like a living legend during a flying visit to Australia this week - by everybody except the Australia government, which was accused yesterday of snubbing the former South African president.

When Mr Mandela addresses a conference on reconciliation in Melbourne today, the Prime Minister, John Howard, will not be present. Nor will any of his ministers, including Philip Ruddock, the Immigration and Reconciliation Minister. Of the six state leaders invited, only one has accepted: Steve Bracks, the Labour premier of Victoria.

Reconciliation between black and white communities is a burning issue in Australia, particularly in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics. Aboriginal activists are planning to mount protests during the Games to draw attention to their economic and social plight.

A senior Aboriginal leader, Geoff Clark, said that demonstrations could turn violent because of the anger felt by indigenous Australians towards a government perceived as profoundly unsympathetic. "In protest situations you are always going to have a volatilesituation which may have the capacity to go out of control." said Mr Clark, chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the country's biggest indigenous body. He joined condemnation of Mr Mandela's official treatment in Australia. "The man has been snubbed, and I find that very distressing and disappointing."

Senator Aden Ridgeway, the country's only Aboriginal politician, said it was "shameful and unconscionable" that the reconciliation conference was being ignored by political leaders.

The Australian government provoked international opprobrium last week when it banned visits by United Nations human rights inspectors after criticism of its stance on Aboriginal land rights and of mandatory sentencing laws that result in the disproportionate number of indigenous offenders in jail.

Mr Howard returns to Australia this morning from UN summit in New York. His spokesman said he could not attend the Melbourne conference, where Mr Mandela will deliver a lunchtime oration, because he had an evening engagement in Brisbane. Conference organisers said Mr Howard was given four months' notice. He was at two functions with Mr Mandela in Sydney earlier this week. A spokesman for Mr Ruddock said he too had a prior engagement. Senator John Herron, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, will not be in Melbourne either.

Everyone else in Australia has been falling over themselves to meet Mr Mandela, He has held the Olympic torch and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Australian National University in Canberra on Wednesday. He said that while the demographics of South Africa and Australia might be different "both of our countries have had a history of colonial and racial division and conflict". He added: "The scars of that past remain and fester unless they are addressed."

Mr Clark said he hoped Aboriginal protests would be peaceful, since the Olympics was a perfect opportunity to highlight indigenous problems and violence would be counterproductive.

"We've been the subject of mental torture and violence in this country for 200 years and I think that is not the way to proceed," he said.

In a reference to Aboriginal athletes who will be competing at the Games, now only seven days away, he said: "Sport and politics do mix. Our hope, not surprisingly, is for black gold."

Aboriginal leaders have been told by the Australian authorities that they will be allowed to hold peaceful protests, but not at Olympic sites.

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