When I arrived at Wallaby Camp on the outskirts of the town of Katherine, there were still no houses. Tony, a distinguished-looking tribal elder with a grey beard, and his 20-odd companions slept and cooked on the ground. Since the minister's visit catapulted Wallaby Camp into the headlines, the authorities have installed a single tap, giving the people their first water supply, and two portable lavatories, but nothing else. Treating the camp dwellers as squatters, the white-run Katherine town council had tried to move them on, but Tony told me defiantly: "I'm staying here."
Katherine is at the front line of one of Australia's worst public scandals, the deplorable state of its Aborigines' health. The issue has been overshadowed recently by big political strides on other fronts, such as the Aborigines' victory in their 200-year battle to win recognition by the High Court and the Australian parliament of native title to their traditional lands.
Earlier this year Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, brought the health story into the open before a gathering of world leaders at the UN Social Development summit in Copenhagen. "Many Aboriginal Australians live in communities whose unconscionable standards of health have long defied the efforts of governments to improve them," he said. "It is a situation we must change."
Ringing in the Prime Minister's ears was an official Australian report which had condemned the outcome of a strategy launched in 1989 by the federal and state governments aimed at bringing Aborigines' health up to the same standard as the rest of Australia by 2001. After millions of dollars had been poured into the strategy, the report found that it had failed completely.
Its most damning finding was to compare Aborigines' health with that of indigenous populations in other industrialised nations such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand. While the health standards of those native peoples had improved over the past two decades to the point where they were approaching the national average, the health gap between black and white Australians had become worse.
Life expectancy for Aborigines is almost 20 years less than for non-Aborigines, and is more akin to that in to Third World countries. Diseases such as diabetes and tuberculosis, which white Australia conquered long ago, are still killing Aborigines at alarming rates. "In the year 2000, when Sydney hosts the Olympic Games, the eyes of the world will be on Australia," the report declared. "The amount of progress made between now and then will have a significant bearing on Australia's reputation."
It will be a herculean task. And, if the latest fears of some health workers come about, yet another epidemic, Aids, will have taken hold of Northern Territory Aborigines by that historic year. Up to now, remoteness has saved them from the influx of HIV which has swept through Africa and parts of South-east Asia. But Frank Bowden, head of the Aids unit in the Northern Territory Department of Health, believes a time bomb is about to hit. He predicts that one in five Territory Aborigines could be infected with HIV by 2005.
He bases his forecast on the fact that Aborigines suffer the same conditions which helped the disease to spread in Africa and Asia: poor general health, crowded and unsanitary housing and high rates of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) whose presence facilitiates HIV taking hold. The STD rate for Northern Territory Aborigines is already five times greater than for the rest of Australia. But Aborigines, who comprise a quarter of the territory's population, are not alone; among all Territory people, the STD rates are 25 times greater than average.
Already, eight territory Aborigines have tested HIV positive. "It may be small, but it's the beginning of an epidemic which is ripe to spread quickly," Dr Bowden told me. "No leap of the imagination is necessary. We have to cover a sexual network here which spreads across a million square miles. We are dealing with the sickest population in Australia, and one of the only indigenous populations in the world where health standards are falling. Things are worse today than 10 years ago in life expectancy, respiratory infections and general morbidity."
Many communities have never recovered from their historic land dispossession and the disastrous diets of junk Western foods and alcohol which followed. Federal and state governments have bickered for years over responsibility for Aboriginal health, with the result that billions have been wasted through duplication and inefficiency. But why, I asked a Territory doctor, is black health still so inexcusably bad? "There's no electoral penalty for ignoring it," he replied grimly. "There are no votes in it."
It was a chilling analysis, but I realised what he meant when I drove 150 miles north of Alice Springs to Ti Tree, headquarters of the Anmatjere community of 1,250 people. Some live 15 to a house with inadequate power, water and sewerage. Trachoma, non-existent among whites, is prevalent among the schoolchildren, and many older people have chronic eye scarring from the disease. Compared to white Australia, the remote Anmatjere people's access to health services is minimal. They have a clinic with a nurse, but get only infrequent visits from a doctor.
The Anmatjere people want to emulate other black communities by setting up their own health service and employing their own doctors. About 10 such independent health services have blossomed in the Territory in recent years, many of them initiated and run by Aboriginal women fed up by the failure of white Australia to stop the rot. They have helped to bring some hope: a decline in Aboriginal infant mortality rates (still almost four time higher than for non-Aborigines) and in deaths from alcohol and heart disease.
But Stephanie Bell, director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, an Alice Springs-based independent health service, wonders just how sincere are the protestations of Mr Keating and his ministers. "The government rhetoric has changed over the years, but the reality remains the same," she said. "Most Aborigines don't reach the secondary or tertiary stages of health care because they end up dead from curable diseases which this country hasn't seen in white society since colonial times."