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Australia's Aboriginal Policy Faulted

By David RohdeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 1995


TALK radio is buzzing with it, conservatives are grumbling about it, and Aboriginal groups are lining up to criticize it.

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As Prime Minister Paul Keating prepares to host a United Nations conference on multiculturalism that begins Wednesday, a backlash against Mr. Keating's bold attempt to address long-standing Aboriginal grievances may be forming.

Some Aborigines and white Australians, frustrated by the perceived failure of the government's $1 billion annual aid program to radically improve the lot of Aborigines, are calling for a reevaluation of the government's tactics.

''The real secret is actually involving us in the policies and the process. They always tell us blackies to just go home,'' says Puggy Hunter, chairman of the National Aboriginal Community Control Health Organization.

But Aborigines, who have at least 30 distinct languages and dozens of tribes, are also still struggling to unite as a group. Political infighting remains a problem, and Aborigines are having difficulty uniting around a single leader, policy, or political body.

An embarrassing new report and lawsuit shows that Australia -- which is striving to appear as a model host for the conference -- is still struggling to come to grips with its own racial history.

Earlier this month, lawyers announced that they were suing the Australian government over its policy of forcibly removing mixed-race Aboriginal children from their parents from 1918 to 1953.

One of every 10 mixed-race Aboriginal children were taken from their parents during that period to encourage their assimilation as whites, according to government figures. Children were taken until the late 1960s, and many are still unable to find their natural parents.

''They were arrested and detained in institutions and did not have the freedom to associate with their families and their culture,'' Wes Miller, a lawyer representing the six Aboriginal plaintiffs said on April 10. The suit accuses the government of allowing ''cultural genocide'' by causing the ''physical destruction of Aboriginal and mixed- blood groups.''

In another potential problem for Keating, Aboriginal groups appear eager to make health care a major issue at the conference, calling it a ''national disgrace and international embarrassment.''

A new study has found that five years after the launch of a $200 million National Aboriginal Health Strategy, Australia still retains the Western world's widest disparity in nutrition, life expectancy, and child-mortality rates between indigenous and whites populations.

''During recent decades the indigenous populations of other Westernized Nations [particularly those of the United States, New Zealand, and Canada] have made large strides in the improvement of their health,'' says a report released by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare yesterday. ''In comparison, [Australian] Aboriginal populations have lagged considerably behind.''