Australian Aborigines jockey for spotlight at Commonwealth parley

Leaders of Australia's Aboriginal commuity have begun working systematically on what they perceive as the most vulnerable area of the white Australian conscience -- guilt about failure to treat the country's 300,000 blacks as full human beings.

At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting here, Aborigine leaders have been lobbying presidents and prime ministers of black African states with the aim of attracting international attention to the plight of a people whose history extends back 40,000 years.

They have placed themselves in the world spotlight in hopes they can force the Australian government to do much more to improve Aborigine welfare and enable the country's blacks to share in the prosperity of a mineral-rich economy.

Aborigine spokesmen have argued that their people are the most wretched race anywhere. Anticipating an attack on his government's handling of Aborigine policy, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser circulated a background paper to the conference. It maintained that more time is needed to improve the lot of the Aboriginal people.

Mr. Fraser did this as representatives of the Aborigines presented him with a set of 21 proposals, including a demand that for the next 200 years 5 percent of Australia's gross national product should be devoted to Aborigine welfare.

That demand was framed to sharpen Commonwealth leaders' sense of the magnitude of the Aborigines' needs. They often live in primitive communities in the "outback" or as a depressed racial minority in Australia's towns and cities.

One African leader who showed close interest in the Aborigines was the prime minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. He appears likely to maintain his attention to this matter.

At the Commonwealth summit, Aborigine leaders had considerable success in drawing attention to their case. But they failed in an attempt to secure a full conference debate about the problems facing Australia's blacks.

One Aborigine spokesman said: "If it is good enough for the Commonwealth to condemn apartheid in South Africa, it is surely only consistent to promote the rights of Australian Aborigines."

Such arguments were obviously an embarrassment on Prime Minister Fraser, who inherited an inadequate public Aboriginal policy and has been showing signs of a deeper commitment to help the blacks.

All he could do at Melbourne wa try to prevent the issue from erupting in the Commonwealth conference. But the thrust of Aborigine arguments and the responses of black African leaders suggest that the situation of Australian blacks is beginning to move to stage center both as an Australian issue and an issue for the Commonwealth.

The cause of the Aborigines has been given a powerful boost by a World Council of Churches (WCC) report entitled Justice for Aboriginal Australians.

Prepared by a WCC team in June and July, it offers persuasive evidence that racism is deeply entrenched in Australia, with the Aborigines its chief victims.

According to the study, the life expentancy of Aborigines is 20 years lower than the white average. Three times more black babies die that do their white Australian counterparts.

Some of the more moderate black leaders agree that government has bee doing more for the Aborigines in the last 10 to 15 years. But progress has been slow.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.