Australian state debates giving Aborigines mineral-rich land

Public soul-searching as to what to do about land rights for Aborigines is under way in Perth, capital of the vast, arid, and mineral-rich state of Western Australia.

Brian Burke, the Labor Party premier of the state, is committed to granting Aborigines land-ownership rights over the mostly rural land on which they live.

Of Australia's 15 million people, only 200,000 are Aborigines. Of these, 35, 000 live in Western Australia.

The state's opposition Liberal Party opposes the granting of land rights. It maintains that such a move will cause a ''racist backlash'' in a state where, the party says, race relations have become more relaxed in recent years. Although discrimination is illegal, Western Australia's Aborigines complain that some racism persists, particularly in small towns.

Prior to any change in the law, the state government has instituted a major public inquiry. The lawyer in charge, Paul Seaman, is conducting hearings in Perth and visiting rural centers.

In Premier Burke's view, land rights for Aborigines are his state's most crucial issue, after unemployment.

Powerful backing for the move comes from the Western Australian Interchurch Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, which represents four big denominations: the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Church of Christ, and Uniting Church.

According to the committee's secretary, the Rev. Robert Stringer, the state has only to look at locations in Australia where Aborigines already own the land they live on to see ''a tremendous change in lifestyle.'' They are shifting, he says, from transient and aimless living at the edges of rural towns to a proud homestead lifestyle.

While there appears to be broad support for the granting of land rights, there is also widespread concern among whites that such a move may put a brake on the state's rapid economic development. Declaring sites ''sacred'' would make them off-limits to mining companies.

Except for recent recession years, Western Australia has developed swiftly. Perth is a gleaming, well-run, steel-and-glass city whose citizens want to avoid any slowing of their upward mobility.

In a submission to the inquiry and in vigorous lobbying, the Western Australian Chamber of Mines has argued that land rights should not include the ability to veto mineral exploration and exploitation. Some mining companies worry, too, about possible demands for royalties and compensation they see as excessive.

The question of land rights for Aborigines is getting support from environmentalists, who want more limitations on the perceived damage minieral exploitation does to the Outback. Antinuclear campaigners also support the land-rights movement, since it could make new uranium mining more difficult.

But most supporters of Aborigine land rights are wedded to the cause because they regard it as supremely just in itself.

A predominant church view is that if Aborigines own their land, they alone should decide on the desirability or undesirability of mining development.

The inquiry is expected to deliver its report to the state government in August, after which Mr. Burke's administration will decide what form land-rights law should take and whether it will include control over mineral exploration and exploitation.

It is a potentially explosive issue. The administration wants to bestow land rights.

But to survive the next election, it cannot alienate too many white voters, who see accelerated development and consequent job creation as their own prime political interest.

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