Australian Aborigines tackle state on land rights

Aborigine organizations representing Australia's 250,000 Aborigines are angry following a Western Australian state government decision on land rights. They have accused the state authorities in Perth of a sellout to powerful mining companies.

The Australian Labor Party state government, headed by Premier Brian Burke, has been sympathetic - like the federal Australian Labor Party government of Prime Minister Bob Hawke - to granting Aborigines ownership rights on the rural land where they live.

Mr. Burke's government was widely perceived as far more sympathetic to Aborigines than its Liberal Party predecessor. The Liberals - conservatives in Australia - are seen as more wedded to mining interests.

A recent Western Australian inquiry recommended that Aborigines be able to veto mining on land where they become owners. The idea was that Aborigines could decide whether land was too sacred to mine - or, instead, could grant rights in exchange for a cash payment or royalties.

But in a move that surprised many, Burke's government has dumped this key aspect of the inquiry's recommendations.

It now says Aborigines, in terms of forthcoming land rights legislation, will not be able to veto mining on their land. Analysts say Burke's government is recognizing that white voters - sensing resumed development of this vast mineral-rich state now that world economic recovery has boosted activity - would have strongly opposed any brakes on mining. Other land rights legislation will gain greater acceptance if there is no risk of having to scrap proposed mining projects.

The mining companies are jubilant about the decision.

Burke has warned the federal government not to become involved in a state issue. But Aborigine leaders want the federal government to override state laws and demonstrate strongly that it is prepared to act in support of its strongly pro-Aborigine rhetoric.

However, the federal government has, on other issues, confounded Labor Party left-wingers by adopting a pro-business stance to spur economic recovery. The administration could risk a loss of support by confronting a state-level Labor Party government and the mining industry.

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