Australians Confront Poor Treatment of Aborigines

A RECENT Royal Commission looking into the jail deaths of 99 Aborigines over a nine-year period has called into question Australia's treatment of Aboriginal people. Earlier this year, a delegation from the World Council of Churches described Australian attitudes toward Aborigines as "not just horrific, but genocidal."

The 11-volume report issued May 9 is becoming a catalyst for a self-examination by the country. The report, says Robert Tickner, minister for Aboriginal Affairs, lays open "the harshness and oppression experienced by so many contemporary Aboriginal Australians."

The Royal Commission, which worked on the report for four years at a cost of A$30 million (US$23 million), made 339 recommendations to eliminate racist attitudes and practices.

Although Australia prides itself on its multiculturalism, many Australians agree that the country has an unhappy history in its treatment of Aborigines. Aborigines did not become part of the national census until 1967.

The white conscience was pricked in the 1970s when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam declared, "Australia's treatment of her Aboriginal people will be something upon which the rest of the world will judge Australia and Australians - not just now, but in the greater perspective of history."

Although government spending on Aboriginal affairs has increased dramatically since Mr. Whitlam's day, the government today recognizes that Aborigines remain the most disadvantaged group in society.

To the Aborigine, the biggest reminder of this disadvantage is incarceration. According to the Royal Commission report, Aborigines are 29 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aborigines. Frequently they are jailed for minor offenses. And, when in jail, they are more likely to commit suicide or be killed by guards than non-Aborigines.

The Commission has recommended that:

*-Imprisonment of Aborigines should be used only as a last resort.

*-Police should avoid violent or rough treatment of Aboriginal people and should not use racist language.

*-The states should review their liquor licensing legislation to reduce the availability of alcohol to Aboriginal communities.

*-Future Aboriginal deaths in custody should be investigated by high-ranking police officers and state coroners.

The Royal Commission added that the government has to recognize that "there is a large reservoir of distrust, enmity, and anger among Aboriginal people, and a lack of understanding among non-Aboriginal people."

The Commission's candor was applauded by some Aboriginal leaders.

"This report should bring home to the Australian people how the most disadvantaged group in the community has been brutally and violently treated. The findings depict a society where racist attitudes and behavior have become institutionalized throughout the system, particularly in the law, education, and welfare systems," says Sol Bellear, the acting chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Other more radical Aboriginal leaders, however, are unhappy with the Commission report.

"The Royal Commission has failed to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of our people in custody," says Helen Corbett, the chairman of the National Committee to Defend Black Rights. Only two weeks ago, another Aboriginal citizen died in custody in Rockhampton, Queensland.

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