Australia to Improve Native-Rights System

THE treatment of aborigines is Australia's most enduring stain on its human rights record. Now the Australian government is accelerating the process of improving its performance.

Australia will spend $150 million (Australian; US$113 million) during the next five years to provide an improved system of justice for native Australians. Robert Tickner, the minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, presented Parliament on March 31 with a three-volume, 1,306-page report, detailing how the money would be spent. The report was agreed to by federal and state governments and by aboriginal representatives.

Among the recommendations:

* Instead of sending lawbreaking young aborigines to jail, the Australian government will build "bail hostels," supervised by aborigines.

"Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are often denied bail because they have no appropriate fixed address and no means of meeting other conditions of bail," Mr. Tickner says. The hostels will not only give them an address but will allow elders and other community leaders to take a more active role.

* To combat alcoholism and drug abuse among aborigines, Australia will provide $70 million over the next five years for grass roots programs. Most aboriginal arrests are alcohol-related. Some grass-roots organizations, inspired by the success of Canadian Indians at defeating alcoholism, are beginning similar programs. "It's exciting news for us," says Jill Shaw of the Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Planning Unit, which expects to receive $500,000 in July.

* State and local governments will make efforts to improve relations between the police and aboriginal people. This will include the active recruitment of aboriginal people, particularly women, into the police force. And new members of the force will receive special training in aboriginal culture and history. A recent television documentary made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation showed racist attitudes among some police.

* And, to keep itself accountable, the Australian government will produce a State of the Nation Report on the human rights of its native people. The report will be written by a new social justice unit of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

The government also plans to provide an additional $50.4 million over the next five years on aboriginal legal services and another $2 million to help reunite aboriginal families separated by past government assimilation policies. In three months, the government will announce a second major package to alleviate the underlying social and economic disadvantages of aborigines.

Aboriginal groups responded cautiously to the report.

Tracker Tilmouth, acting director of the Central Land Council, called the government package an important first step. But, he added, "We all know there are a number of deeper issues which must be addressed." The government response, Mr. Tilmouth pointed out, did not mention the issue of land rights. "Aboriginal land remains central to these issues: it underpins our economic and cultural future," Tilmouth says.

The government's response is also not likely to satisfy groups that wanted to see police charged after aborigines died in jail.

"A lot of families were disappointed," says a woman who works for the Aboriginal Legal Services. However, both the state and federal governments agreed to provide counseling service and financial aid to grieving families.

The government's response is nearly 11 months since a Royal Commission presented a report on why 99 aborigines died in custody over a nine-year period. Although there was little difference between the death rate in custody of non-aborigines, the Royal Commission found that aborigines were incarcerated at 29 times the rate of non-aborigines. The report, says Mr. Tickner, "showed us something of the harshness and alienation that characterize daily life for so many 'first Australians'."

Both the deaths in custody and the government reports have sparked world-wide interest by human rights organizations. On April 13, an Amnesty International mission is due to arrive in Australia to look at the government's response.

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