Australia's Aboriginal Policy Faulted

TALK radio is buzzing with it, conservatives are grumbling about it, and Aboriginal groups are lining up to criticize it.

As Prime Minister Paul Keating prepares to host a United Nations conference on multiculturalism that begins Wednesday, a backlash against Mr. Keating's bold attempt to address long-standing Aboriginal grievances may be forming.

Some Aborigines and white Australians, frustrated by the perceived failure of the government's $1 billion annual aid program to radically improve the lot of Aborigines, are calling for a reevaluation of the government's tactics.

''The real secret is actually involving us in the policies and the process. They always tell us blackies to just go home,'' says Puggy Hunter, chairman of the National Aboriginal Community Control Health Organization.

But Aborigines, who have at least 30 distinct languages and dozens of tribes, are also still struggling to unite as a group. Political infighting remains a problem, and Aborigines are having difficulty uniting around a single leader, policy, or political body.

An embarrassing new report and lawsuit shows that Australia -- which is striving to appear as a model host for the conference -- is still struggling to come to grips with its own racial history.

Earlier this month, lawyers announced that they were suing the Australian government over its policy of forcibly removing mixed-race Aboriginal children from their parents from 1918 to 1953.

One of every 10 mixed-race Aboriginal children were taken from their parents during that period to encourage their assimilation as whites, according to government figures. Children were taken until the late 1960s, and many are still unable to find their natural parents.

''They were arrested and detained in institutions and did not have the freedom to associate with their families and their culture,'' Wes Miller, a lawyer representing the six Aboriginal plaintiffs said on April 10. The suit accuses the government of allowing ''cultural genocide'' by causing the ''physical destruction of Aboriginal and mixed- blood groups.''

In another potential problem for Keating, Aboriginal groups appear eager to make health care a major issue at the conference, calling it a ''national disgrace and international embarrassment.''

A new study has found that five years after the launch of a $200 million National Aboriginal Health Strategy, Australia still retains the Western world's widest disparity in nutrition, life expectancy, and child-mortality rates between indigenous and whites populations.

''During recent decades the indigenous populations of other Westernized Nations [particularly those of the United States, New Zealand, and Canada] have made large strides in the improvement of their health,'' says a report released by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare yesterday. ''In comparison, [Australian] Aboriginal populations have lagged considerably behind.''

Alice Springs, a mostly white community of 25,000 located in the arid center of Australia, is in many ways indicative of the successes and failures of Keating's efforts. A landmark 1992 Australian High Court ruling known as the ''Mabo case'' opened the way for Aborigines to reclaim thousands of acres seized by white colonists when they arrived in Australia 200 years ago.

A multimillion dollar government fund established by Keating is helping finance Aboriginal land acquisitions in the Northern Territory. And Aborigines now own 49 percent of the property here. Aborigines, who were used as a source of cheap labor by white ranchers for decades here, have now taken over 14 sprawling outback ranches.

But white ranchers are complaining that the new land-title law prevents Aborigines from borrowing against their newly acquired land and the ranching operations are being wasted. ''They have a record at the moment of running these not very successfully,'' says Bob Lee, manager of the Northern Territory Cattleman's Trading Co.

A handful of Aboriginal-run tourism operations is thriving, and a government program has led to the establishment of Australia's first Aborigine-owned television and radio station here in Alice Springs. A new health-care complex run by the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress includes an Aboriginal health- workers educational program, dental clinic, day-care center, and Aborigine-controlled research center.

But Aborigine unemployment, alcoholism, illiteracy, and life expectancy rates -- especially in rural areas -- remains far worse than those of whites.

The government's spending of over $1 billion a year on Aboriginal programs -- approximately $3,000 for each Aborigine -- has become a favorite target of conservative radio talk- show hosts and some whites.

''Nobody's against it,'' says Richard Cadzow, a local white rancher. ''It's just that nobody knows where all that money is going.''

But Aborigines bitterly dispute the figures and blame lazy white bureaucrats for the failure of some social programs.

''I'd suggest that they're probably factoring in what a normal citizen can get -- such as access to medical services and public housing,'' says Owen Cole, general manager of the Aborigine-controlled television station. ''They've got unrealistic expectations. We can't all of a sudden be technicians and lawyers. It takes time.''

Both government officials and Aborigines say that political wrangling inside both groups also continues to be a problem. Aboriginal health care remains a ''political football,'' according to some observers, between Australia's federal government and strong state governments with poor quality care and miles of red-tape as a result.

Prime Minister Keating will announce a radical reorganization of how Aboriginal health care is delivered when he unveils his new budget next month, accoring to a Cabinet spokesman. A sig- nificant increase in spending is also expected. But Aboriginal leaders say the key is more money and more control.

''They've talked about $200 million, but we're talking about billions to catch up,'' says Mr. Brewster, chairman of the Aboriginal group pushing for more community control.

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