Native Rights Issue May Spark Quick Australian Election

Is Australia headed for an election over a divisive racial issue?

The government of Prime Minister John Howard has twice been blocked in its attempt to get native-title legislation through the Senate. This bill would amend the law governing Aboriginal land claims to take account of High Court rulings, and, in the view of government critics, protect agricultural interests at the expense of Aborigines.

The Constitution allows a prime minister twice blocked in the Senate to call elections and have another go at getting the bill in question passed by a joint session of the new Parliament, in which the Senate's braking effect is minimized. Mr. Howard is expected to do this, perhaps by July but more likely in October after the next budget and a tax-cut proposal have been presented.

A remark by Gareth Evans, the deputy opposition leader, that Mr. Howard is "never so happy as when he is bashing black fellas," has been widely quoted.

Australia's leading Aboriginal official, Gatjil Djerrkura, who heads the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' Commission, has blasted the government for attempting to limit the effect of court decisions. "It seems we can have no faith in the government to protect our existing rights," he says.

Church leaders have also chimed in with criticism. But at a time when Howard seems interested in showing a tough image, he perhaps doesn't mind.

"Both sides have been playing party politics with the issue," says a conservative analyst who used to be active in politics. "I'm embarrassed at some of my former colleagues." He acknowledges that native title is a racial issue "for some," but insists that the real issues in the coming campaign will be economic ones - unemployment and taxes.

Government aides insist that the Wik bill is not a racial issue but an issue of "land management." The Howard government's bill incorporates a six-year "sunset clause" for new claims to be filed and an exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act. The Senate, where the governing coalition lacks a majority, rejected these, and insists on giving Aboriginal groups a "right of negotiation" with mining companies on tracts to which they have a native-title claim.

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