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Australian elections Friday, 2 October, 1998, 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK
Aborigines 'marginal' in Aussie vote
Aboriginal issue mostly absent from election debate
By David Grossman in Sydney

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Australia's original inhabitants continue to suffer significant disadvantages in modern Australia.

In terms of health, education, housing and employment many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are still very much at the bottom of the pile.

The conflicts that have plagued relations between Aborigines and Australia's white population for 200 years, especially the question of land rights, remain largely unresolved.

'The cone of silence'

Despite these stark facts, the issue has been mostly absent from the cut and thrust of the 1998 Federal Election campaign.

This absence has been criticised by Australia's church leaders.

In an open letter to the parties, leaders of four Christian denominations called on the government and opposition to set aside the debate on the economy and concentrate instead on what they describe as "the most important moral challenge facing our society".

Anglican Bishop Richard Randerson has condemned what he calls the "great cone of silence around issues of reconciliation and indigenous affairs".

The main parties know, however, that despite the words of the church and international media interest, ordinary Australians do not really consider the question of reconciliation an important election issue.

Parties are dodging the sensitive 'indigenous' issue
In a recent poll, Aboriginal policy came last in a list of 14 issues that Australians said were important in determining how they chose to vote. The fact is that a party coming out with a strong line one way or the other is likely to alienate as many voters as it inspired.

Labor demands apology

The opposition Labor Party led by Kim Beazley is the closest of the main parties to many Aboriginal groups.

Mr Beazley says it's about time modern Australia said sorry for the wrongs of the past in order to make a new beginning in time for the new millennium.

His party promises more money for indigenous health and education programmes. However, he's angered many Aboriginal leaders by refusing to commit a future Labor government to reversing recent legislation designed to limit Aboriginal native title claims on land.

Prime Minister John Howard's coalition government has entitled its election policy for Indigenous Australians "Beyond Welfare".

The Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Senator John Herron says it's designed to break the "cycle of permanent welfare dependency" for which he blames Labor governments of the past.

"The complete failure of Labor's approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs during its 13 years in government," said Senator Herron "is highlighted by the fact that despite the expenditure of A$16b, 60% of indigenous Australians remain dependent on welfare."

Of the minor parties contesting this election Pauline Hanson's One Nation party is best known for its uncompromising and, some say, racist attitude to indigenous Australians.

During the campaign she has caused anger and resentment with calls to end all health programmes aimed specifically at Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Despite official statistics that put Aboriginal infant mortality at up to four times the national average, One Nation says the A$130m a year spent on indigenous health programmes should be redirected for the benefit of all Australians.

BBC News
Aboriginal spokeswoman Marcia Langton: Economy is main issue in cities, but race card is played in the bush
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