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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February 2005, 15:08 GMT
Challenge to improve Aborigines' lot
In the first of a special series on Australia's Aborigines, Phil Mercer reports on the challenges ahead if the community is to overcome its problems.

To Aborigines, Australia is a land full of secrets and wisdom, where the ground is a dynamic, breathing mass.

They believe that the spirits of ancestors remain on Earth as an omnipresent force, and this energy is portrayed in songs, dances and paintings - the cornerstones of indigenous culture.

Sydney suburb of Redfern - archive picture
Discontent in some Aborigine communities has led to violence
But this spiritual vibrancy compares starkly with the grim day-to-day realities endured in many Aboriginal communities.

Life expectancy for the average Aboriginal male is 21 years less than it is for the total male population. The community suffers disproportionately high rates of ill-health, imprisonment, unemployment, substance abuse and violence.

"[Aborigines] can look forward to being sick, unemployment, racism and a very, very early death," said Linda Burney, the first indigenous member of the New South Wales state parliament.

Aborigines complain they are the victims of more than a century of institutionalised racism.

Frustrations have recently boiled over. Serious unrest flared in Palm Island last November, and in the Sydney suburb of Redfern last February.

But the government of John Howard has promised a fresh approach, including the formation of a new body to address Aboriginal affairs and a new policy on welfare.

Male life expectancy is 56 - 21 years less than that of total male population
Four times more Aboriginal infants die as total infant population
Statistics suggest people in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sudan are healthier
More likely than general population to die violent deaths, including accidents and suicide
Canberra says positive results are already being achieved.

For example, death rates among Aborigines for infectious and parasitic diseases have fallen significantly, and there are more indigenous students entering further education.

Linda Burney acknowledges some improvements have been made but believes that progress has been excruciatingly slow.

"I don't think things have changed very much," she said, pointing out, for example, that Aboriginal women are dying at an increasingly younger age.

Domestic violence is partly to blame for this, fuelled by a brutal mix of alcohol abuse, boredom, and a lack of education and opportunity.

Traumatic history

Aboriginal Australians' problems began more than 200 years ago, with the arrival of European colonisers.

Aborigines saw the loss of land and tribal hunting grounds. In the areas of health care and education the impact was largely positive, but Aborigines were often forbidden from speaking their native languages or performing ceremonies.

Charlotte Skene from the RMIT Gallery adjusts 'Assimilation Blues' by Aboriginal artist Sylvia Huege de Serville which tells the story of the Stolen Generation, Melbourne 15 December 2004.
Many of 'The Stolen Generation' were forced into domestic servitude
Their trauma intensified with the advent of an official policy, between 1910 and 1970, of removing Aboriginal children from their families.

Campaigners argue that the main purpose of the policy was to dilute and eventually extinguish native culture.

The historical legacy still overshadows how Aboriginal people want to tackle their problems.

Some activists see symbolic issues, such as land rights and reconciliation with the white community, as fundamental to reversing disadvantage.

Others see them as less important than the practical and urgent need to tackle the day-to-day destruction of lives.

In line with this, John Howard is abolishing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (Atsic) in July, which was established in the late 1980s and was meant to give indigenous people greater control of their own affairs.

He has said it has "become too preoccupied with symbolic issues".

Managing welfare

The government will replace Atsic with an advisory group of distinguished Aborigines who will help shape official policy.

One controversial proposal will impose financial sanctions on parents who do not look after their children adequately, in an effort to end what the government calls 'passive welfare'.

20% of working-age Aborigines are unemployed
Aborigines over-represented in jails
But 8,871 indigenous students entered higher education in 2002, up 2.4% from 2001

But Cliff Foley, a senior member of Atsic, argues such policies apply mainstream political thinking to a set of problems that require a uniquely Aboriginal response.

"One of the things we've always asked (for) is to take responsibility for ourselves," he said. "We don't want to be told what to do by people who seem to think they know what's good for us."

The government has denied its policies are paternalistic.

"The government is more determined than ever to ensure that indigenous Australians have the opportunity to share in the benefits... provided by strong economic management," said Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone.

There are those who want far more. Veteran Tasmanian campaigner Jim Everett is demanding an independent Aboriginal state. He argued that an autonomous government was the only way to guarantee the long-term survival of Australia's Aborigines.

"Our determination is as strong as it can be... but it can be broken. They (the white community) have only got to keep us on the poverty line and eventually they will break us down," he said.

Black pride

Other community leaders are more optimistic about the future.

Shane Phillips from the Tribal Warrior Association in Sydney, which trains native Australians to become sailors, said a "revolution" was quietly under way in many communities.

"Our people are starting to find different trades," he explained. "We're starting to build foundations in different fields, from doctors and lawyers to great athletes."

And through all the adversity shines the bright light of determination.

"If there's something that we're good at it's surviving," said Linda Burney, "and one of the great attributes we have is resilience."

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