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Aborigines angry a year after 'sorry'

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Alice Springs

The bus before leaving Alice Springs
Members of the aboriginal community headed to Canberra to protest

This time last year, Aborigines in the Northern Territory boarded buses for the three-day drive to Canberra, drawn to the nation's capital by the promise of a single word: Sorry.

It was uttered three times by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, as he apologised to indigenous Australians for past injustices.

In the public galleries of parliament and at live sites around the country, the "sorry speech" was met with applause, tears and thanks.

Australia's Day of Atonement, as some called it, was deemed a triumph.

But 12 months on, I was in Alice Springs to watch a group of Aborigines embark on the same journey, this time to protest at the foot of Parliament Hill.

There is deep-felt resentment that not more has changed since the apology, and fury that the Rudd government has not only kept the rudiments of the previous government's Northern Territory intervention in place, but extended elements of it to Queensland.

Tough restrictions

The intervention was former Prime Minister John Howard's forceful response to a report which revealed that child sex abuse had reached crisis levels in more than 70 Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

Declaring a national emergency, Mr Howard banned the sale, transport and consumption of alcohol in indigenous communities, as well as pornography.

Harry Nelson
Harry Nelson accuses the Australian government of double standards

Big signs went up at the entrances to these communities designating them "prescribed areas" where the new regulations applied.

Welfare payments were partly quarantined, which meant that tough restrictions came into force dictating how they were spent.

Instead of cash payments, Aborigines received plastic cards that could be redeemed for food and produce, but not for alcohol, or grog as it more commonly known in the Northern Territory.

To prevent legal challenges to these policies, the government suspended the landmark 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.

Some Aboriginal leaders, like Noel Pearson, gave these policies a cautious welcome, arguing that a crisis situation required a drastic response. Others have been enraged.

'They wouldn't like it'

Harry Nelson, an Aboriginal elder, was amongst those boarding the protest bus.

"The apology is nothing. I don't think the apology has changed anything," he said.

He is particularly aggrieved about the restrictions placed upon welfare payments.

"Of course it does annoy me. I mean we don't tell the Canberra mob, the white people, how to spend their money.

"What I would like to see is the government people have their money to be quarantined, as well. I bet you they wouldn't like it."

But the government would say that it has reduced alcohol consumption and the myriad problems it brings, I suggested.

Barbara Shaw
Barbara Shaw says the rules have demonised some communities

"The majority of the people don't spend all their money on grog," he replied.

Barbara Shaw is another Aboriginal leader. She lives in a town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs which has been designated a "Prescribed Area".

"That's what we are now," she said. "Prescribed area people. Everybody behind those signs are either alcoholics or paedophiles - and that's not the case."

"You think the signs are stereotyping you," I asked.

"Yeah, and demonising our people. Stereotyping our men as child abusers and mothers that neglect their children.

"You are basically saying that all Aboriginal people are alcoholics beyond those signs."

Low priority?

Another common complaint surrounds the suspension of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, which has been condemned by many human rights lawyers in Australia.

"At an international level, Australia's track record in human rights is being tarnished, and our standing in the global community diminished," says Claire Smith from the University of Newcastle.

A young protester prepares to board the bus
Aborigines fear their issues are low on the government's agenda

"At a time when we are angling for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations' Security Council, our own transgressions prevent us from meeting our international obligations."

As Claire Smith points out, this year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, James Anaya, is scheduled to make a formal visit to Australia.

There is a concern, as well, that the Rudd government's priority now is to stave off recession and to rebuild the fire-affected communities in Victoria.

Closing the gap, that 17-year difference in the life expectancy of black and white Australians, is no longer such a pressing national issue.

Pat Turner, a former Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, notes: "Aboriginal affairs is always the first casualty. And now we've got this international global financial crisis Aboriginal affairs is off the agenda.

"You do the symbolic things, that's what governments and white Australia is comfortable with, but when it comes to putting money on the table, it's not going to happen."

We had planned to speak to Jenny Macklin, the government's minister for indigenous affairs.

But she is now coordinating the government's response to the Victorian wildfires - which Aboriginal leaders would say speaks of the problem.



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