July 25, 2006

Australian PM finally wins black support

By James Grubel

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Prime Minister John Howard has been
demonized by Aborigines for a decade, but on Tuesday one of
Australia's most influential black leaders said Howard could be
the person that ends generations of black squalor.

After years of racial tensions over Howard's tough
practical approach to improving aboriginal living standards,
prominent black leader Mick Dodson said Howard had an historic
opportunity to do what no other prime minister has achieved.

"You may be the best-placed prime minister in Australia's
history to do what needs to be done for the sake of my
children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren and yours,"
Dodson told a racial reconciliation conference in Melbourne.

Australia's 460,000 Aborigines have a life expectancy 17
years lower than the rest of the country's 20 million people,
with the majority living in remote outback communities where
there is little access to good housing, health or education.

With Howard sitting a short distance away on the same
stage, Dodson said Aborigines would put aside differences on
spiritual issues to work with Howard to improve the lives of

"I'm here today to tell the prime minister that I am ready
to walk alongside him in taking the next steps toward
reconciliation," said the long-time Howard critic.

Six years ago, Howard angered black leaders at a similar
conference when he refused to apologize for the wrongs of white
settlers and past government assimilation policies of removing
aboriginal children from families to be raised in white homes.

On Tuesday, Howard told the conference his government and
black leaders must focus on programs to improve opportunities,
rather than symbolic debates, such as land rights and
sovereignty over Australia before European settlers arrived in

"I do not think that 30 years of obsession with symbolism
has advanced the cause of aboriginal people," Howard said.

"Reconciliation will come not as a result of eloquent
rhetoric or high-level communiques. It will come through
indigenous and other Australians taking millions of small steps
in the right direction."

But Howard said it would still take generations to improve
the living standards of Aborigines.

Howard, in his fourth consecutive term in office, now
controls both houses of parliament and can implement his
indigenous policies unopposed. Under a tough-love policy of
shared-responsibility, remote black communities sign up to
social contracts in return for government services.

In one outback program, children must attend school to be
allowed to use the community swimming pool, while another
program made government funding conditional on guarantees that
children would wash more regularly.

The pool-for-school deal had a marked impact on truancy
levels, while the wash-for-fuel deal helped cut down on the
incidence of preventable eye disease in a remote community. The
government has signed more than 150 similar agreements.

Howard's approach to indigenous problems has been slowly
winning support with black leaders, with many now acknowledging
Aborigines must take responsibility for their plight.

"As an aboriginal man, I have a particular responsibility
to take action. I need to do more, my brothers and sisters
across the country need to do more," said Dodson.

Aborigines suffer higher rates of alcohol and substance
abuse, unemployment and imprisonment than other Australians.

"Until our children grow up with the same chances as other
Australian kids, the same life expectancy, the same
opportunities, we all need to do more," said Dodson.