SYDNEY — Oh, the disgrace of it. Just as we were on our best behavior to receive the queen, the United Nations had to go and tell the whole world that Australia’s treatment of its Aborigines is discriminatory and unsatisfactory.
Hardly a news flash to Canberra, where politicians of all stripes have argued for decades over how to better the lot of the indigenous 2 percent minority. But to have our racism scandals raked over by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination while Queen Elizabeth II of England and Australia was touring the country — well, it just isn’t cricket.
The unrepentant Howard government has got off fairly lightly, all things considered. Voters, having rejected the chance to become a republic, were agog with the glamorous royal progress. As for the world’s media, well, who cares about Down Under while the pope is praying in the Holy Land and U.S. President Bill Clinton is trying to defuse the Indian subcontinent.
Now that the big names are back home, however, Canberra finds itself stuck with the odium of a U.N. committee’s condemnatory resolution and nowhere to hide. Sooner rather than later, the world will start demanding to know when Australia is going to meet its international obligations on human rights. Pressure is mounting as more black youths are jailed under tough mandatory sentencing laws.
To Australians, accustomed to shuffling around a seemingly insoluble problem, the shock came last year when Australia became the first Western signatory to the U.N. antidiscrimination convention to get an early warning from the Geneva-based discrimination watchers. That bad mark puts us in the company of Algeria, Bosnia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
Now the 18-member committee has combined an urgent investigation into the treatment of Aborigines with a scarifying probe into Canberra’s report on efforts to combat racial discrimination. The report got short shrift in Geneva.
Veteran Canberra politician Philip Ruddock, the longest serving member of the House of Representatives, looked a new chum when Geneva got through with him. The immigration minister and known fighter for multiculturalism tried the old plea of Canberra battling against the constitutional right of states to legislate discriminatory laws. It cut no ice with Gay McDougall, the Washington-based human-rights lawyer who monitors Australia on behalf of the U.N. committee.
“States’ rights has been a perpetual issue in my country,” she told him. “We fought a bloody civil war over whether states were free to engage in the abhorrent practice of slavery.”
“I would have fought for that, too,” interjected Ruddock.
“Yes,” retorted McDougall, “and I hope you would have been on the same side as me.”
Getting deeper in muck, Ruddock pleaded that Australia is making big strides in improving the lot of blacks. More than $A2 billion a year is being spent on Aboriginal programs — equivalent to $A21,000 for each black household.
Besides, Aborigines are getting more land through recent Canberra laws, he explained. They own or control 15 percent of Australia’s land mass — the size of Spain and France combined.
Yet even with the pope’s mea culpa for past Christian wrongs ringing around the world, Ruddock could not find the words to say sorry to Aborigines, despite urging from the Geneva committee. In that, he is at one with Prime Minister John Howard. Any admission of guilt, the government fears, will be followed by a voter backlash and endless compensation claims from black activists.
A whitewash is how activist Geoff Clark summed up the Canberra report card. Clark heads the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and is familiar with a recent spate of jailings of black youths under unwielding mandatory sentencing laws in Western Australia and Northern Territory.
ATSIC told Geneva that these laws, with resultant youth suicides in jail, plus unfair treatment of native-title claims to land and stolen generations of mixed-blood children raised by white families, were among examples of Australia’s failure to recognize Aborigines’ distinct rights.
“Racism continues as a powerful force in the Australian community,” ATSIC claimed. “The government just doesn’t understand its obligations under the treaties Australia has ratified. All of its energies appear directed at silencing the U.N.”
The Howard government may be able to do a neat snow job in Geneva, but back home the snow is on its face. Four Labor state attorneys general have called on it to overturn the offending state laws, describing them as “cruel and ineffective” and a “national disgrace.”
The usually dignified Canberra meeting of federal and state lawmakers degenerated into a slanging match when the Labor-led states raised the issue over the objection of Liberal governments. “Clean your ears out,” Northern Territory Chief Minister Denis Burke’s advice to the Victorian Labor delegate, was among the bon mots tossed around.
Federal Attorney General Darryl Williams reaffirmed his opposition to mandatory sentencing, but said Canberra would not override state and territory laws. Howard supports him.
Still, Canberra must answer the rhetorical question that U.N. human-rights activist McDougall put to Ruddock and got no satisfactory reply: “How is it that a highly developed, industrialized state such as Australia has been unable to bring this 2 percent of its population up to a reasonable standard of living?”
Happily for the white majority, Queen Elizabeth did not ask the same question. Ever the lady, she smiled her way around Australia, receiving the uninhibited adulation of Australians who recently rejected a referendum to displace her with a president.
Not that the queen is ignorant of nor insensitive to the plight of Aborigines. She referred to it obliquely in her sanitized address on arrival in Canberra.
At Burke, a tiny community out in the flat outback, she made a point of meeting painted blacks who performed traditional dances. Officials made sure she did not see the makeshift shacks that brood on the edge of Burke and many desolate villages. Yet the queen looked impressed at the depth of reconciliation that has been achieved between whites and blacks at Burke, where only three years ago nine police were injured in a bloody race riot.
Now that the well-pleased queen is home in Buckingham Palace and the monarchy rests easier in this troubled former colony, whither the cause of national reconciliation?
Stay tuned for unprecedented progress. The blacks cause has become an international cause celebre. The press-ahead-slowly policy of Howard’s and all past governments has got too swift a public kick for it to be permitted to stand still.
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