A Nation Divided: Though Australia Appears to Be Harmonious, the Gap between the Whites and the Indigenous Population Divides the Country like an Outback Canyon. Matthew Brace Discusses What the Future Holds for the Aborigines. (Geopolitics)(Cover Story)

Article excerpt

MILLIONS OF NON-AUSTRALIANS around the world watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics last year could have been forgiven for thinking here was a nation at one with its indigenous people. In a long and lavish `Dreamtime' segment, hundreds of Aboriginal dancers flooded the vast stadium to the haunting strains of didgeridoos and clapping sticks. Giant banners and kites conjured a giant Wandjina spirit symbolising the unity of indigenous people. The lead dancer Djakapurra Munyarryun thrilled the crowds by swirling and stamping in the spotlight ahead of the finale when the Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron. Add to this the pre-Olympic glamour of dot paintings brightening the fuselages of Qantas aircraft, and Aboriginal art works adorning the walls of reception rooms in scores of Sydney and Melbourne businesses and hotels, and we find more hints of racial harmony.

Most Australians, however, know these images do not accurately reflect the position of blacks and whites in their nation. The Aboriginal issue is both Australia's great anomaly and dichotomy. Australia is reasonably unified and harmonious on many fronts, yet the question of what to do with the Aborigines divides it like a yawning outback canyon. And the head-scratching looks likely to continue because, despite extensive coverage in national and regional media, it is rarely considered at the ballot box. In late November or early December when Australians go to the polls for the national election, they will doubtless vote for all the usual reasons -- education, health, transport, and their own back pocket. However, the Labour party has promised dialogue towards reconciliation between blacks and whites should it win the election.

Oddly, for a country known for its go-getting, can-do attitude, and with one of the most varied multi-cultural communities anywhere (180 ethnic groups are represented in Sydney), its own indigenous population is frequently placed in the `too hard' tray. Subsequently Australia's Aborigines are wilting in the land they have occupied for 50,000 years. Their health is suffering. Their income, education and employment opportunities are limited. Legends and culture are disappearing as elders die. Of the hundreds of languages only a smattering are written. As communities dwindle, their speech and stories also turn to dust. A moral argument might be to save the Aborigines as a humanitarian gesture. Scientifically and more selfishly, we are concerned at losing pieces of the international population jigsaw that could give clues to the movement of races across the planet and their interaction with the land.

Most striking of all is how an indigenous population can live in such a morass in the backyard of such an affluent and successful modern nation. Life expectancy for Aboriginal people is 15 to 20 years below that of other Australians, infant mortality is two to four times higher, and adult death rates are three to four times higher, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Suicides among Aboriginal people are known to outweigh those in white communities, although figures are hard to come by as the subject is taboo.

The peak indigenous healthcare body, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), argues there is an urgent need to increase access by Aboriginal people to appropriate primary health care. While the average Australian sees a GP five times per year, Aboriginal people average fewer than two GP consultations in 12 months. Despite Aboriginal people representing only two per cent of the total population, the federal government spends significantly less per head on their health than on non-Aboriginal people. About 63 cents (22p) per head is spent on health services to Aboriginal people, for each dollar (36p) spent per head on the health of other Australians, according to NACCHO.

THE GREAT DIVIDE

NACCHO's research revealed one-third of Aboriginal people were worried about going without food. …