Fri, Nov 12, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Australian Aborigines denounce welfare changes plan


Prominent Aborigines lashed out yesterday at a planned government overhaul of welfare payments to indigenous Australians that reportedly include punishing parents whose children cut classes.

Some Aboriginal leaders called the moves a throwback to the times when indigenous families were rounded up into Outback centers where their lives were controlled by missionaries.

Citing confidential Cabinet documents, the National Indigenous Times newspaper reported on Wednesday that the reforms include controlling how Aboriginal families spend their welfare by replacing cash with "smart cards" that cannot be used to buy alcohol.

Police raided the newspaper's offices yesterday and seized documents after Prime Minister John Howard's office reported confidential government information had been published.

Impoverished Aborigines, many of whom live in squalid settlements on the edge of towns or in the desert Outback, have long had the poorest health and education standards of any section of Australia's affluent society. There are about 400,000 Aborigines in Australia's 20 million population.

Confirming that the government plans to overhaul Aboriginal wel-fare, Howard announced an end to the era when Aborigines did nothing in return for their welfare payments.

"The idea of passive welfare is an idea whose time has passed," Howard told reporters yesterday.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone said welfare payments will carry obligations in remote Aboriginal communities in the Outback but promised the changes would be introduced in consultation with Aborigines.

Neither Howard nor Vanstone elaborated on the planned reforms.

The documents obtained by the paper suggest the government is considering applying sanctions to Aboriginal parents who do not ensure their children attend school, the newspaper said. Sanctions could include families "missing out on something else, such as a scheduled house renovations unless the children start attending school," the leaked papers said.

Some Aboriginal leaders condemned the proposals as a return to the 1960s when missionaries attempted to control Aborigines' lives by doling out goods to those who behaved well at church-run settlements.

"The government's proposed welfare reforms for indigenous communities show government thinking on indigenous affairs has not advanced beyond a beads, trinkets and rations mentality," said Senator Aden Ridgeway, the only Aborigine in parliament.

Geoff Clark, chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, said the government was heralding a return to a system that had failed to provide Aborigines with jobs and self-sufficiency.

Mick Dodson, an Aboriginal academic who has battled discrimination, said Aborigines were being blamed for the government's failure to provide for their communities.

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