SYDNEY (AFP) — A year after making a historic apology to Aboriginal people for centuries of injustice, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came under fire Friday for failing to improve their lives.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre director Michael Mansell said Rudd was hiding behind the hugely symbolic apology to avoid the hard work of improving Aboriginal living standards, which are among the lowest in the world.
"Aboriginal people, and especially members of the stolen generations, are probably worse off now than when Kevin Rudd made the apology a year ago," he told the national AAP news agency.
The "stolen generations" refers to Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and placed under foster care with white families or institutions under a misguided welfare policy which ended only in the early 1970s.
Rudd's apology went further than expected, drawing applause, cheers and tears from Aboriginal onlookers and culminating in a standing ovation both inside and outside parliament.
He repeatedly used the word "sorry," an expression that traditionally has an important symbolic meaning for Aborigines, which only grew after Rudd's conservative predecessor John Howard refused to utter it when he was in power.
The speech also referred to "past mistreatment" and wrongs which the original Australians endured after British settlers arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788.
In a low-key statement marking the anniversary Friday, Rudd said the apology was only the beginning of a healing process for the nation.
"It was a first step to build a bridge of respect between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and generate the mutual trust and respect needed for closing the gap," he said.
"We must keep moving forward. We must help people to heal if all Australians are to have a better future."
But as the anniversary passed under the shadow of the country's worst ever bushfires, which killed at least 181 people last weekend, many said its symbolism had not been matched with action.
The Australian newspaper said there was "still a great deal to be sorry about" and accused Rudd of elevating the "politics of symbolism" over practical policies to improve the plight of Aborigines.
Mansell said: "There is no land rights for the dispossessed, no compensation for the stolen generations, the health standards are not improving and the Aboriginal imprisonment rate continues to climb.
"The apology has provided the Rudd government with a political shield against criticism of its failures in Aboriginal affairs."
Australia's original inhabitants with cultures stretching back many thousands of years, Aborigines are believed to have numbered around a million at the time of white settlement but there are now just 470,000 out of a population of 21 million.
They are Australia's most impoverished minority, with a lifespan 17 years shorter than the national average and disproportionately high rates of imprisonment, heart disease and infant mortality.
Many Aboriginal leaders were disappointed when Rudd refused to scrap the previous conservative government's "intervention" policy which saw police and troops deployed in remote Aboriginal towns.
The action, including restrictions on welfare payments, alcohol and pornography, came after the release of a damning report citing sexual abuse and domestic violence in some Aboriginal communities.
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