Academics slam race hate rise

June 6, 1997

OVER 6,000 academic and general staff in Australia have called on the federal government to reject racism and endorse a High Court decision that found traditional Aboriginal ownership of land could co-exist with pastoral leases.

As 1,500 community and political leaders met in Melbourne last week at a national Aboriginal conciliation convention, university staff issued a statement attacking the government for its handling of the issues of racism and demanding the High Court decision be upheld.

In unprecedented public declarations, the 6,000 academics and general staff, along with the nation's 38 vice chancellors, expressed their concern at the rise in racial vilification and criticism of federal funding for Aborigines.

The statements came as the government continued with its plans to transfer millions of acres of leasehold properties, owned by the Crown and much of it traditional Aboriginal tribal land, to freehold title. Critics say the transfer would provide an extraordinary windfall to leaseholders, many of whom are multinational corporations.

Academics are increasingly concerned at the government's failure to respond adequately in a debate over race triggered by a Queensland independent MP, Pauline Hanson. Ms Hanson has established a "One Nation" political party and has called for federal aid to Aborigines to be stopped and for Asian immigration to be phased out.

Her often stridently expressed views appear to have attracted wide support and there are fears that prime minister John Howard is more concerned by the electoral implications of her claims than with seeing justice is done.

The academics describe their declaration as the most significant by university staff on a national political issue since the Vietnam war. They say debate over native title to traditional land has been distorted.

The Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee issued a strong statement, saying university leaders condemned the rise in the "politics of divisiveness''. Vice chancellors looked with grave concern at the increase of racially discriminatory views directed against Aboriginal and Asian Australians and other racial and cultural groups generally, president Fay Gale said.

"The AVCC regards these views as morally repugnant and contrary to Australia's traditions of equality of opportunity, social inclusiveness and multiculturalism,'' she said.

Professor Gale said all universities believed it was vital for higher education to make known its displeasure about the growing trend in racial abuse and for vice chancellors "to stand up and be counted'' among those who believed in fostering fairness and compassion.

The AVCC strongly believed the issues at stake were far more than just a threat to Australia's economic well-being, Professor Gale said. "They also represent a threat to who we are and our ability to consider ourselves a just and civilised nation.'' In a letter to newspapers, academic and other staff noted the Australian High Court had found that native title could co-exist with pastoral leases. Agreements to maintain pastoral and indigenous activity on the same land were not only possible but desirable.

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