PM scraps black support scheme

January 1, 1999

On the night he won a second term of office, Australian prime minister John Howard promised he would pursue the cause of reconciliation with the nation's indigenous people as a major priority.

Almost three months on, Mr Howard has been accused of vindictiveness and "appalling contempt" for Aboriginal Australians. This follows a cabinet decision to scrap a special support scheme for black students intended to encourage them to complete school and go on to higher education.

The so-called Abstudy programme was set up in 1971 by former conservative education minister Malcolm Fraser to redress the disturbing record of Aboriginal participation in education. It offered financial and housing assistance to young blacks as well as travelling allowances for those living in remote communities.

Despite the advances that have been made since - more than 8,000 indigenous students are now enrolled in university, a fourfold increase in ten years - Aboriginal school retention rates are still a third of those for white Australians and the level of university access is just over half.

In its first term in office, the Howard government slashed spending on indigenous programmes for employment, education and health.

Its reason for abolishing Abstudy is that it wants "to treat indigenous students the same as others when it comes to education benefits". All Australian students were entitled to equal educational opportunities, a government spokesman said.

The Labor opposition, however, has accused Mr Howard of adopting the racist policies of the One Nation Party, which has called for the abolition of all special assistance to Aborigines.

Carolyn Allport, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said:

"Now, in the name of mainstreaming, the government wants to destroy a programme that has developed over years in response to the needs and circumstances of indigenous people. We should be putting forward options for increasing their participation, instead of pandering to the ignorance of those who see targeted programmes as somehow unfair to non-indigenous Australians."

Rhonda Kelly, indigenous people's officer with the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, said the availability of Abstudy for postgraduates was a crucial factor in extending educational and employment opportunities to indigenous Australians.

"This is a human capital investment, an investment in the future, but now the government wants to wind back the clock," she said.

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