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"Utopia" seeks change for Aboriginal Australians

By Patrick Graham

LONDON (Reuters) - Veteran investigative journalist John Pilger accuses Australia of running a system of apartheid towards its Aboriginal communities in a new documentary released in cinemas in Britain this week.

"Utopia", named after a large, dry region in the north of the country, documents high levels of disease and asbestos-ridden housing, imprisonment rates eight times higher than those for black South Africans under apartheid and male life expectancy of as little as 37 years in one community as evidence of the failings of the state and its passive racism.

Politicians in the film say they have done everything in their power to cure what is an intractable problem and are proud of the state's efforts to find a solution.

But Pilger, who has sought to draw Western attention to Aboriginal poverty since the 1980s, blames ordinary Australians, politicians and mining companies for what he calls a "shaming national secret".

He says mining profits from the Australian outback's extensive mineral reserves now top $1 billion dollars a week and attacks the government for backing off plans two years ago for more extensive taxation of the sector that could have been funneled into indigenous communities.

"According to the Credit Suisse global wealth survey the other day, Australia is the richest country in the world," Pilger said in an interview before the film's release on Friday.

"That makes it even more extraordinary that it has its original people living in poverty at levels of Africa and India with preventable diseases that have long been extinguished in the majority community."


Pilger's determination to promote the world's poor has not softened in the 40 years since he was among the first western journalists to document the aftermath of the overthrow of Pol Pot in the film "Year Zero", prompting Britons to donate around $45 million in aid for Cambodia.

"Utopia" includes arguments with some politicians who have held sway over policy towards the Aboriginal communities over the past decade.

They accuse Pilger of oversimplifying the issues they face and asking "puerile" questions about why the problems have not been solved despite millions in government spending.

"An apartheid has run right through Australian society for as long as I've known it and I was born and grew up there," Pilger said.

"Perhaps the reason why is because the Aboriginal people, unlike the black people of South Africa, are about 3 percent of the population, which actually makes the imposed poverty on these people even more shameful."

Australia's new conservative government is seeking to scrap the mining profits tax introduced last year. After talks with global miners including BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, the tax is expected to raise only $4 billion a year in its first four years compared to initial estimates of up to $22.5 billion.

Much of the film documents Australia's intervention into remote Aboriginal communities, described by the United Nations as discriminatory and reflective of entrenched racism.

The former conservative government sent police and troops into the communities in June 2007, and imposed special bans on alcohol and pornography, to stamp out child sex abuse fuelled by chronic alcoholism.

The move had widespread support among white Australians but was opposed by many in the Aboriginal communities affected and Pilger points to reports by police and other agencies which say that the charges of widespread paedophilia were unfounded.

The film will be released in Australia in January.

(Editing by Elizabeth Piper)