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Australia to reinstate its anti-racist act

CANBERRA, Australia, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- The Australian government has reiterated its intention to bring back the Racial Discrimination Act within the Northern Territory after it was suspended two years ago.

The comments come as a U.N. special rapporteur on indigenous human rights is touring some of the country's most disadvantaged aboriginal communities investigating people's claims of racial discrimination by the territorial and federal governments.

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At issue is the federal government's decision to intervene in the lives of aboriginals to improve their lot versus what the aboriginals claim is dictatorial, overbearing regulation and discriminatory practices.

Many of the aboriginal towns and camps are the poorest places in Australia, with living conditions, health ailments and child abuse most problematic.

The act ensures no Australian is discriminated against. However, it was suspended to allow the Northern Territorial Government to take over the running of around 70 aboriginal communities.

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With the act suspended, the government has been dictating how many aboriginals live their lives, including where and how their welfare checks are spent such as how much a family must spend on food. Also, entertainment has been curtailed including Internet access and in particular access to pornographic Web sites.

But church leaders, aboriginal rights groups and political activists have said government actions are discriminatory because they are based on race. They have been fighting for the Racial Discrimination Act to be re-instated as soon as possible and the town councils to be handed back to the aboriginals.

Thousands of aboriginals have written to the United Nations demanding the organization visit the Northern Territory. The current fact-finding tour of U.S. law Professor James Anaya, the special rapporteur, is the result of their petitioning efforts, and Anaya kicked off his visit in controversial fashion.

Anaya is the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. He was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples in March 2008.

On the first day of his visit he told Australian media that there appears a prima facie case that suspending the act is discriminatory. But he also said he had yet to make up his mind whether the suspension was in the best interests of Australia's indigenous people.

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Asked if the suspension was "undeniably discriminatory" Anaya said that "on its face, yes. But I'm not expressing a conclusion about whether or not that's justified at this time," he told reporters in Canberra.

The federal government's case that the suspension was working in the aboriginals favor suffered a setback last week. Jim Davidson, head of the Northern Territory's Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program, was fired after revelations of mismanagement of government funds to build 750 houses.

He was sacked after it became public that the SIHIP's administration costs would absorb more than 70 percent of the program's $563 million budget. The program was launched 18 months ago, but no houses have yet been built.

The program has been delayed because of legal wrangling over the government securing proper land leases upon which to build the houses, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin told Parliament.

The Racial Discrimination Act could be reinstated during the spring session of Parliament. But even so, the government has said it will fight to keep some control over aboriginal town councils.

Anaya is expected to leave Australia by the end of the week.

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