Things Looking Up for the Poor Down Under

When Australia’s conservative government was voted out of office last month, much of the world’s media emphasized the possible ramifications for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — or the fact that the former singer of politically charged rockers Midnight Oil is now the nation’s environment minister.

But the changes go much deeper than that.

The newly installed government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is acting quickly to reverse the policies of previous Prime Minister John Howard on a wide range of social justice issues.

This week, the government announced that it would discontinue the controversial “Pacific Solution,” whereby Asian refugees seeking asylum in Australia were held in camps in Papua New Guinea.

The program, instated by Howard in 2001, had been assailed by human rights groups and the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the new government was quick to respond after the Sydney Morning Herald reported that millions of dollars were being wasted by the national welfare system in prosecuting the poor for cases of suspected fraud, sometimes even after the accusation was proved groundless.

“Many of the cases it pursued had absolutely no merit,” one activist told the Herald. “It pressed cases, not to set precedents, but to set a tone.”

Howard had made a get-tough approach on welfare a cornerstone of his unsuccessful re-election campaign.

The new government said it would investigate the alleged abuses.

Finally, Rudd said his government would issue a formal apology to Australia’s Aborigines for the so-called stolen generation of aboriginal youths who were taken from their homes in a decades-long effort to assimilate them.

The indigenous population — only about 470,000 out of 21 million people in Australia — is the poorest group in the nation, reports Agence France-Presse.

Conservatives in Australia oppose any apology, which they say could fuel calls for financial reparations to Aborigines.

–Will Crain/


“Pacific Solution to be abolished”
The Age, December 1, 2007

“Millions lost in fierce legal war on the poor”
Sydney Morning Herald, December 9, 2007

“Govt to review handling of welfare fraud”
Australian Associated Press, December 10, 2007

“New Australian PM pledges quick apology to Aborigines”
Agence France-Presse, November 25, 2007

“Saying sorry won’t mean compo, says Rudd”, November 30, 2007

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