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Aborigines win breathing space in land dispute

Aborigines in Australia's remote northwest corner have won an unexpected victory in the latest round of their ongoing battle with the state government of Western Australia and the US-owned Amax Petroleum.

Thanks to the support of the trade union movement in Western Australia, they have managed, for the moment, to squelch Amax plans to drill for oil on land Aborigine legends designate as sacred.

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The victory came at the last moment, after the Aborigines had resigned themselves to a bitter defeat. Aborigine protests and roadblocks had failed to prevent the convoy carrying Amax drilling equipment from plowing its way onto the disputed Noonkanbah property.

But after the convoy had passed, Bob Hawke, national president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, announced that he had won the agreement of oil-rig operators to halt drilling on the property.

His announcement was greeted with relief on Noonkanbah itself, and with skepticism by Western Australian government ministers, who said they would find nonunion labor, from overseas if necessary, to operate the drilling rig.

Hawke, however, claims that he has persuaded the owners of the rig, the Australian-owned CSR Ltd., not to proceed with drilling if unionists voted not to operate the rig.

It will be a week before the oil rig is assembled and Mr. Hawke's claims that he has halted the drilling can be tested.

In the meantime, the federal government minister for Aborigines, Sen. Fred Chaney, together with Mr. Hawke and the Aborigines, will be using the breating space they have gained to press the state government to reconsider the entire issue of drilling and exploration on the Aboriginal property.

The state government is coming under increasing criticism from the news media -- which normally support the Liberal Party government -- for its stand on the issue.

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The conservative Sydney Morning Herald said recently that the state government had "committed a deplorable blunder by calling its present confrontation with Aborigines and trade unions."

It said that the conflict "provides the perfect scenario for those who wish to depict Australia as a racist country committed to pursuing its historic maltreatment and exploitation of Aborigines, while mouthing assurances to the contrary."

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