26/02/2009 18:15 (South Africa)
Sydney - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was forced on Thursday to defend his record on improving the lives of Aborigines, a year after making a historic apology for past abuses by white settlers.
"Some say that little has happened in the year since the apology, but that is not the case. Progress has been made. Houses are being built," Rudd told parliament, in his inaugural address on tackling Aboriginal disadvantage.
Acknowledging that the "burden of history" fell most heavily on Australia's original inhabitants, Rudd said the apology had raised expectations that "change would be swift, results sudden".
"But generations of indigenous disadvantage cannot be turned around overnight," he said.
While recognising that "progress is slow", Rudd told parliament 80 houses had been finished or were near completion in the remote outback, with four new township leases meaning 4 200 new homes could soon be built and another 4 800 upgraded.
The prime minister defended the continuation of the previous conservative administration's controversial "intervention" policy, which saw police and troops deployed in remote Aboriginal towns.
"With more night patrols, less alcohol consumption and more safe houses, families say they are feeling safer," he said.
Rudd also stood by the quarantining of Aboriginal welfare payments.
"I know that income management is controversial, but we have maintained it for a simple reason - it has been shown to work in many communities," he said.
"It helps to protect vulnerable groups such as women, children and the elderly by enabling the purchase of food and other essentials."
Australia's original inhabitants, with cultures stretching back many thousands of years, Aborigines are believed to have numbered around a million at the time of white settlement but there are now just 470 000 out of a population of 21 million.
They are Australia's most impoverished minority, with a lifespan 17 years shorter than the national average and disproportionately high rates of imprisonment, heart disease and infant mortality.
Rudd has committed himself to halving the gaps in infant mortality, overall life expectancy, literacy and numeracy achievement and school completion rates within 10 years.
He made a number of funding commitments in his speech, including $58m to tackle third-world ear and eye conditions in Aboriginal communities and $564m for the construction of children and family health centres.
Rudd also appointed a co-ordinator general to oversee his reform agenda.
Aboriginal activist and 2009 Australian of the Year Mick Dodson said the government needed to engage the indigenous community, and address low levels of trust and co-operation.
"Resettling the relationship is going to require... a genuine development approach to every aspect of closing the gap," said Dodson.
'Committed to following evidence'
"At last it appears we are committed to following the evidence, and all of the evidence already shows that imposed solutions don't work because the people whose lives are affected don't own them."
Rudd's apology, delivered last February, was received with a standing ovation both inside and outside parliament.
He repeatedly used the word "sorry" and referred to "past mistreatment" and wrongs which the original Australians endured after British settlers arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788.
Thursday's address was the first of what Rudd has promised will be an annual parliamentary "report card" on progress in reducing Aboriginal disadvantage.