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Archive for Saturday, August 19, 2000

Olympic hosts struggling with past

August 19, 2000

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— Workers clamber over Sydney Harbor Bridge's stately arch, hanging the first of 170,000 bulbs that will etch five rings into the city's skyline during the Olympics.

The giant rings taking shape this week will dominate the city, just as the 2000 Games have cast their shadow over other Australian news in recent months.

But beyond the circus of preparations for the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Games, Australians have had plenty of issues to deal with as their country looks to its future while struggling with its past.

Over the past year, Australia has led a multinational peacekeeping force into a neighboring country, searched for ways to reconcile its black and white communities, voted not to drop Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and wrestled with a new tax system.

November's referendum on the monarchy highlighted the struggle of a young nation to come to terms with its future shape and its colonial past. Australians had a heated debate over whether their nation should become a republic and replace the queen with an elected head of state.

Opinion polls showed a majority of Australians wanted to ditch the queen. But the republican vote was deeply divided over how a new head of state should be elected.

Eventually, the referendum came down heavily in favor of retaining the monarch.

The Olympics bring a new indication that the queen's influence is waning. Tradition holds that the head of state opens the Games, but Queen Elizabeth will not do so. Instead, her representative here, Governor-General Sir William Deane, will do the honors.

Another unresolved battle with the past that continues to haunt Australia is how to reconcile its Aboriginal and white populations and atone for past mistreatment of indigenous Australians, who now make up a small, underprivileged minority of the population.

Conservative Prime Minister John Howard has rejected repeated calls to offer a blanket apology to Aborigines for policies of the past, including the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their parents.

That refusal has enraged Aborigines, who say they will use the Olympics as a stage to showcase their grievances to the world.

While wrestling with domestic issues, Australia has also continued to play the role of a regional power. Its leadership of a multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor won Australia international praise but wrecked the country's relationship with Indonesia.

In a development that will hit Olympic visitors, Howard's conservative government introduced a new 10 percent goods and services tax.

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