Australian PM needs time to fix Aboriginal problems

CANBERRA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - A year after he apologised to Australia's Aborigines for 200 years of racial injustice, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Thursday generations of indigenous disadvantage could not be turned around overnight.

Rudd made his first report on how the government was working to improve the lives of Australia's 460,000 Aborigines, who make up two percent of the population but are the most disadvantaged group in Australian society.

Speaking to parliament on Thursday, he said developments in the past year had improved health, education, housing and security in some Aboriginal communities.

Rudd said his 2008 apology in parliament had created a new relationship of mutual respect between black and white Australians, unleashed a wave of goodwill across the country, and raised expectations of swift results to improve indigenous lives.

"But generations of indigenous disadvantage cannot be turned around overnight," he said.

Many Aborigines live in remote communities with little access to health, education and government services, and with too few houses, leading to major overcrowding.

Aborigines suffer higher rates of infant mortality, imprisonment, unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence, and die an average 17 years younger than other Australians.

The government has promised to close the life expectancy gap within a generation, to tackle social problems and to double school retention rates for Aboriginal children.

Rudd said in the past year 13,000 Aboriginal children had undergone health checks, 80 houses had been built in remote communities, extra police had been deployed to troubled communities and more indigenous children were at school.

Rudd also announced a new coordinator-general would be appointed to oversee the development of housing, infrastructure and employment in Aboriginal communities.

He also announced a new programme to fight preventable eye and ear disease in Aboriginal communities.

"The task ahead is difficult. The transformation of communities and of lives will take many years. And there will be many bumps and setbacks on the road. The alternative is to do nothing," Rudd said.

"We are determined to have a go. In this country, the burden of history falls most heavily on the first Australians. The disadvantage they have suffered for more than two centuries have placed great obstacles in our way."

Editing by Valerie Lee