Cathy Freeman's broad Olympic smile is being used to conceal a multitude of Australia's original sins

My flight to Sydney was in a Qantas aircraft painted entirely in Aboriginal motifs. The airline calls it the "Wunala Dreaming" and offers a scale model in its duty-free catalogue. An in-flight video features the Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman, said to be Australia's one hope for an athletics gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. Along with her corporate sponsor, Qantas, she is described as "the spirit of Australia". There is no hint of the true state of her people.

The Australian facade is always deceptive and beguiling, like Cathy Freeman's billboard smile. The late-autumn sunshine is welcoming; the diamond light is like nothing seen in the northern hemisphere. When the Olympic flame arrived in Australia last month, the front pages of newspapers might have been torn from the bush tales that have charmed generations, with their cuddly koalas and native children with cheeky grins. At Uluru (still known as Ayers Rock by most white Australians), one of the most sacred of Aboriginal sites, loveable black children dressed in red Olympics T-shirts performed for the cameras, chasing after Aboriginal Olympic torch-bearers.

The theft and co-option of Aboriginal humanity, dignity and culture is more subtle now, but the ignorance and prejudice behind it remain granite-hard. For all the changes in education, many Australians are unaware that the names of their streets and towns are from the Aboriginal Dreaming and mark the graveyards of whole communities: Bondi, where I grew up, is famous only for its beach-life. Few whites appreciate the legacy and scale of the genocide in Australia. While 10 per cent of Jewry died in the Holocaust, the great majority of the first Australians died in the onslaught of white invasion and appropriation. In 1987, a sensational "discovery" was made by a Sydney University team, led by Australia's most celebrated pre-historian, Professor D J Mulvaney. They reported that the Australian population in 1788 was 750,000, or three times the previous estimate. They concluded that more than 600,000 people had died as result of white settlement. This truth has since been deeply unpopular; the current prime minister, John Howard, derides it as the "black-armband view of history". For many of his white constituents, it threatens the view of themselves as innocent bystanders in a stolen land.

The postcard image will be maintained during the Olympics unless an Aboriginal "shaming campaign" aimed at foreign media has an effect. The facts of their suffering inevitably produce a kind of provincial defensiveness, especially if reminders come from overseas. Much political and media effort has gone into "discrediting" the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which last year distinguished Australia with its first adverse finding on racial discrimination against a western nation. As the committee pointed out, the life expectancy of black Australians is 25 years shorter than that of whites. Apart from countries at war, Australia has the distinction of having the highest death rate in the world - among its first people. When I interviewed Phillip Ruddock, a federal minister given the public relations job of "reconciliation" in time for the Olympics, he boasted that the Aboriginal child mortality rate had improved. He is right; it is now three times that of white children. The death rate of children from preventable disease and poverty in Bangladesh is not as bad as in western Australia. Those squealing black children chasing the Olympic flame for the cameras in all probability include those who will suffer at least partial loss of sight. Australia is the only developed country on a World Health Organisation "shame list" of countries where children are still blinded by trachoma. Impoverished Sri Lanka has beaten the disease, but not lucky Australia.

Colin Tatz, a professor of genocide studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, told me: "Cathy Freeman is the greatest thing that ever happened to white Australia because this happy, delightful, fun-loving young lady looks as though she is the representative of all black womanhood. But she is not; she is an aberration." Such has been the pressure on her to play the "spirit of Australia" game that she has sought refuge in Europe until the Olympics.

Last month, about 200,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge as an expression, it was reported, of their "basic human solidarity" with Aboriginal people. There is no doubt that a large body of white Australia cares deeply about giving the indigenous population a "fair go", but their political effect on the conservative and, on the evidence, racist government of John Howard has been minimal.

In a revealing analysis of public opinion surveys, the Sydney writer David Marr reminded his compatriots that "those who rage against John Howard . . . who despise him for his refusal to apologise and his decades-long campaign against privileges for Aborigines should look at what these polls are saying." He disclosed that, for as long as polls had been taken, a majority of Australians had refused to show the political will to change life for the indigenous minority. Even acknowledgement that Aborigines held prior ownership of the land is rejected; 64 per cent are opposed to any form of reparation; 37 per cent are against even expressing "sorrow and profound regrets".

It is Australia Week in London until 9 July. John Howard is here with a team of politicians on a junket to celebrate a century of constitutional federation in Australia, which marked a kind of independence from Britain. But white Australia will never be truly independent until it respects and honours the humanity of its first people.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit