Posted by: Tony Carson | 25 August, 2007

Is There Hope for Australian Aborigines?

Close to the geographic center of Australia, Alice Springs is “ground zero” for my country’s indigenous people, who constitute 2.5 percent of Australia’s population of 20.4 million. They are a tragic group. While the average life expectancy of a non-indigenous Australian is over 80, Aborigines are lucky if they reach 60. Compare that to Native Americans in the United States, who die seven years earlier than the average American and have an infant mortality rate 50 percent lower than Australia’s Aborigines, and you begin to get an idea of how bad things are here.

Alice Springs has the highest rate of violent crime in this country, and brutal clashes on suburban streets between Aboriginal mobs are common. In the past two years, unspeakable crimes have been committed in surrounding desert communities:

Over the past two months, with Prime Minister John Howard’s support, Mal Brough, the minister of indigenous affairs and a pugnacious former soldier, has forced through legislation — about 500 pages — that has swept aside 50 years of policy and put the national government firmly back in charge of indigenous communities in the Northern Territory — home to about 66,000 Aborigines. Indigenous self-rule has been dumped for a set of strict government controls that include compulsory health checks, extra police, bans on the consumption of alcohol and a “mutual obligation” regime that requires parents to, among other things, send their children to school. Those who don’t comply will have their welfare payments docked.Brough’s actions are splitting the country in unexpected ways. He has some high-profile Aboriginal leaders at his side, agreeing that something radical needs to be done; others bay accusations of racism and genocide and allege that the policy is nothing but a front for a land-rights grab and a means to wind back the clock to the ideology of assimilation.

Indigenous communities, including 30 town camps for members of various Aboriginal groups in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, have been compared to South Africa’s notorious shantytowns. Most Aborigines live in tiny, often unpoliced settlements, scattered throughout the desert, that are awash in a feral culture marked by a weird convergence of American rap culture, welfare (known in the community as “sit-down money”) and substance abuse. Rates of sexually transmitted disease among children and teenagers have been found to be 25 times the national average. It is not uncommon for parents raised on “bush tucker” — lean kangaroo meat, roasted lizard, yams and berries — to outlive children who are drawn to junk food. For years national and local governments have dumped money at the community gate — well more than $1 billion in 2001, for example — but have done little to control how it was spent. Self-rule gave communities the power to decide how the money was doled out, so dominant individuals and clans did as they pleased.

Under Brough’s legislation, which passed the senate last week, much that was set up under self-rule has gone, including a permit system that barred the media from reporting conditions in the communities. In have come teams of doctors, soldiers and police with a brief to assess health and safety needs and put systems in place to protect children, not just from sexual abuse, but from physical and psychological neglect as well.

But the big issue is: Will it work? Brough’s approach relies heavily on his own missionary zeal, new punitive powers and a theory of indigenous behavior that, like all the others before it, remains open to question. Though the minister has won praise for shaking the nation out of a long slumber of indifference, the whiff of failure already swirls around the venture like red desert dust. Imposing punitive measures on people who are constantly on the move will be difficult and will require an army of bureaucrats. Should you deduct welfare payments from a family attending the traditional “sorry camp” hundreds of miles away following the death of a relative? Compulsory health checks will not in themselves confirm abuse, as promiscuity is rife among adolescents. What protection can police offer victims who are threatened by their own families for speaking out?

The full article from the Washing Post is entitled Is There Hope for the Aborigines?

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