Australia cracks down on Aborigines
Federal troops arrived Wednesday to enforce tighter regulations on welfare payments and a ban on pornography and alcohol in Aboriginal communities.
They are deployed around the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the South Pacific, but in an unprecedented move Australian soldiers are being sent this week into their own backyard.Skip to next paragraph
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Troops are to be stationed across the Outback as the Australian government launches a massive crackdown on the alcoholism, sexual assault, and social dysfunction that a recent federal investigation alleges are tearing apart Aboriginal communities.
Shocked by the findings of an official report released earlier this month, the government of Prime Minister John Howard has decided to ban alcohol, confiscate pornography, and make welfare payments conditional on good parenting in more than 60 isolated Aboriginal townships.
But the government's robust intervention touched off a firestorm of political debate within Australia, with some politicians and Aboriginal leaders saying it smacks of racism and discrimination.
Amid an epidemic of child sexual abuse and domestic violence, all children under the age of 16 will be subjected to a compulsory medical checkup to make sure they are not being mistreated. The first soldiers will start arriving in remote desert settlements in the sparsely populated Northern Territory starting Wednesday, backed up by police, social workers, and government officials.
The report, titled "Little Children are Sacred," found that "rivers of grog" [alcohol] are leading to the breakdown of Aboriginal society, with children as young as 3 exposed to hardcore pornography and others sexually abused by both black and white men. It said teenage Aboriginal girls were prostituting themselves for drugs and alcohol with white miners in remote parts of the Outback.
The Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory have, until now, been governed by the local government, based in Darwin. Mr. Howard's decision effectively places the townships' governance in federal hands.
Blighted Aboriginal communities
The federal investigation shattered any lingering image of Aboriginal communities as tranquil desert outposts of dot painting and didgeridoo-playing. It showed that a large proportion of the country's 450,000 indigenous people struggle with unemployment, ill health, high rates of crime, social alienation, and suicide.
Announcing the most dramatic shakeup of Aboriginal affairs for 40 years, Howard said the alcohol-fueled sexual abuse of Aboriginal children was a "national emergency."
"We are dealing with children of the tenderest age who have been exposed to the most terrible abuse from the time of their birth, virtually," Howard said.
A former conservative prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, said the government's actions were a "throwback to past paternalism" because there had been no consultation with Aboriginal people.
An Aboriginal activist and academic, Boni Robertson, described the emergency measures as "knee-jerk nonsense" that breached Australia's antidiscrimination laws.
As part of its sweeping overhaul, the federal government plans to scrap a 30-year-old system by which outsiders had to have a permit to visit Aboriginal townships.