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.

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.

The government said the permit system had enabled a veil of secrecy to be drawn over appalling levels of gang violence, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

But Aboriginal groups said that scrapping the permit system meant that settlements would be more vulnerable to drug dealers and "sly-grog runners," as smugglers of prohibited liquor are known.

"Removing permits could provide a free-for-all peddling of alcohol and marijuana and pornography, or the inflicting of further sexual or physical abuse on children," says David Ross, director of the Central Land Council in Alice Springs.

"At least with the permit system it was possible to ask somebody what they were doing in the community," he says.

One of the communities to which troops and police reinforcements will first be deployed is Mutitjulu, located in the shadow of Uluru, also called Ayers Rock.

The village has been branded a national disgrace – a forlorn shanty-town ravaged by the scourge of petrol sniffing. But indignant community leaders in Mutitjulu say they need social workers, not soldiers, and, on Tuesday, threatened to stop tourists from climbing Ayers Rock in protest of the government's actions.

'Employment is key,' leaders say

Successive governments have spent billions of dollars trying to address the catastrophic disintegration of Aboriginal culture, but solutions have been depressingly elusive.

Aboriginal leaders say that restoring law and order and clamping down on alcohol and pornography should be part of a much broader effort to improve Aborigines' lives.

What is really needed for blighted communities are jobs, better education, and substance abuse rehabilitation programs, they say.

"What the government has announced are short-term, extreme measures, which don't address the underlying issues," says Priscilla Collins, head of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.

"Employment is key – if you don't have a job, you sit at home all day and it becomes very depressing. We need to improve the services in these remote places – petrol stations, clinics, shops – and that will create employment. It's not rocket science."

Ms. Collins has worked in the desert regions of central Australia for 18 years and knows of only two settlements that have substance-abuse rehabilitation programs.

"If you ban alcohol, there's nowhere to dry out, no help, and addicts take out their anger on their families," says Collins.

Questions have also been raised about why it has taken Howard, who has been prime minister for more than a decade, so long to act.

The prime minister's opponents have accused him of cynically engineering a feel-good, vote-grabbing initiative ahead of an election due this fall.

Howard dismissed the charge and likened the scale of abuse in Aboriginal townships to hurricane Katrina.

"Many Australians, myself included, looked aghast at the failure of the American federal system of government to cope adequately with hurricane Katrina and the human misery and lawlessness that engulfed New Orleans in 2005," Howard said. "We should have been more humble. We have our Katrina, here and now."

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