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Columns: Foreign Intel

Little Children

Australia’s National Emergency

With troops in Iraq, East Timor, and the Solomon Islands, Australia’s small army is so stretched that the government had to decline a United Nations request to send peacekeepers to Darfur. But now the army is facing a “national emergency” in inland Australia. Why? Spillover from separatist violence in the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville? Jemaah Islamiah militants from neighboring Indonesia staging raids in the Simpson Desert? None of the above.

The Australian Army is being deployed throughout the vast Northern Territory (NT) to deal with gross sexual abuse of Aboriginal children. “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,” said Prime Minister John Howard, as he stomped over the local government’s objections. “What matters more: the constitutional niceties or the care and protection of young children?”

This was our Hurricane Katrina, said Howard—the humiliating exposure of government incompetence and neglect on a vast scale. Social breakdown in isolated Aboriginal communities was so serious that it warranted immediate action. “Freedoms and rights, especially for women and children, are little more than cruel fictions without the rule of law,” Mr. Howard said. So troops, police, doctors, social workers, and bureaucrats are flooding into about 60 townships in an effort to rebuild Aboriginal society from the ground up.

Although the NT occupies a fifth of the Australian continent, it has only one percent of its people. But it contains more than half of the country’s 1,139 remote indigenous communities, and nearly 30 percent of its population is Aboriginal. It ought to be a showcase of how Australia cares for the disadvantaged and vulnerable. It’s not.

What sparked the federal government into action was a report commissioned by the local government into Aboriginal child sexual abuse, Little Children Are Sacred. It was replete with sickening stories: a 3-year-old girl imitating sex acts; 12 to 15-year-old Aboriginal girls trading sex with mine workers for alcohol and cash; increasing rates of incest; 15-year-olds raping 5-year-olds; mothers prostituting their children; and so on.

Sad as they were, none of the stories was new. Even though the report offered few hard statistics on the scope of the abuse, it was universally accepted. Year after year, government reports on dysfunctional Aboriginal communities have been tabled. Successive governments have given them the vote, welfare, land rights, and a huge bureaucracy to manage their affairs. What was beyond their power to give was successful marriages and happy home lives.

Aborigines have always been at risk. After more than 200 years of white contact—often tainted by violence, abuse, discrimination, and neglect—many have lost their links to traditional cultures and homelands. Some of them have integrated successfully into mainstream Australian society. Many have not. Fringe-dwellers of detribalized Aborigines live in the outskirts of many country towns in ramshackle settlements. In more remote areas, so alien from white Australia that residents speak little English, tiny townships subsist on government welfare payments.

In many (though not all) of these, living conditions cannot be described as third world, or even fourth world. Journalists and government reports paint pictures of utterly demoralized communities, horrifying parallel universes of boredom, pornography, ill health, drunkenness, drug abuse, violence, and sexual abuse:

There are fears that traditional Aboriginal culture will disappear with this generation. A woman elder from the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land said eloquently: “We can see that the young people are coming out of school and going straight into drinking—this is a very bad habit. . . . It is devastating for us to bury our young people; they should be burying us. But the tide has turned: We the Elders are singing and crying for our young ones.”

Got the picture? Reading Little Children Are Sacred would make you weep with despair. But not just over the horrifying abuse of women and children and the near extinction of an ancient culture. There should be despair, too, over the clueless bureaucrats.

The problem with Aboriginal society is not that it is too different from mainstream Western society, but that it is too much the same. Reeling under the onslaught of modern technology, media, and bureaucracy, Aboriginal culture is fragile—immune-compromised and vulnerable to moral infections. Our more robust culture, with its long Christian traditions, law, and institutions can hardly cope. What chance does Aboriginal culture have? Essentially, how different is the world of Borroloola from the binge-drinking, sex-sodden world of many university students? Just read Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.

In fact, as the report’s authors found, the problem was that many Aboriginal girls and boys are just copying what they see on their TV screens. Pentecostal minister Djiniyini Gondarra, of the Galiwin’ku people in Arnhem Land, made a shrewd observation last year: Aboriginal youths believe they are “acting within ‘white fella’ law when being abusive, a thinking that began with the systemic undermining of our own law with the colonization of Australia and the atrocities that followed. It is now reinforced by TV, movies, pornography, and drugs brought into our community from wider Australia.”

What makes outback Aboriginal society so sick? The Howard government has highlighted the destructive influence of welfare payments—or “sit-down money,” as it is often called. It is attempting to create a work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility. This will help to curb the drunkenness, idleness, and hopelessness that underlie much of the sex abuse.

But a crackpot welfare system is far from the whole story. The report’s authors heard from many sources that “as traditional Aboriginal and missionary-imposed norms regarding sex broke down, they were being replaced with rampant promiscuity among teenagers.” These tragically vulnerable people, in other words, are living in a moral vacuum.

How do the authors of the report propose to fill it? What is their game plan for changing the hearts of Aboriginal teenagers—to help them treat others with the respect due to them as fellow human beings?

Safe sex. Yup, that’s right. Safe sex. “It is the Inquiry’s view that action must be taken to establish a new set of moral ‘norms’ within Aboriginal communities that do not fetter the freedom of choice but encourage the young to make appropriate and healthy choices in relation to sex and make certain behaviors socially unacceptable.” How about fostering healthy marriages? How about strengthening the family unit? They aren’t even mentioned.

Western individualism has subverted traditional Aboriginal law, which was harsh and patriarchal, but did not sanction promiscuity or the horrific sexual abuse detailed in the report. In one community, the Elders’ efforts to promote traditional marriage were being undermined by the local health center, which was distributing condoms and telling patients that they could have sex with anyone they wanted, and at any time, as long as they wore a condom. “For young people today having sex is like fishing, and they throw that fish back when they are finished,” a Yolgnu Elder said.

The crisis in the Australian outback is a crisis of Western values, not just Aboriginal values. Having lost their confidence in stable marriages and intact families as the natural foundation of their own society, Australian bureaucrats can hardly teach people who are socially and psychologically fragile how to use their sexuality in a responsible way. The best they can do is to surround broken families with a rickety scaffolding of social services and hope the kids will survive.

And when they don’t, you can always send in the army. 

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