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:

  • One out of eight children is abused or neglected.
  • The per-capita rate of sexually transmitted infections among NT Aboriginal people is between seven and 30 times greater than that among non-Aboriginals.
  • Drunkenness is endemic. To give you an idea of the problem, consider the town of Borroloola—population about 800. The locals were consuming about eight pallets of beer—960 cartons—a day.
  • Pornography is everywhere. Many children in Aboriginal communities are hyper-sexualized as a result of watching blue movies on DVD and pay TV.
  • The use of cannabis and kava, as well as petrol-sniffing, is widespread.

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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Indigenous Indignities

The Sad Facts Surrounding Aboriginal Australians

Most Americans know little to nothing about the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and its nearby islands. And yet theirs is one of most heart-rending histories in the entire world, representing several centuries of hardship, both self-imposed and coming at the hands of others. What follows is merely a cursory treatment of their ongoing woes, but it should give you at least some context for their current plight.

  • It is estimated that 1 million Aboriginal People lived in Australia before the arrival of British settlers.
  • Indigenous Australians are often labelled “blacks,” though they do not share an ancestry with the black people of Asia and Africa.
  • When used as a noun, the terms “Aborigine” and “Aboriginal” have derogatory connotations; the preferred term is “Aboriginal Australian.”
  • In the late eighteenth century, there were between 350 and 750 distinct languages spoken by Aboriginal Australians; today, there are less than 200, all but twenty of which are considered endangered.
  • It is thought that some Indigenous clans first arrived in Australia from Southeast Asia, though they are not related genetically to any known Polynesian population.
  • Before the British arrival, Aboriginal population levels were steady for thousands and thousands of years.
  • In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook seized the east coast of Australia on behalf of Great Britain and declared it New South Wales.
  • British colonization of Australia began in 1788, and within weeks the Indigenous Australians began dying from chickenpox, smallpox, influenza, and measles.
  • Though the Aboriginal People maintained permanent villages, the colonists portrayed them as nomads, pushing them off their land and insisting that they would be just as happy someplace else.
  • The combination of land loss, disease, and murder reduced the Aboriginal population by 90 percent between 1788 and 1900.
  • The total number of violent deaths at the hands of the British is estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000.
  • By the 1870s, the Indigenous Australians had been robbed of every inch of fertile land.
  • It was common during this period for a British man to keep an Aboriginal woman chained to his bed for the purpose of rape.
  • By the early 1900s, the Indigenous population had fallen to around 50,000, and it was widely believed that the Aboriginal People would soon die out.
  • The Aboriginal People who did survive eventually began to develop resistance to the foreign diseases, and by the 1930s, their population started to stabilize.
  • Sympathy for Indigenous Australians took hold in the 1950s, though it wasn’t until 1965 that they were able to vote in federal elections.
  • Only two Indigenous Australians have ever been elected to the Australian Parliament, and there are currently no elected Aboriginal People in the Parliament.
  • Today, Indigenous Australians are twice as likely as non-Indigenous people to rate their health as poor, and one-and-a-half times more likely to have a long-term disability.
  • The life expectancy for the average Indigenous Australian is approximately 17 years lower than the Australian average.
  • Thirty-nine percent of Aboriginal students stay in school through year twelve, compared to 75 percent for the Australian population as a whole.
  • An Indigenous Australian is eleven times more likely to be in prison than a non-Indigenous Australian.
  • Aboriginal Australians are twice as likely to be a victim of violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
  • The average household income for an Indigenous Australian is 60 percent of the non-Indigenous average.
  • Alcoholism is such a huge problem for Aboriginal People that some communities have introduced kava as an alternative to alcohol, hoping that its sleep-inducing effects will help counter alcohol-related violence.
  • Petrol sniffing is the drug of choice for Indigenous Australians due to its low price and widespread availability. The problem is so bad that the Northern Territory introduced a new fuel in 2005 that would not produce a “high.”
  • Today, many in Australia continue to regard the Aboriginal People with hatred and disgust.
  • The term “Indigenous Australians” encompasses both the Torres Strait Islanders (who live on the islands between Australia and New Guinea) and the Aboriginal People; taken together, these groups represent about 2.5 percent of Australia’s total population.
  • Sexual abuse is rampant in Aboriginal communities; for example, an estimated three in five Aboriginal children have suffered some kind of sexual abuse in the Queensland Aboriginal community of Cherbourg.

From Salvo 3 (Summer 2007)

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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #3, Summer 2007 Copyright © 2023 Salvo |


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