Night & Day

Why Are These Two Indigenous Towns Down Under Really Worlds Apart?

The Australian town of Wadeye, in the Northern Territory, lies 400 kilometers (248.5 miles) southeast of the nearest city, Darwin. It has about 2,500 residents, all Aboriginal apart from 200 public servants and businessmen, making it the largest indigenous town in Australia. And one of the most -frightening.

Wadeye could be an idyllic place, a sleepy tourist town in the middle of the vast, red Outback. Instead, it is best known in Sydney and Melbourne because of vicious gang warfare between Judas Priest and Evil Warriors. In December, when the roads flood and the town is completely isolated, fights with axes, machetes, and sharpened iron bars landed dozens in jail and in the hospital.

"Seeing what is happening, my tears are never dry," Wadeye elder Theodora Narndu told The Age newspaper in 2007. "I hear the screams at night, terrified women and children. It has never been like this before. Our kids are not safe."

Wadeye is dysfunctional. An average of 17 people live in each of its dilapidated, graffiti-covered houses. Almost half of the population is under 15, but teenagers cannot speak English. In 2003 only 45 Aboriginals in the town had jobs. The rest lived on welfare payments.

Government money pours into the sand in Wadeye. A schoolteacher at the local primary school there lamented in the journal Quadrant that his pupils resisted education.

The minute your back is turned, the kids are stealing or vandalizing anything they can lay their hands on. . . . At night those who have been told 'no' during the day's lessons come to defecate outside your classroom door or urinate through broken louvres in the classroom windows.

And Wadeye is not the worst. At least it is a "dry" town where no alcohol is sold. Elsewhere, many live in a perpetual alcoholic stupor.

Successive Australian governments have announced their shock at the ghastly statistics of a Fifth World economy. Their embarrassment is sincere, but they are baffled. Plan after plan has foundered.

One indigenous settlement, however, defies these ghastly statistics. The obstacles there are the same: a different language, a different culture, unemployment, isolation, a history of oppression. But, on the surface at least, it is an idyllic community with paved streets, tidy houses, a lively cultural life and regular schooling.

It is the Cocos Islands, a territory of Australia about halfway to Sri Lanka. And the majority of the inhabitants are strictly observant Sunni Muslim Malays. Only two of the islands are inhabited: Home Island, by 450 Malays; and West Island, by 120 white bureaucrats and -business people who cater to a small tourist industry. It is a forgotten part of Australia.

The Malays are descendants of immigrants and slaves brought from the Malay Peninsula in the 19th century to work on a copra plantation owned by a Scottish trader, John Clunies-Ross. "I see them as having a strong connection much the same as the Australian indigenous population do," says Michael Simms, chief executive officer of the Cocos.

Despite its white beaches and palm trees, the Malay community is not perfect. The disappearance of the copra industry destroyed local employment. It is estimated that between 60 and 70 percent are on welfare. However, Home Island is not dysfunctional—it is just a gentle, sleepy tropical town.

Aren't there some lessons here for the indigenous people of Mainland Australia—and the rest of us? What lifebuoys have kept the Malays afloat through buffetings by consumerism, technology, and a vastly more powerful culture? Two things stick out like a sore thumb.

First, families. The Malays have traditional marriages and strong family life. This is evident in the statistics for education. Illegal drugs are almost unknown; school attendance is nearly 100 percent.

Second, religion. The Member of Parliament who represents the Cocos Islands, Warren Snowdon (also Federal Minister for Defense), describes the Malays as "highly religious, with high moral codes and very strong values." The women all wear the hijab and visitors to their island are told sternly to dress properly.

But the two words "family" and "religion" are absent in government deliberations about Aboriginal welfare.

True, families in the traditional society were looser than Western Christian families. But instead of strengthening them, the bureaucrats have allowed them to wither and decay. Nearly all children are born out of wedlock and promiscuity is endemic. But politically correct bureaucrats never talk about strengthening families.

And no one talks about religion. A town like Wadeye was once a Catholic mission station. But traditional culture is vanishing fast, and the cultural certainties conferred by Christianity have faded. The dominant culture seems to be the offscourings of the West: pornography, drugs, rock music, and videos.

Governments ought to stay out of homes and churches, but the stark differences between these two communities speak for themselves. Successful communities need strong families and strong cultural values. Policies that ignore them lead only to tears and despair. •

Brought to you by MercatorNet:

Michael Cook is a Melbourne journalist and the editor of MercatorNet and the international bioethics newsletter, BioEdge.


The Center for the Scientific Study of Religion

Don't believe that religion can have a positive impact on people and their communities? You might want to consult the Center for the Scientific Study of Religion (CSSR), part of the Population Research Center in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. CSSR is the only federally funded agency that studies the effect of religion on family life and health. And whether you're talking about how religion shapes the tenor and topics of spousal arguments, how it affects student grades, or how it influences interpersonal relationships, CSSR has found that religious belief of any stripe—but particularly that of -Christianity—tends to improve people's lives.

Perhaps the most famous of the center's findings is that regular church attendance results in an increased life expectancy of between seven and eight years regardless of one's social class, race, gender, or ethnicity. Other studies have shown that religious individuals are better at dealing with adversity, argue less with family members, perform better in school and at work, and enjoy better relationships with their neighbors and the larger community.

To be sure, the effects of religion are not always positive, and CSSR is interested in this aspect of religious belief as well. Dr. Christopher Ellison, the director of the center and professor in the Department of Sociology, points out that among religion's negative effects are "feelings of divine abandonment" and "anger at God in times of adversity and crises of faith." Dr. Mark Regnerus, another CSSR faculty member, is quick to add, however, that, "generally speaking, 80 to 85 percent of the time," religion is a positive force, contributing most significantly to emotional health and social stability.  •

Read a Salvo interview with CSSR's Mark Regnerus.

From Salvo 35 (Winter 2016)
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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #8, Spring 2009 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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