Far-Reaching Policy for Aborigines Draws Their Fury

New York Times, - Friday, August 24, 2007

Abstract: Australia's Aborigine face new legislation from Prime Min John Howard that clears way for government to purchase five-year leases on Aboriginal town land and other measures; catalyst for legislation is government report that uncovered widespread sexual abuse and neglect of children in indigenous Australian communities; critics say problems are not unique to indigenous communities and argue that because it applies only to Aboriginal communities makes it racist;

Since he walked out of the vast Gibson Desert in Australia in 1934 at the age of 12, Long Jack Phillipus has spent a lifetime helping his Aboriginal people slowly win rights from the white leadership. Then, this month, he saw the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard abruptly throw the process into reverse. And he is angry.

"We should be the boss of our land, not that fellow from Parliament House," Mr. Phillipus said.

Mr. Phillipus's land is the sun-baked heart of Australia. His home is in Papunya, 170 miles from the regional center, Alice Springs, and more than 60 miles from the nearest paved road. For 40,000 years his people roamed free across the surrounding red sand scrub, and ties to the land still run deep.

Like many other towns in the wide reaches of central Australia, Papunya was set up by the government in the 1950s as a distribution point for the rations it gave to Aboriginal people. For its residents, there is still a sense of their being unwilling subjects in a cultural experiment.

There is a temporary feel to the town, with succeeding generations of government housing lying derelict, and plastic bottles and abandoned cars strewn about. Along with the trash, other ills -- drug addiction, domestic violence, poor health and lack of education -- have grown and festered, magnified by the isolation.

Now the government has decided to address the ills, but critics say it is doing so in the paternalistic fashion it was supposed to have discarded decades ago. On Aug. 17, Parliament completed approval of legislation that, among other measures, requires welfare recipients to spend half their income on food, fines them if their children do not attend school, bans alcohol and pornography in Aboriginal areas in the Northern Territory and clears the way for the government to purchase five-year leases on Aboriginal town land.

The catalyst for the legislation was a government report that uncovered widespread sexual abuse and neglect of children in indigenous Australian communities. But critics note that the problems the legislation is intended to address are not unique to indigenous communities and argue that the fact that it applies only to Aboriginal communities makes it racist.

Aboriginal leaders have made similar accusations in the past. Relations were poisoned by a policy formally abandoned in 1969 in which Aboriginal children, the so-called stolen generation, were forcibly taken from their parents in an effort to assimilate them into white society.

In part because of lingering guilt over those practices, the government has been reluctant to take forceful action about the social problems in indigenous communities.

"It has always been too hard, there were no votes in it, and they were scared of creating another stolen generation," said Alison Anderson, Mr. Phillipus's granddaughter, who represents Papunya in the Northern Territory Assembly.

Indigenous people account for 2.7 percent of the Australian population, and by almost every measure they are worse off than the mainstream. Life expectancy is 17 years lower than the average Australian's. They are 13 times as likely to be incarcerated, three times as likely to be unemployed and twice as likely to be victims of violence or to be threatened with violence. Almost all these indicators have gotten steadily worse since 1967, when indigenous Australians won citizenship.

"It's good to have rights, but you've got to have responsibility too, and I think we lost sight of that," Ms. Anderson said.

In the dusty streets of Papunya there is a palpable lassitude that many attribute to inadequate education and a scarcity of jobs for those who can read and write. The school has been upgraded, but on a recent Thursday only 25 of the 125 enrolled children turned up.

Many children are being reared by their struggling grandparents, because their parents have moved to Alice Springs, often to feed their alcohol or drug addictions. Of Papunya's 360 residents, the overwhelming majority are entirely dependent on government money.

Despite these problems, the new legislation has stirred deep misgivings.

"John Howard's trying to make us into white men," said Sammy Butcher, a founder of Aboriginal Australia's most successful rock group, the Warumpi Band.

Indigenous leaders are particularly critical of the stipulation that the government will purchase five-year leases on town lands. That issue, they say, has struck a particularly raw nerve among people whose ownership of the lands their people lived on for thousands of years was only recognized in 1967.

"I feel very sad that land is being taken away from Aboriginal society again and I don't know why," Mr. Phillipus said. "We don't have a fight with John Howard."

Sue Gordon, who leads the task force overseeing the government intervention, said the government needed the leases to build new schools, health clinics and police stations and upgrade existing facilities.

Almost everyone in the Northern Territory seems to agree that significant intervention is needed. And even if some of the policies are misguided, Ms. Anderson said, having the government engaged is better than the neglect of recent years. "We're on a merry-go-round," she said. "Every 30 years we seem to get off in the same place."

Edition: Late Edition - Final
Section: Foreign Desk
Page: 4