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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Aborigine plan stirs controversy
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

The systematic abuse of Aboriginal children should be Australia's greatest shame.

Young lives have been ruined by the brutality of sexual predators, both black and white.

Drunk Aboriginal man
Alcohol abuse is a problem in many Aboriginal communities

Girls as young as five have been treated for sexually transmitted diseases. Others have been prostituted for alcohol and petrol.

The tragedy is that these crushing issues are not new.

Despite good intentions over the years, policy after policy has failed, yet the destruction continues.

There have been some bright spots along the way but the situation remains as grim as ever.

Endemic abuse

A recent report revealed that almost every indigenous settlement in Australia's Northern Territory was affected by child abuse.

It has prompted unprecedented intervention by the federal government in Canberra.

I'll be slammed for taking away people's rights but frankly I don't care about that
Prime Minister John Howard

Radical reforms announced by Prime Minister John Howard include bans on alcohol and x-rated pornography, compulsory health checks for children and increased police numbers.

Welfare payments could be frozen if parents shop for "grog" instead of looking after their families.

The Howard plan is the biggest shake-up in Aboriginal affairs this country has seen in years.

The veteran leader would have known his strategy to combat this "national emergency" would ignite a furious debate.

"We cannot turn a blind eye to the abuse and neglect of children," said a defiant Mr Howard.

"I'll be slammed for taking away people's rights but frankly I don't care about that."

Abuse is serious, widespread and often unreported
Aboriginal people not the only victims or perpetrators of sexual abuse
Contributing factors include poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, pornography
Health and social services desperately need improving

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He said he was taking control of indigenous communities away from the Northern Territory government because it had not addressed the problems.

Phone polls on morning television have suggested there is broad backing for Mr Howard's actions in the wider community.

There is support too from the main opposition Labor party and from the government's National Indigenous Council, a hand-picked panel of advisers.

Aboriginal campaigner Mick Dodson has given the reforms a guarded welcome, but insisted that they were long overdue.

"This is a good start," he said. "The sense of urgency has been with us for two decades. It's been a national emergency for two decades, with total inaction of governments at all levels."


Other Aboriginal leaders though have condemned the proposals as draconian and racist.

Critics have insisted that no other group in Australia would be subject to these types of controls.

Aboriginal woman in Alice Springs
Little has been done to help Aboriginal communities, say critics

Professor Judy Atkinson, from Southern Cross University, said the government's ideas are dangerous.

"Some of the things that I know will happen in response to this - we will have an increase of violence, we will have an increase of suicide and suicide attempts," she told Australian radio.

"There will be greater feelings of despair and 'we can't do it ourselves' in our communities," she said.

The lack of consultation between government and the Aborigines has also concerned Lyn Allison, a senator representing the minor Australian Democrats party.

"Indigenous people have the answers and we need collaborating, not using a jackboot to seize powers," Ms Allison said.

Whatever the arguments, it is clear that action is desperately needed.

There have been warnings in the past that Australia's Aborigines face oblivion if they do not alter their self-destructive course.

But how could such a proud, resilient and resourceful people fall apart so spectacularly?

'Long overdue'

Linda Burney, the first indigenous member of the New South Wales state parliament, said Aborigines have been so badly treated since European colonisation that it is hardly surprising so many turn to alcohol.

"Most people drink because there are issues in their life that are very difficult to deal with," she told the BBC.

Aboriginal mural in Sydney
Some Aborigines say there has not been enough consultation

"When you understand the history of subjugation, you understand the history of oppression... from time of British invasion you come to understand just how desperate and how destitute many Aboriginal people are," she said.

"There is a direct relationship between that and substance abuse."

Many Aborigines are caught in a corrosive cycle of poverty, ill-health, alcohol addiction and sexual violence.

Australia has long grappled with these seemingly intractable problems but there is no agreement about where the solutions might lie.

Aborigines must be one of the most studied groups on earth.

Clearly there has been far too much talking and a scandalous lack of progress.

The Australian newspaper is optimistic, however, that things might be about to change.

"The state of emergency that has subjected generations of Aboriginal children to a living hell has finally been given the recognition it deserves," the broadsheet said in an editorial.

"The grand intervention outlined... by John Howard is a long-overdue demonstration that Australia will not tolerate the endemic physical and sexual violence sweeping indigenous communities."

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Alcohol 'time-bomb' of Aborigines
12 Feb 07 |  Asia-Pacific
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16 Feb 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Australia
09 May 07 |  Country profiles

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