Australia’s prime minister announced plans Thursday to ban pornography and alcohol for Aborigines in northern areas and tighten control over their welfare benefits to fight child sex abuse among them.
Some Aboriginal leaders rejected the plan as paternalistic and said the measures were discriminatory and would violate the civil rights of the country’s original inhabitants. But others applauded the initiative and recommended extending the welfare restrictions to Aborigines in other parts of the country.
Prime Minister John Howard was responding to a report last week that found sexual abuse of children to be rampant in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. The report said the abuse was fueled by endemic alcohol abuse, unemployment, poverty and other factors causing a breakdown in traditional society.
“This is a national emergency,” Howard told Parliament. “We’re dealing with a group of young Australians for whom the concept of childhood innocence has never been present.”
The plan angered some Aboriginal leaders, who said it was the kind of government behavior that has disenfranchised Aborigines and created the problems in the first place. They also complained they had not been consulted; the government had not previously indicated it was considering such action.
Howard said the sale, possession and transportation of alcohol would be banned for six months on the Aboriginal-owned land, after which the policy would be reviewed. The child abuse report found drinking was a key factor in the collapse of Aboriginal culture, contributing to neglect of children and creating opportunities for pedophiles.
Hardcore pornography also would be banned, and publicly funded computers would be audited to ensure that they had not downloaded such images. The report said pornography was rife in Aboriginal communities and that children often were exposed to it.
Under Howard’s plan, new restrictions would be placed on welfare payments for Aborigines living on the land to prevent the money from being spent on alcohol and gambling. Parents would be required to spend at least half their welfare on essentials such as food, and payments also would be linked to a child’s school attendance.
The child abuse report was commissioned by the Northern Territory government and is widely regarded as credible although it attracted some critics. It was unable to quantify the extent of the sexual abuse problem, since anecdotal evidence suggested much of it went unreported.
Conducted by an indigenous health worker and a government lawyer, it found children had been sexually abused in all 45 remote communities visited. The abusers were both Aborigines and non-Aborigines operating in or near their communities.
For years, white men were banned from marrying Aboriginal woman, and mixed-race children were taken from their Aboriginal mothers to be assimilated into mainstream society.
Though many found employment in the cattle and sheep industries, they were paid less than whites, sometimes working just for rations. Unable to achieve economic independence, many have become welfare dependent.