‘Tough Love’ in the Outback

Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 17, 2009

Two dead cows putrefy at the entrance to this Aboriginal town deep in the Australian outback. Mangy dogs scrape among naked children, as trash swirls around rusted vehicle hulks and cinderblock homes. Prominent on the local store’s notice board: the bus schedule to the nearest prison.

Yuendumu and dozens of similarly frayed Aboriginal communities weren’t supposed to turn out this way. Four decades ago, Australia enacted wide-ranging reforms to uplift its long-oppressed Aboriginal citizens. The laws mandated equal wages with whites, access to the country’s generous welfare system and the eventual transfer of vast chunks of land to near-total Aboriginal control.

Since then, Aboriginal society has experienced a dramatic decline — partly a result of these very reforms. Australia’s government has proclaimed the upsurge of violence, child abuse and alcoholism among Aborigines a national emergency. It is responding with controversial new policies that critics decried as racist, such as restricting welfare payments to Aborigines but not to whites or other Australians.

Those policies, however, are starting to show early results, the government says. They are also shaking up the Aborigines’ ancient social structure. In Yuendumu, for example, the policies have unleashed a nascent feminist movement which is threatening to erode the vast powers of male tribal elders.

On almost every score, from disease to unemployment to illiteracy, the social decay in remote Aboriginal towns like Yuendumu is stunning. Australia’s 500,000 Aborigines are seven times as likely as other Australians to have tuberculosis, and eight times as likely to be infected with Hepatitis A, according to government data. Their life expectancy lags the rest of the population by 17 years, and is lower than that of impoverished countries such as Bangladesh and Bolivia. By contrast, the life-expectancy gap between Native Americans and the general U.S. population has shrunk in recent decades to 2.4 years.

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Then, in 2007, Australia’s conservative federal government decided that such self-imposed isolation was the root cause of the crisis in Aboriginal areas because it allowed widespread abuses to remain hidden from the public eye. Citing numerous cases of sexual violence against children, then Prime Minister John Howard vowed to bring Aboriginal areas into “the mainstream of the Australian community.”

In June 2007, he launched a federal intervention here in the Northern Territory, Australia’s most heavily indigenous area. Aborigines make up one-third of the Territory’s population and own half its land; they also account for 84% of its prison inmates.

Mr. Howard sent in the army and deployed extra police. Suspending Australia’s 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, the government slapped alcohol and pornography bans on Aboriginal areas — but not on neighboring white towns — and restricted Aborigines’ ability to spend their welfare checks freely. It seized the management of Aboriginal townships, overriding the permit system and opening the doors to non-Aboriginals.

The intervention sparked accusations of racism from many Aboriginal leaders and from some officials in Australia’s Labor Party. Marion Scrymgour, currently the country’s most senior Aboriginal government official, at the time labeled the intervention “a vicious new McCarthyism.” Ms. Scrymgour, the Northern Territory’s deputy chief minister and a member of Labor, has since endorsed many aspects of the intervention, such as welfare controls.

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Under this policy, Aboriginal welfare and pension recipients — the bulk of the adult population in many remote towns, including Yuendumu — are paid half their money in cash. The other half comes in the form of a card which can only be used to pay for food and other essentials at specially licensed stores, and for gas and rent. The aim is to restrict the amount of cash Aborigines can spend on alcohol, gambling and drugs, and to combat child malnutrition. Aboriginal youths are more than twice as likely as other Australians to die of alcohol-related causes, according to a government survey.

A few days after the Review Board report came out, the Rudd government shocked many supporters by rejecting its recommendation. Instead, it extended the income-management rules by a year and maintained, for now, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and other intervention policies, including the alcohol ban.

The reason: evidence that the intervention is working, according to Jenny Macklin, Australia’s federal minister for families, housing, community services and indigenous affairs. Ms. Macklin says she believes the policies are improving Aboriginal child nutrition and cutting the use of alcohol and tobacco. She points to a recent government survey that shows the overwhelming majority of stores in the outback that are licensed to sell to Aboriginal welfare recipients are reporting higher sales of healthy foods like fresh vegetables and fruit, and of clothing, particularly for children.

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