Friday, June 22, 2007

John Howard and the Aborigines

Or "meanwhile, in Australia", I guess, to continue the format I've been using for short posts commenting on events in far-away places. The Australian government has decided to tackle the high rates of child molestation among the Aborigines by some swift and firm policies:

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.'

Howard announced the measures for the Northern Territory, an Outback region where the federal government retains powers it doesn't have over Australia's six states. He urged state leaders to apply similar tough rules in their jurisdictions.

The federal government can change laws in the territory with an act of Parliament, where Howard has a majority that ensures he can implement his policy.

What do you think of this approach? Should we ban alcohol and pornography in, say, Washington, D.C.? Only in Washington, D.C.? Should welfare payments be linked to alcohol tests showing no drinking, but only if you are a person of color?

Or perhaps a better comparison would be to do all this within an American Indian reservation. Only American Indians would be forced to stay sober and chaste. Everybody else could go on drinking and watching porn and all that would be paid from welfare checks if the person otherwise qualified. Yes, I like this comparison, because the Aborigines were also the initial occupants of a continent, pushed aside and put into reservations by the incoming Europeans.

I'm sure that the problems Howard talks about are real and horrible. But this solution seems unlikely to work, because it really is paternalistic, put in place from the outside, discriminatory and also wholly punitive. The underlying problems of poverty and unemployment are not addressed by it at all. This summarizes the main trouble with the action very well:

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.

You can't feel ownership in a policy if you were never consulted.